Urban Film Playlist: Keyword Love

As Space and Culture works toward a film festival and conference on urban cinema, we offer a brief playlist of contemporary and classical films that depend pivotally on the city as setting, as a force and even as a character in romance and love.

Love in modern cities is often thought to be more passionate and diverse. It seems to be more unstable in the space of skyscrapers and neon Lights. Urban Space is background and place where love happens, it is also part of it. Let us feel loved in Urban Space.

1. Chungking Express, Hongkong,1994, Director: Wong Kar-Wai.

This is one of Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpieces which describes the confusion, alienation and loneliness of urban life. He uses highly stylized photography: shaking hand-held and special effects to create vertigo and trance, bright and diverse colors of lighting. It is not about Chongqing City but a very famous architecture named Chungking Mansions in Hongkong. It is a building where poor people and workers lives and crime, drug dealing sometimes happen.

In the film, the director sets the symbol of  people in the city. There is no name but a code name. The ambiguous identity reflects the smallness of the citizens in the steel forest. It also refers to the entire group through the role in the play. In fact, the characters shown in the film are also the portrayal of all the characters in urban life. The inner uneasiness, loneliness, and displacement are the common characteristics of this crowd. The roles of policemen, flight attendants, killers, shop assistants and other roles all reflect a flow and instability. These insecure characters cause a natural fear and displacement.

The locations carefully set by the director are also frequented by urbanites: fast food restaurants, bars, convenience stores. The fast-paced life expects fast-paced love, so the emotional experience in fast food restaurants and bars is just as flashy as the urban fast food culture, and then it is surrounded by self-narcotic grief.

2. Before Sunrise ,US/AT,1995, Director: Richard Linklater 

Two twenty-somethings, a French woman and a US-American man, incidentally meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna. He convinces her to interrupt her journey for a few hours and explore the city together with him. While the plot focuses almost exclusively on the two main characters and the way they get to know each other through their conversation, the city of Vienna acts as the romantic backdrop for their (potential) love story.

Bits and pieces of urban space are assembled in a fragmented landscape of an imagined, romanticised version of Vienna. Most of what we see is 1900s architecture, lots of green and water or romantically decayed corners. Even though modalities of moving – walking, driving – are paralleling the flow of the conversation, the characters are mostly stuck to the foreground, detached from an often blurred backdrop and rarely interacting with their surroundings. Unsurprisingly, the scenes jump from location to location, faking a continuous flow of movement irrespective of the actual physical layout of the city. The few encounters they have with locals awkwardly paint Viennese people as dreamy, artsy souls.

Linklater’s nostalgic version of Vienna in many ways contrasts the embeddedness and social realism of such films as Nordrand, but also its own much praised natural characters and their freely flowing dialogue. Both sequels to this film are set in completely different places: Before Sunset (2004) in Paris, Before Midnight (2013) in Greece. Place clearly is important for production, but it doesn’t play a role in the story and remains a flat backdrop for the characters. At times, it is unclear if this superficial filmic use of place is inspired by a cinematic approach – or by location marketing.

3. City Lights, US, 1931, Director: Charlie Chaplin


Charles Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece about disability, City Lights showcases the city as a milieu of potential and possibility in which classes come into contact but where people are also cursed by an alienating anonymity. A tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and is helped to pay for a cure by an alcoholic millionaire whom he had dissuaded from suicide. Urban exchanges of affect, resources, care, recognition of the other and brutality are highlighted in the film, which marked a high point in Chaplin’s career and in early 1930s cinema.

4. Amores Perros, México, 2000, Director: Alejandro González Iñarritu

Amores Perros is one of Alejandro González Iñarritu’s  masterpieces. In this movie, González Iñarritu depicts Mexico City (el DF) as a place of encounters and intersections of social classes in which love and tragedy link the film stories. The film develops different representations of love, tragedy and loyalty through different urban practices of social classes, marginalization and human and non-human relations.

Amores Perros is rich in images and appropriations of urban spaces of Mexico City. And it is brilliantly conceived and performed. The film is highly appreciated by the international critique and has earned prestigious awards. All these elements make Amores Perros as one of Latin American cinematographic jewels. 

5. Permanent Vacation, US, 1980, Director: Jarmusch

This is Jarmusch’s first film, and a bootstrap operation. The liminality of the character is coupled to a subterranean vision of New York City. The film seems to capture the ominous spirit of a city. It is gritty, without being gratuitous, and has tons of “style”. 

6. Hiroshima Mon Amour, France/Japan, 1959, Director: Alain Resnais

Set in postwar Hiroshima, Alain Resnais’s first feature-length film documents the last days of an affair between a French actress and Japanese architect. The film balances documentary footage and erotic images to show how people hide trauma by escaping into mass-produced passions and entertainments.    

7. Les amants du Pont-Neuf, France, 1991, Director: Leos Carax

Paris, 1989. In a city celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, Alex, a homeless fire-eater addicted to alcohol and sleeping drugs, survives for better or worse with his fellow “vagrant” Hans on the closed-for-repairs Pont-Neuf (“New Bridge”), Paris’s oldest bridge. Their daily routine following the rhythms of soporific ampoules and cheap wine drastically change as they stumble across Michèle, a painter on the verge of losing sight, escaping from her own past. Alex and Michèle fall in love. On Paris’s oldest bridge. However, it is not a romantic and neat love story one would normally await that is being portrayed here. What Leos Carax rather wants to show us is the distress of the homeless and the vital need for closeness, so primal that it becomes destructive, it is the fear of remaining outside and awake at night, when the whole city sleeps behind closed doors. The bridge, then, is poetic and multiple, becoming a necessity for both main characters. For Alex, it is a constant, his home, the centre he keeps coming back to. For Michèle, it is a moment, a lapse of reason, a way to leave her own demons behind and hide, from herself perhaps. For all, it is a place of love and hope, of fear and anger, a playground and a prison. But none of them can just exit the bridge, not forever. Or at least, not from either side. In his third and often seen as his most ambitious film, Carax continues to explore his understanding of urban poetics, both terrible and beautiful, as he did in Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986).

Ge Zheng
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