The Transnational Influence of Wong Kar-wai on Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

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American director Barry Jenkins won big at the Academy Awards last weekend, with his low-budget film Moonlight taking home three of the most prestigious awards: Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Adapted Screenplay, and—after a mix up with the envelopes which initially awarded the prize to frontrunner La La Land—Best Picture. Moonlight is only Jenkins’ second feature film, but he’s already making waves in Hollywood with his artful direction and compelling portrayals of queer, black sexuality. While on the surface Moonlight is a movie about gay black men living in Miami, directorial allusions to Wong Kar-wai speak to the transnational influence of Hong Kong cinema on the film, and illustrate the universality of Jenkins’ work. In the following video essay, Alessio Marinacci juxtaposes cinematic parallels in Moonlight and three of Wong Kar-wai’s most famous films: Days of Being Wild (1990), Happy Together (1997), and In the Mood for Love (2000).

In an interview with the Criterion Collection, Jenkins describes watching Wong Kar-wai’s Chunking Express (1994) in film school—the first foreign film he’d ever seen. “I remember being kind of sucked in,” Jenkins says, “and having this feeling of how big the world was, but how small it was at the same time… I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, I’ve never been outside of the state of Florida, yet I’m watching this film and I’m feeling all these things.”[1] Here Jenkins comments on the universality of Wong’s films, which draw on global influences—including Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, and Patrick Tam—to create transnational works of art. In Marinacci’s video essay, one can see Wong’s specific influences on the cinematography in Moonlight—including his signature ‘frame within frame’ shots, which use structures such as walls or windows to frame a character’s face or body within the larger screen.

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Wong’s films, which themselves draw heavily on American influences—especially musical artists like The Turtles, Dina Washington, and The Mamas & The Papas—are inherently bound to the global film circuit. This is supported by film scholar Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, who writes of “Wong’s almost unique ability to make films that appear to be equally Chinese and Western, or equally local and global.”[2] Similarly, Flannery Wilson writes of Wong’s centrality to French cinema, asserting that his significance in the  Hong Kong film circuit has made him inextricable from Western literatures on film.[3] But it is arguably his daring portrayals of Asian sexuality which make Wong so influential on queer American cinema. Happy Together, which follows the tumultuous relationship of two Chinese men living in Argentina, is one of the most critically acclaimed films with a queer storyline to date—with Wong winning Best Director at the 1997 Cannes film festival. In the film, protagonists Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai confront isolation, alcoholism, and same-sex intimacy—a sharp departure from straitjacketed depictions of Asian sexuality in American-made films. Indeed, contrary to American discourse on Asian sexuality as repressed and bound by cultural norms to heterosexuality, Hong Kong cinema has produced some of the most daring and groundbreaking queer films—including Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2001) and Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (1996). Wong Kar-wai’s filmography thus embodies transnational, queer themes which profoundly influence American art films like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Both Jenkins and Wong create films which, although centered on specific identities and circumstances, rely on transnational influences and global cinematic tropes to produce profoundly universal works.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwmEWNXIsNk

[2] Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. “Wong Kar-wai’s Films and the Culture of the “Kawaii”” SubStance 37, no. 2 (2008): 94-109.

[3] Wilson, Flannery. “Viewing Sinophone Cinema Through a French Theoretical Lens: Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love” and 2046 and Deleuze’s “Cinema”” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 141-73.M

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