In this paper I revisit the age-old practice of musical borrowing by examining the musical nexus at the heart of the cinema of the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai. Directing films is for Wong a way of channelling a lifetime of chancing upon, collecting and listening to music in the commercial and artistic entrepôt of Hong Kong. Key to Wong’s musical borrowings are his celebrated 'musical ear', the circumstances of his films’ production and reception, shrewd marketing strategies, and penchant for 'poaching' music from other films (ranging from old Chinese melodramas to European art films). Wong has developed a unique modus operandi through which already-existing—and often exceedingly well-known—music loses its previous associations and acquires a new and sometimes surprising identity. Lévi-Strauss’s idea of bricolage throws a revealing light onto this multimedia combinatorial art. For Wong is not referencing his sources. His borrowings are expedient and transformative. He is engaging in parody like the medieval musician or troping his sources like a martial arts novelist. By combining pre- existing music to striking imagery and novel dramatic situations, he overwrites existing associations by drastically changing the terms of its reception. The soundtracks to his films chart Wong’s transformation from music lover and end-user into bona fide composer—the filmmaker as music bricoleur.
My interest in bricolage was spurred by Derrida’s deconstructive critique of Lévi-Strauss. Yet the idea of bricolage did not fade into the margins only because of Derrida’s attack on structuralist anthropology. Its loss of potency can also be attributed to its dilution in a cultural field dominated by adjacent notions of appropriation, allusion, hyperreferentiality, sampling, and intertextuality. With this intervention, I hope to raise some questions about whether the theoretical models we have inherited from postmodernism are adequate to understanding the effects of borrowing in contemporary art practices.