‘Wong Kar-wai is undeniably an auteur of striking and salient cinema, standing apart from much mainstream Hong Kong cinema. Wong belongs to the mid-1980s Second New Wave of Hong Kong filmmakers who continued to develop the innovative and fresh aesthetic initiated by the original New Wave. The Second Wave, which includes directors such as Eddie Fong, Stanley Kwan and Clara Law, is often seen as a continuation of the first as many of these directors worked as assistants to First Wave directors such as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui and Patrick Tam (with whom Wong worked and collaborated). The innovation of this group of filmmakers was linked to the social and political issues facing Hong Kong as well as an artistic impetus. The uncertainty with which Hong Kong citizens faced the 1984 Sino-British Agreement outlining the handover of Hong Kong to China forced Hong Kong residents and filmmakers alike to confront and examine their relationship with China. This issue was translated into film by the Second Wave of cinema but done so “with introspection rather than outright cynicism” that “brought Hong Kong cinema to a new level of maturity”. Consequently, the themes connected to identity and Hong Kong’s relation to China were broadened and modernised. The identity of Hong Kong is perpetually marked by its closeness to the motherland China and its Western link as a British colony. Yet in the face of its history, Hong Kong has duly created its own culturally specific identity, one that inevitably combines both elements of the West and Mainland China. The cinema of Hong Kong reflects this notion of a dual identity, combining to create a third, localised identity. Significant in this respect is Hong Kong cinema’s ‘New Wave’ movement, which rose to prominence in 1979.
‘Varying from his New Wave counterparts’ preoccupation with the 1997 handover, Patrick Tam’s contribution to the New Wave movement came via his interest in the influence of the West and Japan on Hong Kong. His exploration of a society rapidly consuming Western and Japanese popular culture led him to reveal the “no man’s land of Hong Kong’s cultural, spiritual and geographical dislocation”. Tam’s interest in themes of dislocation and alienation can be identified in the work of his protégé Wong Kar-wai. Notably, Wong was the scriptwriter of Tam’s 1987 Final Victory and Tam supervised the editing on Wong’s 1991 Days of Being Wild. Both directors combined their preoccupation with themes of isolation and dislocation with a striking visual aesthetic. It is this exact visual and thematic amalgamation that signifies Wong’s mode of filmmaking. He works outside of the usual representational approaches that underpin classical narrative cinema and transcends artistic boundaries. Moments, questions and answers are infinite for Wong as he attempts to charter the terrain of his lovelorn outsiders. Wong’s status as a postmodern auteur sees him delve into ‘moments’ that are linked to both history and the personal, whether directly or indirectly. Notions of identity and the ever-present fusion between East and West find context in the themes of love, loneliness and alienation that pervade his protagonists. Tension between the past and present is linked to memory, desire, time, space and environment. Hong Kong cinema’s complex status as both a national and ‘transnational’ cinema as well as its relation to mainland China are distinct issues in the quest to define Hong Kong cinema. Wong’s art of filmmaking is crucial in discussing an innovative and inimitable cinema that is at once collective and exclusive. His focus on detail over totality consolidates his talent for creating a distinct mood and atmosphere, a visual pastiche of colours and emotions.
‘After obtaining a diploma in graphic design from the Hong Kong Polytechnic School in 1980, Wong become a television production assistant. Following work on several television drama series, he began working as a scriptwriter for television and then later for films. Wong’s directorial debut As Tears Go By (1988) marked his unique visual style and was screened as part of the ‘Critics’ Week’ at the 1989 Cannes International Film Festival. Wong’s next film Days of Being Wild, which featured several of Hong Kong’s beautiful and popular young stars, won five Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. His following effort, Ashes of Time (1994), varied greatly in genre, successfully subverting the conventions of the period martial-arts drama. During a break in the post-production of Ashes of Time, Wong made Chungking Express (1994), which later became a cult hit. Following this came Fallen Angels, which received considerable critical success when it was premiered at the 1995 Toronto Film Festival. In 1997, Happy Together premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it garnered a Best Director Award for Wong. In 2000, Wong’s In The Mood For Love was also awarded Cannes accolades, including Best Actor for Tony Leung Chiu-wai and the Technical Prize. Wong is currently completing his latest film entitled 2046, his first science fiction film to date.
‘As with Wong’s other films such as Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, Happy Together and Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love dictates the arbitrary nature of romance and the notion of the ‘missed moment’. In fact, the permeating concept of the ‘moment’ is a crucial component of Wong’s oeuvre. He consistently employs a signature ‘parallelling’ and ‘intersecting’ rhetoric in which his characters arbitrarily cross paths. Wong’s protagonists are most often revealed to be a set of individuals existing within the visual array of urbanity. As in Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Hong Kong provides the ideal setting for this exposition of human contact within a buzzing cosmopolitan city that is both vibrant and brash. Wong successfully grants introspective gazes at his characters (usually in sets of twos), exploring their insecurities, personal motives and ultimately the random nature of relationships. With In the Mood for Love, the focus centres on the jilted figures of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk). Their isolation and longing is transformed into a melange of intersecting paths and poignantly shared moments in which the possibility of a soulful connection is entertained. Again, Wong’s arbitrary rhetoric finds expression in the poetic and brightly drenched tones of his unique filmic aesthetic, and his much-loved themes of loneliness, isolation, and longing rise to the surface. However, whilst In the Mood for Love incorporates all of his usual stylistic and thematic traits, it also ascends to a new level where the cultural significance of Wong’s setting is explored in greater detail.
‘A title card at the beginning of In the Mood for Love reads: ‘It is a restless moment. Hong Kong 1962.’ This verse immediately triggers the mood of both the protagonists and the wider, social environment. At this time in 1962, 13 years after Mao and the Communist party’s rise to power in Mainland China, Hong Kong remained a British Colony. However, during the 1960s there was considerable unrest as a result of the wider social and political situation that was existing in the world. The threat of the spread of Communism inspired the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States that was to centre heavily on Southeast Asia as a focal point for the competition between the global powers. In addition, the Vietnam War and China’s support for the North Vietnamese Communist regime made the threat of Communism genuine. Naturally, Hong Kong’s proximity to Southeast Asia made it a serious candidate for the Domino theory of a looming Red presence ready to advance upon any territory. China’s hostile opposition of capitalism and imperialism also increased Hong Kong citizens’ fears that China would not wait for the end of Britain’s lease in 1997 to regain control of the territory. Many Hong Kong residents saw it in their best interests to leave Hong Kong and find homes elsewhere.
‘In both Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, Wong recreates a ‘60s Hong Kong that is both nostalgic and contemporary, evoking both tradition and modernity. Significantly, the ‘60s era represents the childhood period of the directors of the Second Wave. Wong himself was five years old when he moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Thus, the recreation of this period is deeply nostalgic and sentimental in its theme of Hong Kong as home. Wong’s portrait of 1960s Hong Kong is both retro and commodity conscious, with clear influences from the West and Japan. The ‘restless moment’ and mood of uncertainty that defines both the protagonists and the era is significant within In the Mood for Love. Indeed, Wong’s films may not be directly or overtly political, however there is often an “indirect relation to the political” via Wong’s conveying of “a particularly intense experience of the period as an experience of the negative; an experience of some elusive and ambivalent cultural space that lies always just beyond our grasp”.
‘The sense of history and nostalgia that pervades In the Mood for Love is a signature of Wong’s style and reminiscent of filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieslowski. With history and nostalgia, however, come change and the notion of ‘before’ and ‘after’. The protagonists are caught in a constantly evolving space where time can stand still or be momentarily captured, but will eventually succumb to expiration. The inevitability of change brings with it a nostalgia and reminiscence that often evoke melancholy. Following Chow and Su Li-zhen’s return to their former home, a title card reads: ‘That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore’. The characters whose identities are inexorably shaped by the past express Wong’s nostalgia for an era passed. Su Li-zhen’s Shanghainese landlady “can’t bear to throw things away” and Chow must physically unburden himself of the past by burying his memory in an ancient monument. Reminiscent of the female leads in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Su Li-zhen (unbeknownst to Chow) visits his apartment in Singapore and fetishes over his belongings, lying on the bed and taking a solitary drag from one of his cigarettes.
‘The notion of time is a pervading concept in all of Wong’s films. His preoccupation with capturing time is constantly evident, his camera doting on specific moments and intent on finding difference in repetition. In both Chow and Su Li-zhen’s offices, there are clocks that oversee them. Particularly reminiscent of the clock in Days of Being Wild is the large Siemens clock that is prominent in Su Li-zhen’s office interior. Time and again the camera studies the stark black and white face of the clock as it attempts to capture the time that is constantly advancing. In the first part of Chungking Express, Cop #233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) obsessively eats cans of pineapple with the expiry date of the 1st of May, convinced that everything has an expiry date, including love. In Fallen Angels, the hit man Wong (Leon Lai-ming) says “I do not know who these people are and I do not care, soon they will be history” and in Happy Together, Wong effectively captures the period of Hong Kong’s return to China. Time and memory are inexorably linked, and these notions are in turn linked to both the personal and the historical. Wong depicts the transience of life and reveals that nothing is permanent in the worlds he creates. However, he also conceives characters that despite living in the present ‘moment’ are maimed by their “desperate attempt to find something stable”. His characters’ lack of roots or painful personal history means they are forced to create their own history. Consequently, Wong acknowledges the significance and pervasiveness of history, especially for Hong Kong citizens who are constantly in transition. He also observes modernity and technology as discourses that must be worked with and not against. The result is often characters with fragmented identities whose inner struggle and quests for clarity in a dynamic social world ensure their validity.’ — Elizabeth Wright
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Han Ong In the winter of 1994, the Rosemary Theater here in Chinatown did a retrospective of your work and I had the good luck of seeing all your films in chronological order. It was a great accident to see them all together. If you could look back at your body of work and pin down a “Wong Kar-wai signature,” even as far back as As Tears Go By, you already had the blurry, step-frame scenes of violence.
Wong Kar-wai As Tears Go By was my first film, and at that time John Woo had just made A Better Tomorrow and everybody in Hong Kong was making gangster films. I thought, “What else can I do?” So I made Days of Being Wild and borrowed its form from MTV.
HO When you say an MTV “form,” do you mean the quick cuts?
WKW Yeah, it’s more fragmented. Most of the filmmaking in Hong Kong, even now, is very lyrical, very smooth, and always very traditional. Of course MTV has become something very formulaic, but in the late eighties, when it was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction. About the step-printing process, in effect it’s an answer to John Woo’s use of slow motion. We did it in reverse and shot with a faster speed, which turned out to be something like step-printing.
HO Days of Being Wild has been described as a Chinese Rebel Without a Cause — have you heard this before?
HO It was a shorthand description a critic and friend used. It wasn’t meant to be definitive, but suggestive.
WKW The fact is that when Western films are shown in Hong Kong they have a Chinese title. The Chinese title of Rebel Without a Cause was Days of Being Wild.
HO So it was wrong of him to extrapolate from that that this was a Chinese version of Rebel Without a Cause.
WKW Yes. In fact that’s also the case in Happy Together. When Antonioni’s Blow Up was shown in Hong Kong the Chinese title was not exactly “happy together,” but “the first gleam of the spring light.” (laughter)
HO But when you appropriated the title Days of Being Wild — was there meant to be a slight reference? There are some surface similarities: it’s about good-looking young men…
WKW Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes “our faith,” which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean. They came from rich families, had nothing to do, they weren’t happy with their lives and were trying to be different. It was a typical ’60s symptom.
HO So the title was a means of getting at that time period. Another trademark of yours is the slow-mo tracking shot: of the palm trees swaying with that beautiful soundtrack in Days of Being Wild. I remember a guitar strumming as Leslie Cheung was walking into the shop where the soda girl worked. It’s very romantic. It’s lush in the way that perhaps young American filmmakers are afraid to be because it’s part of the legacy of the fifties’ studio films. Young American filmmakers’ response to that is to be hip and cynical. They don’t want to be seen as corny and syrupy. But you, on the other hand, do it, and you keep doing it, and do it with such faith in its power and with such love. In other words, you’re not winking.
WKW I make films mostly by instinct, and I tried to make the stories in Days of Being Wild in different styles: sometimes as in Hollywood B-movies where there’s a long take and it’s very melodramatic; and sometimes I just wanted to make it like a Bergman film with lots of close-ups. I had fun in Days of Being Wild. I really enjoyed it, although it was painful to make because we had so many problems and in the end it wasn’t a big commercial success. The producer didn’t make the sequel because he thought it was too risky. After my first film, As Tears Go By, everybody expected another very commercial film with the six hottest young idols in Hong Kong.
HO Who were also in Days of Being Wild?
WKW Right. And the image of the palm trees, like the waterfall in Happy Together — all these shots remind me of nature. People should be very humble towards the natural world. Fassbinder said, he tries to show change by showing something which never changes. In this case, the waterfall never changes, the people keep changing.
HO So it’s a contrast between the constant changing vicissitudes of life as manifested in the characters, and nature, which simply exists. After Days of Being Wild you were working on Ashes of Time, which actually took two years to complete. It’s been said that during that time you were frustrated and started working on Chungking Express as a way to clear your mind. Paradoxically, Chungking took a very short time between its conception and completion. Was Ashes of Time a project initiated by you or was it something your producers recommended—maybe after the commercial disappointment of Days of Being Wild it was something they felt would be easier for you—to have another commercial hit with a commercial genre.
WKW Of course that was the thinking of the producers. After Days of Being Wild it took me a while to find a producer who was willing to finance my film.
HO How long did that take?
WKW About a year. I had an idea to make a film about two women: the Evil East and the Malicious West. I borrowed these two characters from a novel by Louis Chua, The Eagle Shooting Hero, which is very popular. The producers suggested, “Instead of making a film about the two women, why not make the novel into a film?” I thought it would be fun. I’ve always wanted to make a costume drama.
HO When was this novel written?
WKW Around 1950. It is the most popular book, second only to The Little Red Book by Chairman Mao. Everybody knows about this novel, and when we were students we were crazy about it. But to make it into a film… after rereading it, I didn’t think I liked it that much. The two characters I had originally wanted to develop, the Evil East and the Malicious West, were still the only characters who interested me. And in the novel they are already seventy-something. I thought instead of making a film about these two old women, I’d begin to think of their younger days. So rather than rewriting the novel, I invented prologues to it. It took almost two years to finish this project.
HO For what reasons?
WKW We had ten of the most famous movie stars in Asia, and their schedules were impossible, and we were shooting in Hong Kong and in northern China, which is a desert. I was also the co-producer of the film, which was so painful. I had to think really carefully about every decision I made because it costs a lot of money and time. It’s not fun to make a film like this. After we completed the film and had finished the post-production, it was April already and we knew the film was going to compete in the Venice Film Festival at the end of September. That meant we had four months without anything to do, and I thought, I should have a holiday. So I made a film.
HO Your way of having a holiday is making another film?
WKW Yes, I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film. After Ashes of Time I decided that if I wanted to be a director, I had to know exactly what my space was in the market. If I was going to make big expensive films, that meant I had to face mass audiences. And not all of my material is for mass audiences.
HO That’s a key realization.
WKW You try to cope with the mass audience, but in fact you are not doing something for them—I would be fighting with myself. I thought, I don’t have to make big films, I can make small films that I can be happy with. I can find my own audience. So I made Chungking Express with a very low budget, and we made the film very quickly, only six weeks from the idea to the edit.
HO Was the script written in process, or was it written before the production began?
WKW As a writer, I always have some short stories in my mind which have not yet developed into a script, and I just picked out three and said, “Okay, let’s start shooting.” I wrote in the daytime and we shot at night. We were shooting in chronological order.
HO So you wrote the movie as you went along, you didn’t hodgepodge it, or skip around and decide later in the editing room that this was the order? You already knew?
WKW I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, but I knew what had happened today. After I finished a day of shooting, then I knew what would happen next. We were going step by step, and because I had so much fun making the first part, I made the film too long. So I skipped the third story.
HO The third story became Fallen Angels. Of all your films my favorite is Chungking Express. What stays in my mind is its romantic quality, the protagonist’s voice-over in the beginning of the film: When he bumps into Brigitte Lin in the marketplace and says, “I was this close to the woman I would fall in love with 24 hours later.” Physical proximity is going to translate into an emotional proximity. The lushness of that romanticism, without being corny, was like a very good pop song.
WKW But for me it is very Chinese. In Chinese there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like “chances.” It means: Why am I sitting here having this interview with you instead of somebody else? Why should we meet here? This is about chances, and I think all my films are about chances.
HO What I was referring to was the highly romantic nature—not just that it’s coincidence, meeting and not meeting which is part of living in a large city—but the treatment, which to me was very atypical of most of the Hong Kong movies which treat romance in a giggly way. I cringe watching them. But somehow in your film I felt myself opening up. It wasn’t embarrassing, in fact, far from it, it was a great pop song with a refrain that stayed in your mind.
Whereas Chungking was sunshiny and suffused with bright, lovely daytime colors, Fallen Angels is more about neon, and night time, and grunge. It’s also the difference between the ingenue of Fay Wang and the eyeshadow-wearing German chanteuse aura of Michelle Reis, who plays the booking agent.
WKW You’re right, because to me Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long. I always think these two films should be seen together as a double bill. In fact, people asked me during an interview for Chungking Express: “You’ve made these two stories which have no relationship at all to each other, how can you connect them?” And I said, “The main characters of Chungking Express are not Fay Wang or Takashi Kaneshiro, but the city itself, the night and day of Hong Kong. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong.” I see the films as inter-reversible, the character of Fay Wang could be the character of Takashi in Fallen Angels; Brigitte Lin in Chungking could be Leon Lai in Fallen Angels. All of their characters are inter-reversible. Also, in Chungking we were shooting from a very long distance with long lenses, but the characters seem close to us.
HO Would that account for the freshness and intimacy with which the actors interacted with each other?
WKW Yes. And in Fallen Angels the characters were shot with an extremely wide angle. The camera is very close to the actors, but they seem far away. The purpose of the cameras in both films is that they are just like civilian cameras.
HO Like surveillance.
WKW Yes, they are always there watching people’s behavior. In fact, they are the other main characters in the film. The purpose is the same, but we’re using different approaches: Chungking is so far but so close; Fallen Angels is so close but so far.
12 of Wong Kar-wai’s 31 feature and short films
As Tears Go By (1988)
‘Pop goes the pop. A gangster (Andy Lau) houses a distant cousin he’s just met/ fallen in love with (a yet-to-be beautiful Maggie Cheung) and makes his ambitious protégé (Jacky Cheung) do grunt work selling fish balls illegally on the street. Luckily with a story like this, the story doesn’t matter: As Tears Go By (1988), Wong Kar-wai’s first feature, is a bunch of homages to Mean Streets, with Wong’s famous slow-mo already making people look like streaking rain, and haphazardly applied to action scenes of of either variety, love-making or gun-blasting.. Any gesture of love is accompanied by another shameless chorus of a Mandarin cover of “Take My Breath Away,” though for a guy who’s ended his latest film with a voice-over letting us know that life ain’t so bad when you got a bit of that ol’ gee-whiz spirit, Wong packs his first with a hell of a lot of blood and gore; but then, this world is no more real than that of My Blueberry Nights, both films gag-filled concoctions designed to appease stereotypical men and stereotypical women respectively. Which As Tears Go By, at least, does admirably, or at least amply—though maybe only thanks to the intrusion of some reality. Even while this may be a synth-laden universe where one man instructs another to “look at your reflection in your own piss,” Wong, on a presumably shoestring budget, and looking like he’s literally shooting from the hip (in neon reds and dirty blues), provides a perfectly worthwhile tour to the grungy grudge-ridden back alleys and eateries of 1988 Hong Kong. This being a Wong film, even the most anonymous kitchens look like they could belong on billboards.’ — David Phelps
Wong Kar Wai talks about ‘As Tears Go By’
Days of Being Wild (1990)
‘Though the film represents the summit of the postcolonial-nostalgia cinema prevalent in the Eighties and Nineties (other examples include Stanley Kwan’s Rouge and Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father), it isn’t interested in inundating us with period detail or social observation, since the spaces are more spectral than physical, less lived-in than wafted-through. The past is imagined as a pool of nocturnal light, with streets and buildings often eerily empty, and the architecture telegraphing the city’s schizophrenic Chinese and colonial influences. Wong has often rejected sociopolitical interpretations of his films, either in the attempt to maintain their glamor or to keep from offending any of his pan-Asian fans. To a degree he has a point, for what he captures here are not convincing recreations or real-life political issues, but rather that sense of holding onto an idealized notion of the good old days while only vaguely remembering what exactly made them good. This is memory as an aesthetic, as pure sensation. On the other hand, the films are indeed social visions, at the very least because of the unusual way they operate emotionally. Feelings that attach themselves to individuals are not so much effectively dramatized, like in a typical melodrama, as they are given embodiment as symbols and gestures, before being absorbed into a greater collective sorrow pulsing beneath the surface.’ — Andrew Chan
Chungking Express (1994)
‘To me Chungking Express, it’s like the night and day of Hong Kong. Some people say the film is about this or that character, but I say, ‘No, this film is about Hong Kong, it is my love letter to Hong Kong.’ This is the area that I know. I shot in an area that I grew up. I never went out as a kid, though the area [Tsim Tsa Tsui] is a place for entertainment, for late nights, and Chungking Mansions was the place for nightclubs. It had one of the best ones in Hong Kong called Bayside. [This is also the club where Wong’s father worked.] When the Beatles came to Hong Kong, they had their press conference there. So this is a landmark. I shot in the central area also for some day shots. At the time it had an escalator, and our director of photography, Christopher Doyle, lived just next to this elevator. And I thought, ‘This is a good idea.’ I told Chris, ‘Your apartment is the best place for this story.’ So we took it over, and of course we made a mess out of it. We flooded it. Funnily, he’s actually holding the camera and shooting when we flooded his very apartment. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Okay, let’s do it.” — Wong Kar Wai
Ashes of Time (1994)
‘Master Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai directed this lyrical, dream-like martial arts epic. A famously troubled shoot, the film took two years and 40 million dollars to produce (a shocking sum for a national cinema populated with low-budget quickies) and features a virtual who’s-who of the Hong Kong film world. Conceived as a prequel to the popular martial arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero by Jin Yong, the movie is less a straightforward action thriller than a visually striking meditation on memory and love. It nominally centers on Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who ekes out a lonely existence as an itinerant hired sword. Getting on in years and tormented by memories of a lost love, he also works an agent for other mercenary assassins from his remote desert abode. Ouyang’s old friend and fellow swordsman, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-fai, who starred in the The Lover) drowns his lovelorn misery in a magical wine that makes him forget. Later, a mysterious young man named Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) hires Ouyang to kill his sister’s unfaithful suitor, Huang Yaoshi. The following day, that spurned sister, Murong Yin (Lin again), hires Ouyang to protect her dearly beloved. Meanwhile, Hong Qi (pop star Jackie Cheung) finds some redemption for a life of killing by accepting a poor girl’s offer to avenge her brother’s death — a task that Ouyang brusquely shunned. In another subplot, a master swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is slowly going blind. He agrees to defend a village from horse thieves so that he can afford to go home and see his wife before his eyesight fails completely. This film is one of the most celebrated examples of 1990s Hong Kong cinema: it won multiple awards in its native Hong Kong, along with a Golden Osella for Best Cinematography at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.’ — Jonathan Crow
Fallen Angels (1995)
‘Fallen Angels is the only other film of his that could be considered a “gangster film,” although certainly it’s quite different from As Tears Go By. What Fallen Angels adds to what he was already doing visually in his first film is his experimentation with voiceover narration, allowing the characters to express their thoughts and feelings to us in ways that they are unable to articulate to each other. Also, in contrast to the linear plot of As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels pretty much disregards rules of classical storytelling. Instead of focusing on one linear plotline, it tells two interlocking stories filled with digressions and jumps in time. In Fallen Angels, Wong takes all of those stylistic signatures to extremes. He pours on the slo-mo, the pixillated action scenes, the neon lighting and the pop music (one Canto pop song even becomes the source of a message from a killer to his assistant). In addition, the voiceovers become a dominant creative force: there’s barely any dialogue, and nearly all the characters’ thoughts and emotions are expressed through narration.’ — Kenji Fujishima
Happy Together (1997)
‘In various ways, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997) is a “transitional” film. When it was released, the Hong Kong director was in a state of egress, both stylistically and professionally. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly notes in his review of the film, Wong had become somewhat ungrounded as a filmmaker. “Whether this happened between Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994), during the two years it took to make Ashes of Time (1994), or between the latter two films and Fallen Angels (1995),” writes Rosenbaum, “Wong’s powerful organic flow…had atrophied into a slag heap of individual set pieces.” Perhaps seeking a new direction, Wong turned to a pair of characters similarly adrift. In Happy Together, dysfunctional couple Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are once again resetting their relationship, traveling all the way from Hong Kong to “the end of the world” in Buenos Aires in hopes of finding themselves. There, we watch the two men fall in and out of love with each other. They switch moods and outlooks seemingly without cause and certainly without warning. They express a constant desire for renewal, to start again. They’re difficult to nail down, and sometimes impossible to read, but you get the strong sense that they’re lost. Like the characters it follows, Happy Together is a film in search of a purpose, and it ultimately turns that very search into its sole purpose. Wong, one of the most instinctual filmmakers to ever live, turns virtually every shot into an investigation, and his ability to find and create beautiful images becomes almost unrestrained. If the film verges on self-parody, as some have claimed, it’s because the director is actively investigating what he values in his art and in himself. Happy Together is Wong at his most introspective.’ — Drew Hunt
In the Mood for Love (2000)
‘Deliberately limited in scope, the plot, supposedly worked out over a year of part-improvised filming, is hugely clever, not least for what it leaves out. We never see the cheating spouses, just feel their impact. The few other characters – mahjong-mad landlady Mrs Suen, Chow’s buffoonish friend Ah Ping, and Su’s philandering boss, feel abrasively coarse against the lead pair’s quiet grace. Chow and Su’s relationship, in particular, is wonderfully ambiguous. Do they simply choose not to take the relationship further (“We will never be like them,” Su’s character says, bitterly, of their spouses), or are they both waiting for the other to act? For all the heartbreaking decisions and coincidences which, ultimately, keep them apart, could their romance even have thrived outside the counterpoint of their shared betrayal? In lesser hands, the finale, where Chow whispers his unheard regrets and feelings into a stone hollow at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, before sealing them inside with mud, could be absurd, melodramatic. Wong makes it heartbreaking.’ — Peter Walker
Lacoste La Rencontre (2001)
‘Lacoste 2001 Advertisement’
‘Five years on any project that can be made in a shorter time frame is always a sign of becoming over meticulous. 2046 seems more concerned with how it frames itself rather than compelling you into the people involved. That balance was perfectly achieved in the last film but this time the atmosphere suffocates the drama, which becomes fanciful and too self-concerned. Wong Kar-wai attempts to end the ‘trilogy’ on a much grander stage and in doing so it becomes distracted from the humane and political subjects it hopes to address.’ — Steven Sheehan
The Making of 2046
My Blueberry Nights (2007)
‘My Blueberry Nights is full of false notes, lost-in-translation moments that might conceivably have worked in a Hong Kong setting but fall flat on the road to California. True to form, Wong’s curtain raiser is beautiful to look at and unabashedly romantic. But it is also vapid and ephemeral, trading in a kind of karaoke Americana that bounces us from cafe to bar to truck stop for the simple reason that they are there to be bounced between. Taking off for Vegas, our heroine reflects that “what should have taken hours went on for days and what should have been a short ride became a long one”. She might have been talking about the whole of My Blueberry Nights.’ — Xan Brooks
Wong Kar Wai Wong talks about My Blueberry Nights
There’s Only One Sun (2007)
‘Wong Kar-Wai reprises his futuristic mood from 2046 and waives a spy story of lush and betrayal to advertise Aurea, the new LCD technology by Philips.’ — letterboxd
The Grandmaster (2013)
‘The good news about Wong Kar-wai’s new film is that, following the debacle that was My Blueberry Nights (2007), the good Wong is back. The Grandmaster not only banishes the (thankfully now easily forgotten) memory of Blueberry, but also manages to continue building on themes and forms from Wong’s previous films while steering his art in an entirely new direction—and this despite the fact that, on the surface, The Grandmaster puts him squarely back in the kind of genre territory he hasn’t occupied since his first film, As Tears Go By (1988). Wong also finds himself in a commercial situation that is relatively new for him but now standard for (almost all) Hong Kong filmmakers: that his film be releasable in the mainland (i.e., censorship-ready), and attractive to mainland Chinese audiences. (The Grandmaster seems to have met both requirements: it has done extraordinarily well at the Chinese box office, and looks to be Wong’s biggest hit by far in Chinese-speaking territories.)’ — Shelly Kraicer
p.s. Hey. ** Shane Christmass, Hi. My pleasure, my pleasure. I did get the fireworks gifs. Fucking cool, thank you! Figuring out a way to use them. Watch this space. No physical book quite yet, no, but the post here can be weirdly slow. Interesting: the linked-to thing. Huh. I should share it. Everyone, fine writer Shane Christmass shares this link which leads to a thing entitled ‘Use this cutting-edge AI text generator to write stories, poems, news articles, and more’ if you feel like experimenting with your writerly voice. A great idea always, if you ask me. I saw the original ‘The Fly’, but I was so young it’s just a busy haze to me now. How is it? ** Bill, Hi! Yeah, intense crop yesterday. Maybe it’s the summer or something. Eek, stay indoors or tread like lead when you’re out or batten down the hatches and all that self-preservationist stuff. Nope, on the Edward Ka-Spel. Will do though, obviously. Ditto: Unknown Instructors. Thanks a lot, man. Did the cyclone thing happen? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Interesting: I have three friends for whom Heath Ledger was the ultimate dream date/husband/bed mate. Once I’ve seen the Tarantino, I will share my opinion. Pretty sure it won’t be Rosenbaum’s. ** Steve Erickson, I know as much about mickkk as you do. Maybe I’ll try to find him again and see if the mystery is any more solved. I’m really liking the sound of your ending. It’s really speaking to my anticipation. Great! No, haven’t heard the Sophie remix stuff. I’ll check in with it, thank you. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi. Yes, I thought it was a particularly meta-entertaining batch. It’s always just luck of the draw. There just happened to be a lot of fruitful, lively, nutso slaves and slave trolls out there last month. Ooh, I want that bean paste. I even kind of want to spend a year making it. Huh. Damn, that’s really intriguing. Thank you for the share, buddy, from the cockles of my taste buds, etc. ** Misanthrope, Even the slaves’ world is going to hell in a hand basket. Yep, Jax is there. He doesn’t post much, but he seems to look around and ‘like’ things. ** Sypha, Hey. I bet your comment would make MessySausage’s day. ** Okay. I’m giving the blog over to Wong Kar-Wai’s volume of work today. Me, I think his films were quite sharp and exciting up through ‘Happy Together’, and then I think he seemed to pretty much lose it. But see what you think. See you tomorrow.