The relationship among suffering, sentimentality, romanticism and memory has intrigued me recently. The principle that suffering is created when one leaves the present moment is obviously true. But now I want to get more concrete and focus on the specifics. The Chinese film director Wong Kar Wai gave me the stimulus that I needed to zero in on the phenomenon of using the mind to engage in self-torture without realizing the masochistic madness involved. A phenomenon that I believe to be the human condition in general.
Listening to “country-western” music which increasingly strikes me as the manifestation of an escapist ego-state wallowing in the creation of a soap-opera scenario and calling it life. One revels in the suffering being felt because the relationship has ended, painful memories have returned, or the dog has died. All of which, the singer has chosen to remember and to “wallow in” because they haven’t discovered a more meaningful way to proceed with life. Wong Kar Wai has given us the Chinese version of the twangy, syrupy, tedious take on the illusion that if I can just find the right guy, gal, horse or dog, I will be happy evermore.
He has made four films (I have seen three of them) that as far as I can tell are the same film with many of the same characters in each, many of the same locations, and always the same illusions operating. The film titles are Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046 (1991, 1994, 2000, and 2005 respectively).
Pining for the past is a good way to avoid the present moment which is the only place where life happens. We all have our reasons for avoiding the reality of NOW, but it only increases our suffering and prevents natural and desirable growth. In short it prevents Self-realization which is the only way that true happiness can be obtained. Do you recognize these romantic, sentimental meanders down memory lane, the road to illusion and mind-induced self-torture?
If you’ve ever carried around a small item that belonged to a past or present flame (i.e. a hairpin, a handkerchief with their scent on it, a watch, a shard of a torn photograph with their face on the scrap) then you my pal, are a friend of Wong Kar Wai. If you have ever listened to a song more than 4 times in one sitting because it was still wrapped up in a fond memory of someone, somewhere or something, then you’re a friend of Wong Kar Wai. If you’ve ever hesitated to empty an ashtray full of your ex’s cigarettes because they were the last things to have touched their lips, then no doubt about it, you are a friend of Wong Kar Wai.
Wai’s characters, like most of us, have trouble accepting the reality of life as it is. The trailer for his most recent film, 2046 describes the characters as “living for the future” and “longing for the past.” An authentic life cannot occur in either of those “places.
2046 is about longing and memory and the effects of heartbreak.
Life is suffering, and nothing adds to that ultimate truth more than romantic love.
Love takes two forms in this haunted landscape of the human heart; pain and memory.
Chow, the main character in 2046 is a “sad-eyed but rather heartless cad [who] seduces a string of women, but can’t fall in love with any of them because his own heart was broken by one woman who rejected him.”
Like all of humanity he is “perpetually in pain.” He is unable to escape from the illusion of his past and continually defines present events in the context of the past. In short, he is stuck in an experience that doesn’t exist and continually keeps it alive by refusing to wake up. As the Buddha long ago discovered, one does not begin the process of awakening until the first primary realization: Life is suffering. A noble truth but one difficult to accept.
The tragic protagonist in all of these films seems to be trapped in this one dingy hotel, in a dark and claustrophobic nightmare. Not a bad description of what life is becoming for many of the people on our planet who are also stuck in a dreary story that is also a nightmare, because it is a sad illusion. Chow must leave that hotel if he has any hope of awakening from his dream which has a predictable and horrific ending. Most of us would rather remain in the hotel room and the illusion that we are familiar with than risk change. It may be dreary and lifeless—but we have learned how to negotiate the dark and musty hallways—and we have lots of company.
Art often reveals the many illusions leading to suffering and the many behaviors that we use to create our suffering. The beautiful cinematography and superb acting in Wong Kar Wai’s films only add to the agony of the realization that we are watching a universal and daily enactment of the soap opera Days of Our Lives. While searching for a meaningful experience of life we create the human condition by projecting our deepest longings onto others with little awareness that we and the characters in these films are hurting themselves instead.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.