Wong Kar-Wai, whose long-awaited The Grandmaster opens in August, is not about plot. Wong Kar-wai is about motion and emotion. As my friend Nelson Carvajal’s new video suggests, he’s about the moment within the moment, the eternal in the now. Beautiful neighbors pass in a stairwell and exchange lingering looks, or talk more softly than they need to so that they can be face-to-face. The camera (usually Chris Doyle’s) doesn’t merely record or represent: it scopes out, insinuates, measures and caresses. All is texture. Physical texture. Emotional texture. What it feels like. What it really is. What you dream it is. What you dream it was.
A woman’s swaying hips are sexy, but they’d be sexy anyway, in Wong Kar-Wai’s films or anyone’s. Ditto food: My Blueberry Nights boasts a closeup of melted ice cream on pie so lovingly composed and lit that it amounts to dessert-as-orgasm — and you know that when you’re hungry that’s just what a luscious dessert can feel like, in spirit anyway. But the sexiness, the sheer visceral tingliness, of this artist’s work transcends particular situations. Somehow he makes everything sexy: sweaty huts, cobblestone streets, peeling paint; fear, regret, misery, death. How?
By communicating exuberance at existence. His films may chart specific lusts — for sex, for love, for freedom, for murder — but all those lusts are gathered beneath a poetic umbrella: lust for life.
He’s what I called, in a 2009 Salon series about “The Directors of the Decade,” a “sensualist” filmmaker: “Sensualist directors have a respect for privacy and mystery. They are attuned to tiny fluctuations in mood (the character’s and the scene’s). But they’d rather drink lye than tell you what a character is thinking or feeling – or, God forbid, have a character tell you what he’s thinking or feeling. The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies — not in the character, although that sometimes happens, but in the moviegoer. You can tell by watching the sensualists’ films, with their startling cuts, lyrical transitions, off-kilter compositions and judicious use of slow motion as emotional italics, that they believe we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.”–Matt Zoller Seitz