‘Curry & Pepper’: Tangerines

An enthusiastic and self-indulgent journal about my discovery of and infatuation with Hong Kong cinema.

This summer I went back home to Northeast China for the first time in two years. The three and a half months didn’t do much to ease my homesickness, and I didn’t want to fly off again. As a measure of emotional fortification, I made plans to rewatch Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳) on the plane. Watching that movie for the second and a half time, in that particular state of mind, I had a mini-epiphany: there’s something funny going on with tangerines. 

Wong Kar-Wai is one of those directors that I hesitate to publicly admire. There was a time when all I knew about Hong Kong cinema was Tony Leung, and it didn’t bother me that the whole world was talking about In the Mood for Love. But now, having spent this summer immersed in the 1990s, having gone through all the movies my parents’ generation grew up watching on pirated DVDs (and quite a few frankly bad ones that my dad would poke fun at me for) and having sat down with the intent of somehow documenting that delightful time-traveling — I find myself going back to Wong Kar-Wai. Yes, I know, but what am I going to do without him?

There is a lot more to say on that. But for the moment, picture a street so greenish-dark at night you wonder if it’s shot in a studio, but it probably isn’t. I don’t remember if it’s raining. Andy Lau, a night-patrolman, is eating a tangerine. Maggie Cheung walks up to him to borrow some bus fare. He’s eyeing her, she’s thinking about Ah-Fei. Here Leslie Cheung is the absolute hero, and everybody else a stand-in. In the nights that follow, he would spend a lot of time waiting for her call at that one designated phone booth. Watching that, it struck me that in some other time and place, Andy Lau is also eating a tangerine. 

As Tears Go By (旺角卡門) is Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie, and my close second-favorite to Days. The official release ends with a beautiful and horrible scene: once again Andy Lau, shot in the head, lies there, eyes searching for a life he could have had instead if the life as an abused gangster didn’t suck him in first. There was originally a follow-up scene in which he didn’t die but lost his senses. Maggie Cheung visits him, sitting across a table, and feeds him a tangerine. The juice dribbles over his shirt, smearing on his fingers and palm, and he’s forgotten all about her.

Tears came out in 1988, and Days in 1990. Andy Lau did not have to wait a long time to be rescued from the blue-toned As Tears Go By, or the fever-orange outtake hospital room that had the feel of a music video, before being reincarnated in the tropical-green Days of Being Wild. It’s always tempting to picture Wong Kar-Wai’s handful of movies as one big dream world. So I find myself thinking about how Andy Lau couldn’t finish the tangerine Maggie Cheung handed him, and the next time they meet he’s eating one again, but she no longer cares.