INTERVIEW: The "Mood" of Wong Kar-wai; the Asian Master Does it Again
by Anthony Kaufman /indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 02.02.01) — It’s only February, granted, but Wong Kar-wai‘s “In the Mood for Love” may very well turn out to be the best movie of 2001. Winner of a special technical jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (for its production designer William Chang, and cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Li Ping-Bing), “In the Mood for Love” makes a strong case for making movies on celluloid in the new millennium. Wong Kar-wai’s 7th feature film is a wonder to behold; sumptuously designed, gorgeously colored, profoundly sad — this is a movie you can simply drown yourself in.
After already staking a claim as the most exciting filmmaker on the planet, Wong just keeps getting better. With a series of near or total masterpieces to his credit — “As Tears Go By,” “Days of Being Wild,” “Ashes of Time,” “Chungking Express,” “Fallen Angels,” and “Happy Together” — the Chinese director continues to explore themes of solitude and desire with “In the Mood for Love,” a love story set in 1960s Hong Kong about two neighbors whose respective spouses are having an affair with each other. Tong Leung (who won a Cannes prize for Best Actor) and Maggie Cheung play the somber neighbors, living in a claustrophobic apartment house where every gesture and movement conveys a thousand repressed emotions. USA Films, who acquired the film at the Cannes Film Festival upon seeing merely a promo reel, will release the film this Friday in New York and in select cities on Feb. 16. In Cannes, Wong Kar-wai spoke elusively about ’60s Hong Kong, repetition, art cinema, suffering, and his next film, “2046.”
After you see the movie, reminisce at the cool pop art website http://www.wkw-inthemoodforlove.com, while the evocative Spanish-sung melodies of Nat King Cole and the nostalgic score of Michael Galasso sounds around you.
indieWIRE: How did you conceive of the story?
Wong Kar-wai: We started the film in a different way. At first, we called the film “A story about food.” The story of “In the Mood for Love,” in fact, is actually one of the stories about these two people, neighbors, who are buying noodles all the time. Later on, I realized that the reason I wanted to make this project is only this story, so I expanded it. It was supposed to be a quick lunch and then it became a big feast.
iW: Much of this film was sort of constructed along the way. Did you build the film more in the editing room compared to your other films?
Wong: At the beginning, I thought this is an easy film, because we had two characters and the whole film is about these two persons, and then I realized it was much more difficult than my previous films with 10 characters, because we had to put a lot of details in it. We shot the film [following the characters from] 1962 to 1972 and in the editing room, I think the film stopped at 1966, which is the film you see now.
iW: Lots of things were left out?
Wong: Maybe some days later, we will have another version.
iW: Why Hong Kong in the early 60s?
Wong: I always wanted to make a film about this period, because it’s very special in the history of Hong Kong, because it is right after 1949 and a lot of people from China are living in Hong Kong and they still have their dreams about their lives back in China. So like the Chinese communities in the film, there are people from Shanghai and they have their own languages and they don’t have contact with the local Cantonese. And they have their own movies and music and rituals. That is a very special period and I’m from that background. And I want to make a film like this, and I want to recreate that mood.
iW: Why the title, “In the Mood for Love”?
Wong: I always wanted to call this film, “Secrets” or something about secrets, and Cannes said, “No, there’s already so many films with Secrets.” So we had to find a title. We were listening to the music of Bryan Ferry, called “In the Mood for Love,” so we call it “In the Mood for Love,” why not? Actually, the mood of the film is what drives these two people together.
iW: Regarding the mood, what about the Latin influence? The suffering seems more Latin than Asian. Does that come at all from your shooting in South America on “Happy Together”?
Wong: I like Latin American literature a lot and I’ve always thought Latin American, and Italian people are very close to Chinese, especially the women — jealousies, passion, family values, it’s very close. The Latin music in the film was very popular in Hong Kong at that time. The music scene in HK was mainly from the Filipino musicians. All the nightclubs had Filipino musicians, so they have the Latin influences. It’s very popular in restaurants at that time. So I decided to put this music in the film to capture — this is the sound of that period. And also, I especially liked Nat King Cole, because he’s the favorite singer of my mother.
iW: You’re most known for your free-wheeling style in “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels.” Here, it’s quite the opposite. Did you feel restricted? Or did you feel liberated because you were trying something new?
Wong: We get used to certain types of style, and people say this is your label or your trademark. And we get used to it. It becomes very boring. We tried to do something else. For this film, because Chris Doyle is away shooting, we used another cameraman, that means I cannot be so lazy as before. Because in the past, I can rely on Chris for lighting and frame. But this time I had to control everything myself. This is a process where I can control more of the film and the style of the film is more attached to the content.
iW: Can you talk about the art direction? And all those gorgeous floral prints?
Wong: I have a very good art director, William Chang; he’s worked with me since my first film. Basically, we are from the same background, so he knows everything by heart. We seldom discuss the film, because the way we work together is very organic. He’s not serving me; he’s trying to create his own ideas. I capture all of it in the film. He’s also the editor of the film. So sometimes he cuts the things he doesn’t like.
iW: You also have many things obstructing the camera? It creates a sort of claustrophobic space.
Wong: We always wanted something in front of the camera, because we wanted to create a feeling that the audience becomes one of the neighbors. They always observe these two people.
iW: The costume design is also very important. Maggie changes constantly.
Wong: In fact, we had 20-25 dresses for Maggie for the whole film. Because we cut the film short, it becomes like a fashion show; she changes all the time. My purpose at first was to try to show the film in a repetitious way. Like, we repeat the music, the angle of a location, always the clock, always the corridor, always the staircase. Because I want to show nothing changes, except the emotions of these two persons.
iW: What do you think about the arrival of Asian cinema in the U.S. lately? Do you think it’s a rebirth or just western audience finally discovering what was already there?
Wong: We all need stories. What happens in our daily lives changes our stories. You can see the Italian cinema and the French new wave, in the 60s, the first generation after the second world war, so they have a lot of things to say and a new perspective. For these two years, Asian cinema, like Korean cinema, and even Thai cinema, they’ve become very, very strong, because they have their problems and new stories in their life. So they are not repeating the same old stories. I think the young filmmakers, their thinking is more global, so their films are more accessible to the Western audience.
iW: You’ve spoken about your influences, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut? Did they help form your style?
Wong: In Hong Kong in the ’60s, going to cinema was a big thing. We have cinemas for Hollywood films, local productions, European cinema, but there was no [label of] art film at that time. Even Fellini was treated as a commercial film. So as a kid, I spent a lot of time with my mother in the cinemas. And we didn’t know which is an art film, which is a commercial film; we just liked to watch the cinema. At that time, we went to cinemas because of the film itself. As far as influences, we like what we see. And the sensations just stay.
iW: You are that person to a lot of young filmmakers out there; what do you say to them?
Wong: It’s about patience. You have to be very patient. You have to wait.
iW: Can you talk about your next film, “2046”?
Wong: The film is about promise. In 1997, China’s government promised 50 years of change. And I think, well, I should make a film about promises. Have things really changed in 50 years? So the film is set in the year 2046; it is a futuristic film, but it’s not a science fiction film. It’s not like “The 5th Element.” It has three stories, and each one is adapted from a Western Opera, Madame Butterfly, Carmen, and Tanhausan.
iW: Is financing your films any easier than it was, since you know have quite a reputation.
Wong: It’s not so easy as you expect. Normally, if you want to work with European distributors, or joint-ventures, they want to have the script. And we don’t have scripts, so that’s a problem. And you have to find someone who understands your work and has confidence in you. Otherwise, it’s very difficult.
iW: This film was very difficult to make, you’ve said, and was emotionally difficult for the actors. I wanted to ask you a bigger question: is making art worth the suffering?
Wong: This is a good question we keep asking ourselves. Because when you’re making a film, there’s a lot of people suffering with you, you know? You’re away from home, and you always think things are waiting for you, but it’s not, they keep going. And for “In the Mood for Love,” it’s the most difficult film of my career, because we made this film for almost two years, and during the production, we had the Asian economic crisis, so we had to stop production, because the investors all had problems and we had to find new investors. We kept working on it and we knew we could make this film forever, because we fell in love with it. And so, we decided to put the film into Cannes, because that meant a deadline for the film.