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Retrospective: The Films Of Wong Kar-Wai

Retrospective: The Films Of Wong Kar-Wai

Perhaps the best way to describe Shanghai-born, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is as a fetishist of romance. Throughout his entire career, which spans four decades of filmmaking, the director has manifested his obsessive preoccupation with details and minutiae time and again; the little fleeting moments and impressions that that add up to a mood. “I’ve never worked with someone who’s put so much emphasis on a single moment,” Jude Law said in a New York Times interview in 2008, describing an entire night of shooting devoted to different angles and set-ups on a kiss within “My Blueberry Nights.” But the absolute focus on the smoking of a cigarette, a furtive glance, a kiss, the application of make-up or the fixing of a perfectly coiffed beehive is never unmoored to an emotion: there is a purpose to everything, even if that purpose is rarely straight-up storytelling in the classic Hollywood sense. Indeed, the criticism most frequently leveled is that WKW is a director concerned with style over content, but that seems to us a fallacy—for Wong, emotion, and not necessarily story, is the content; style exists to evoke it. And the emotional currency he deals in is romantic love, in all its forms but especially those tending to be on the melancholy end of the spectrum: love stolen, lost, unrequited, doomed, remembered but inaccessible.

But in amongst the delirious, swirling, enveloping moods he summons so brilliantly there is often a hard edge to the love affairs he details—the foolhardy, self-defeating belief by one or either party that love is, if not a game, then a competition that can be won or lost. And so his characters preemptively leave or hurt or spurn each other, for fear of future rejection. They regard the object of their affection as also part adversary, and the choreography of the romance takes on the qualities of a war, with battles won and lost along the way, strategies succeeding and failing. Which is why Wong’s preoccupation with martial arts (the wuxia literary tradition of China) is not as anomalous as it may at first seem. Not only were the old, often schlocky movies and TV shows in this genre the formative viewing experiences of the lonely and isolated Wong after he moved from the mainland to Hong Kong at age 5, not speaking any Cantonese, but the thrill of the fight, the triumph and despair all seem analogous to Wong’s view of romantic relationships. “The Grandmaster,” which opens in the U.S. this week, is the second feature Wong has dedicated to wuxia (“Ashes of Time” being the first), but it’s his first time assaying kung fu specifically. Still, neither movie represents a departure, in fact both are, in their different ways, a fusing of the martial arts Wong admires and the love stories he’s drawn to tell. 

You can read our Berlin review of “The Grandmaster” here (bearing in mind that there is a different, slightly shorter U.S. cut), but if you’d rather wait until after you’ve seen it, here’s our complete retrospective on the films of Wong Kar-wai to date to get you in, well, the mood. Read; rewatch; swoon.

As Tears Go By” (1988)
The slinky pop music of a Cantonese cover of Berlin‘s “Take My Breath Away” swells, kinetic visuals blur romantically in that now iconic shuttering step-printing aesthetic and a hail of bullets, fists and kisses fly by in a flurry of violently edited images: and so marked Wong Kar-wai’s arrival as an indelible and striking cinematic auteur. Modeled after Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” right down to the unhinged best friend and the girlfriend from afar, the crime melodrama “As Tears Go By” eschews the sin and guilt motif of Little Italy and hangs its tale on two parallel stories of love (one romantic, the other brotherly). A young, handsome gangster, Wah (Andy Lau), is caught between two people: the cousin he has fallen in love with, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), and the loyalty he has for his volatile triad “brother,” Fly (Jack Cheung), who is constantly getting into life-threatening trouble. Wah has a choice: leave the gangster life for Ngor or stick around to protect Fly, who is always one insult or major affront away from death. As you might imagine, it doesn’t end well. Named after a Rolling Stones song and incessantly featuring the aforementioned Berlin track (co-written by Giorgio Moroder; famously used on the “Top Gun” soundtrack) as its impossibly romantic theme, “As Tears Go By” would also announce WKW’s cosmopolitan, pop-song sensibilities that would continue through all his films. Not as emotionally potent or dramatically engaging as his later work, ‘Tears’ is slight by early Wong standards. But it’s still a helluva stylish and arresting debut that’s endlessly watchable and that shows a nascent flair that would later develop into his more artful and painterly eye. Cinematography aficionados will also remember this as the only early WKW not shot by Christopher Doyle (who would go on to shoot seven of his films in a row). “As Tears Go By” was lensed by Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, who also shot the first half of the two stories in “Chungking Express.” Lau would go on to be a director in his own right and helm the celebrated “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, which, in the cyclical way of things, was remade as “The Departed” by, of course, Martin Scorsese. [B]

Days Of Being Wild” (1990)
Described as the Cantonese version of “Rebel Without A Cause,” WKW’s second feature would further refine and push his lush, kinetic and musically-oriented style. Fragmented, elliptical and romantic, the film was Wong’s first collaboration with DP Christopher Doyle and another direct attempt to imbue the energy and pulse of the then-novel and dynamic MTV form into its narrative. Starring familiar members of WKW’s regular repertoire, “Days Of Being Wild” is a moody and brooding unrequited love ensemble drama set in 1960s Hong Kong. Disturbed by revelations about his prostitute mother, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a handsome wayward playboy, goes on a journey to the Philippines and leaves a careless trail of lovers in his wake including Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mimi (Carina Lau). They in turn confide their frustrations in other empathetic men who soon fall for them both. Far less preoccupied with plot, like many WKW films, its introspective characters narrate their emotional isolation and the complications that have created a collective atmosphere of longing and disconnection within them all (Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung and Tony Leung, also co-star). A triumph of WKW’s pop aesthetics, with heart-stopping visuals and an exotic-flavored soundtrack, “Days Of Being Wild” also has an emotional depth with its themes of alienation, sadness and rejection. While perhaps a little more feral and uneven than some of his later works (its hypnotic aura is sometimes abruptly interrupted by explosions of dynamic energy), the way WKW pours on style to articulate disconnection is tremendously engaging, and if it sometimes feels a little chaotic, more often it simply pulsates with life. [A-]

Chungking Express” (1994)
Few filmmakers can capture the swooning romanticism of WKW’s breathless, old-school eroticism. He has never been one to shy away from staccato storytelling in evoking the fractures of a broken heart, and his multi-layered narratives, (which find a companion piece in the following year’s “Fallen Angels,”) accurately capture the heady confusion of a fugue state in between love and passion. The first portion of “Chungking Express” concerns a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who takes a deeply philosophical view of a tumultuous breakup, one that lands him the attentions of a mysterious bewigged woman with criminal associations (Brigitte Lin). The connection between them isn’t obvious: in fact, it’s very much like a wind that blows through town, a hazy, abstract notion that nonetheless feels concrete to both of them. Trusting an arcane sense of chance, the cop nonetheless pursues her, and the two of them become intertwined almost as if transported to another world, where their regular concepts of just and unjust become secondary to the companionship offered by each other. The second story, only superficially related to the first, regards a chirpy shop employee (Faye Wong, iconic) who falls for another cop (Tony Leung), only to take it upon herself to crash into his perceived destiny, breaking into his home and providing a cleaner living environment. More playful than the elliptical beginning (but not by much; the pacing is a delight throughout), this segment finds one outside force trying to reshape someone’s possible future. But it culminates in the two characters reaching a place neither had expected, as if stranded at the edge of the world, smiling wistfully. “Chungking Express” is a pop masterpiece, exploding with color and lust, not so much a story of wayward lovers as a map of the shared journey of broken and mended hearts. You don’t watch “Chungking Express”; you feel it in the moment, like a song filtering through your consciousness, that you’re sure you already know, when you’re actually hearing it for the very first time. [A]

Fallen Angels” (1995)
Intended as a portion of “Chungking Express” and marked by the same dreamy stylistics that made the prior film such an ethereal delight, “Fallen Angels” takes a decidedly more fatalistic look at life, death and everything in between. Once again composed of two stories, Wong Kar-wai and ever-brilliant DP Christopher Doyle luxuriate in flourishes, damn near sexualizing the conquests of a hitman (Leon Lai) carrying on a questionable partnership with a woman (Michelle Reis). Reis’ nameless vixen supplies Lai’s hitman with target info and cleans his apartment in a pining way that feels like a polar extreme of ‘Chunking’s happy-go-lucky Faye Wong. “Fallen Angels” tells stories of longing, of words unsaid, memories fading in a city without a name (Hong Kong is shot with a dreamy elegance that makes it feel both anonymous and utterly specific). The second story involves Takeshi Kaneshiro’s gentle mute pursuing a woman (Charlie Yeung) reeling from a breakup. It’s the heart of the film and a single scene where Kaneshiro remembers his father via videotapes he’d made of their day-to-day life is heartbreaking in its sincerity. Elsewhere, the characters stumbling the deserted streets and seedy alleys that dot the landscape of “Fallen Angels” are alternately chasing hazy dreams or moving through a world distanced from a more ordinary life. Which all contributes to it seeming like a weightless endeavor on the surface, when in fact “Fallen Angels” is pop-culture poetry, a film that gradually reveals itself and revels in an outpouring of deeply felt emotion. [A-]

Ashes of Time” (1994)
Before there was “The Grandmaster,” there was “Ashes of Time,” Wong Kar-wai’s first go-round at the Chinese literary and filmic wuxia (literally: “Martial Hero”) genre. And it didn’t have a much easier journey to the screen than its upcoming cousin—Wong shot for over a year, with the production suffering numerous delays and rumored budget overruns. Boasting an all-star cast of major Hong Kong stars, arguably only subsequently outshone by the wattage of “2046,” “Ashes of Time,” however was a notorious flop. A restored, rescored and shorter version “Ashes of Time Redux” was released internationally in 2008 and did better, as of course by that time Wong Kar-wai had established himself on the international arthouse circuit. But whichever version you see (and it’ll most likely be the Redux cut, since the reason for it was the deterioration of the original theatrical cut’s negative), it’s not difficult to fathom why the film failed to find much of an audience at first. Wrapped in semi-mythological, period package, the story is maddeningly elliptical, overpopulated with enigmatic characters whose identities shift and blend into one another as they reminisce and wax poetic about affection spurned, the nature of memory and the self-defeating lengths people go to to “win” the unwinnable game of love. But it is also quite extraordinarily beautiful to look at, with Wong experimenting with painterly post-production effects that enhance Christopher Doyle’s legendary, hypnotic shotmaking, and one particular fight scene, in which the assassin in question (Tony Leung Chui-Wai, the nearest thing to a Wong muse) must fend off seemingly hundreds of opponents while going blind, is masterfully, thrillingly evoked. Indeed, though the film may frustrate attempts to piece together a coherent plot, it’s arguably more successful than “The Grandmaster” in achieving a sustained mood, with the overtly poetic voiceover and dialogue perfectly suited to the dreamy, fluttery, sensual imagery, whether it’s bloody death or wistful regret that is being depicted. Essentially the story details an assassin’s agent (Leslie Cheung) whose woman (Maggie Cheung) pines for him even after she married his brother to spite him, who encounters a series of swordsmen, a magical wine purported to erase memory, a beautiful but penniless girl who wants to avenge her brother, and a quasi-incestuous, identical brother/sister duo who may or may not, in fact, be the same person. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but how it feels is more the point, and its heady, drifting lyricism, that marked a slight departure for Wong from the more pop-culture sensibility of what had come before, makes “Ashes of Time” worth reevaluating now. [B-]

Happy Together” (1997)
In Wong’s cinema, there are love stories, to be sure, but love is the heaviest burden of them all, leaving open wounds that, even if they heal, leave permanent scars. But when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he was for this love story about two men (frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung and pop star Leslie Cheung, who tragically committed suicide in 2003) who share a deep passion, but are otherwise all wrong for each other, the melodrama works because you get a sense of how the characters evolve and learn from their past. “Happy Together” works like our memories, offering quick glimpses and moments at a relationship that you know from the beginning can’t work, but is nonetheless compelling to watch for its raw, visceral honesty. Anybody—gay, bi or straight—who’s been with someone to whom you felt an intense connection that while meaningful, left you sad, lost and frustrated more often than not can find truth in the struggles of these two men. Watching Wong’s good films, how can you not be impressed by his command of tone, atmosphere, mood and style, and how they all coalesce to form a wholly alive, warts-and-all, cinema. He’s the eternal sensualist, tuning you on to the sounds, images and smells of the environment and somehow building a wellspring of interiorized feeling from all these exterior details. The inherent irony in the title only adds to the emotional heft and atmosphere. “Happy Together” puts you through the wringer, putting almost embarrassing private moments on display, but there’s a sense of hope left at the end when you realize the characters, damaged and lonely though they may be, are better for having met each other. [A-]

In the Mood for Love” (2000)
No other sensualist filmmaker can so quickly wrap the audience in his spell but while Wong’s films are alive, breathing, they’re also capable of changing the viewer’s perception. Watching “In the Mood for Love,” the pinnacle of his career thus far and a flat-out modern masterpiece, it’s as mood-altering as smoking some really good weed. You watch the gorgeous gliding camera, the way it dances with the music, how much time is given to take in a hallway, or a moment between two would-be lovers who never take the romantic steps they so longingly desire, and you feel different, changed by what’s on screen. It’s a haunting, absolutely stunning piece of work. The period details are lush, perfect and unbelievably evocative: this is easily the most romantic film ever about a couple who never consummate their love. Following a journalist (Leung) who moves in to an apartment in the same building as Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), the film chronicles the longing, chance encounters and missed opportunities between the pair as they realize their spouses are having an affair. Despite being cuckolded, they never stoop to the level of their partners, and instead aim for a platonic friendship, which, this being a Wong film, has its own sad realities and heartbreak. This is the last film on which the Hong Kong filmmaker would work with DP Christopher Doyle (barring some parts of “2046” and short film “The Hand“), as the production proved to be straining on their fruitful collaboration. We do wish we could add more nuance and original thought to the glowing praise this film has already received (one of three films made in the 2000s that landed on the most recent Sight and Sound greatest films of all time list), but sometimes you just have to join the chorus: this film is lush, luxuriant, undeniable greatness. [A+]

2046” (2004)
Narrative concerns seem miles away from “2046,” Wong Kar-wai’s strangest and most adventurous picture yet. Four years in the making, the film robbed us of one of the world’s most vital filmmakers for an extended period, shrouded itself in mystery and ultimately ended up vexing those who sought easy answers. After all, Wong is a director whose trademarks are ambiguous motivations and ambivalent characters all portrayed with deceptive figurative lucidity—and in “2046” he gives full, expansive rein to all those instincts. The story picks up after “In The Mood For Love,” following that film’s protagonist, Chow (Tony Leung) as he recovers from the fallout of his relationship with Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) by sequestering himself in his hotel room. The science fiction stories he starts to write there are portrayed as a microcosm of his ongoing life, adding Su Li-Zhen to his tapestry of past lovers in an act of catharsis. And so the film becomes a multi-character study that follows the emotional entanglements of several women, including Zhang Zi Yi as a showgirl with a double life, as well as Chinese cinema all-stars Gong Li and Faye Wong. Not everyone was appreciative of Mr. Wong’s sluggish working style, including DP Christopher Doyle (one of two cinematographers credited here, the other being Kwan Pung-Leung), who told the Guardian, “I feel that ‘2046’ is unnecessary, in retrospect… I think probably Wong Kar-wai realized that somewhere, and that’s why it took so long. You do realize that you have basically said what you needed to say, so why say more? I think you have to move on.” But, respectfully, “2046” nonetheless feels alive with the lyricism of a reinvigorated filmmaker, one not afraid of forming bonds that don’t always connect, and one who is aiming so high that even a failure to achieve those heights leaves a film that at times towers above most others. “2046” is messy and sometimes disjointed, but then so is love interrupted, life on hold, and so are the broken ties to a past you can neither forget nor escape. [A-]

My Blueberry Nights” (2007)
Known in some circles as Wong Kar-wai’s most egregious misfire, the Asian director’s maligned English-language debut, “My Blueberry Nights” isn’t quite as bad as its legend suggests, but it does have its share of problems. Fetishist that he is, one of the road trip-cum-romance’s most glaring issues is how WKW uses visual shots of various sumptuous pastries and confections to express desire and longing, that come across as a kind of unintentionally hilarious dessert pornography. And Darius Khondji, while one of the great living DPs, in lensing his director’s wishes, shoots a movie so overblown and oversaturated in luminous neon-soaked lighting, that it takes on the quality of a cinematographer shooting a parody of a Wong Kar-wai film. Then there’s the thin narrative and a lead, musician Norah Jones, who hadn’t acted before and it shows. While Jones, a terrific singer who knows a thing or two about heartache, isn’t terrible, she’s not the most dynamic force on screen either. Which leaves this hopelessly romantic picture—about a heartbroken woman, Elizabeth (Jones), who travels the U.S. to get away from her pain—to rely on its supporting characters, most of whom work, but that’s also far from a certainty. An alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz) in Memphis, Tennessee give the movie some engaging southern flair and genuine emotional depth, plus a chance for Elizabeth to focus on something other than her own sadness. But the miscast Natalie Portman never convinces as a sassy, free-spirited (and crucial third-act) gambler in Nevada who helps Elizabeth find her way spiritually. There are more surprising highlights, too. Cat Power, nee Chan Marshall (who provides some key cuts in the movie’s romantic soundtrack) has a completely electric cameo as the ex-girlfriend of Jude Law and their brief time on screen crackles with regret, anguish and a genuine-article wistfulness that you couldn’t bottle if you tried. And musically, Ry Cooder provides an exceptional dusty twang score with emotionally resonant melancholy notes around the edges. But even the sum of these first-rate elements can’t add up to anything resembling a first-class film. Notoriously taking several years to direct and edit a movie (“2046” took up five years, “The Grandmaster” was shot over a three-year period, minus the editing), “My Blueberry Nights” was shot in a scant seven weeks, indicating that as frustrating as those long waits can be, perhaps they’re justified. That said, a “rushed” production is hardly the worst of its problems, and “My Blueberry Nights” remains the black sheep of WKW’s back catalogue. [C-]

Short Films
Wong Kar-Wai also has seven short films to his credit—though some are more accurately described as commercials, or “branded entertainment.” Perhaps his most well-known is 2001’s “The Follow,” the fourth installment of BMW filmsThe Hire” series written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Notable for being a Wong collaboration with famed cinematographer Harris Savides instead of usual DP Christopher Doyle, the short does boast a blue-ish gray palette of more restrained hues than we’re used to from the director. But it’s a very slick and wonderfully shot piece nonetheless, and the mood brought to the simple story of a man (Clive Owen) hired by an agent (Forest Whitaker) to follow a beautiful woman (Adriana Lima) whom her husband (Mickey Rourke) suspects of infidelity is all Wong Kar-wai: elegant and enigmatic, with an undertow of melancholy.

Wong’s first brush with the world of commercials, though, was back in 1996 with the copy-and-paste-mandatory “wkw/tk/1996@7’55”hk.net.”Decoding the title explains a lot: it’s a collaboration between “wkw” and “tk,” which stands for Takeo Kikuchi, a fashion designer, the film is 7mins 55 seconds long without credits, and was shot in “hk” (Hong Kong). It’s a pretty gonzo few minutes of jittery editing that have a hip, kinetic energy following a loose story about a young couple repeatedly playing a game where they hunt and shoot each other. Some of the shots are again extraordinary (the scene with the noodles and the gunsmoke especially), and the good-looking central pair (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and Hong Kong actress Karen Mok) look appropriately cool, dishevelled and kooky throughout. In its entirety the film is now apparently only available on the Japanese laserdisc of “Fallen Angels,” though you can watch a pretty low quality rip of it below.

Most recently, commercial-wise, Wong directed a short piece for Chivas Regal which premiered in Cannes 2013. Lacking Christopher Doyle the film feels a little flat and it is far more a traditional commercial than, say, his BMW short—complete with copious pouring shots, glory images of the bottle and a plot that appears to revolve, Milk Tray-man style, around a beautiful woman’s (Du Juan) demand that a handsome man (Wong regular Chen Chang) buy her a 100-year-old bottle of Scotch and make it snow in India. It’s hokum and Wong’s touch feels very muted here, so really, all we get is some very glossy and rather anonymous ads for scotch, which you can watch below.


A much more successful commercial venture was in 2007 for Philips Aurea LCD technology. Entitled “There is Only One Sun,” this 10-minute short is very much in the vein of the sci-fi-neon futurism of “2046,” detailing a beautiful agent (Amelie Daure) who falls for the man she has been assigned to entrap. Many Wong staples are here, a narrative about regret and impossible love, a pre-emptive killing and some spectacular sets, costuming and shotmaking. And the commercial aspect of it would be easy to overlook — a subtle mention at the beginning and a screen that appears in the film are the only real nods to the brand, so mostly we’re free to simply enjoy a little sampler of Wong at his glossy, neony best.

Wong Kar-wai’s one and only music video so far is 2002’s DJ Shadow track “Six Days.” Apparently coming about after the musician contacted Wong as a fan and discovered the admiration was mutual, the song could have been written for Wong, with its looping lyrics and refrain “Tomorrow never comes until it’s too late.” It’s actually a pretty great slice of the Wong/Doyle aesthetic, with the underwater sequences especially blissed out and ethereal, and the story, opaquely told, hits all the familiar WKW high notes. A young guy (Wong regular Chang Chen) tries but can’t forget his true love (Malaysian model Danielle Graham), despite her faithlessness, and remembers their affair complete with mysterious tattooing, swimming and frequent references to the number 246 (“2046” was due out soon). Wong even gets to work in a short fight scene and ends the video, as he does “The Grandmaster,” with a Bruce Lee quote.

Away from the commercial/music video end of the spectrum, there is 2004’s “The Hand,” a type of companion piece to “In The Mood For Love,” that could have easily been one of the “Summer in Beijing” triptych of stories that WKW had conceived for his 2000 romantic masterpiece (in the end, all three stories were said to be folded into “In The Mood For Love”). It has the same endless shots of a well-dressed, slicked-back Chang Chen smoking countless cigarettes and cosmetics-lacquered ladies in wonderful beehives. An erotic short in the “Eros” series (which also contained shorts by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni), it teeters on that razor thin line between the sexiest and the most unintentionally funny short about a handjob ever.

In 2007, Wong participated in another portmanteau film, albeit with a much shorter entry, as one of the 33 directors featured in “To Each His Own Cinema“. His 3-minute segment “I Travelled 9000 km To Give It To You” literalizes the film’s theme of “love for cinema” by portraying a fumbling but passionate encounter in a movie theater while a French film plays. Of course, this being a Wong joint, it’s ambiguous as to whether the encounter is real, imagined or remembered. It’s pretty slight and feels a little disposable by contrast with some of his other shorts, but you can judge for yourself below.

And finally there’s 2000’s “Hua Yang De Nian Hua,” which is a 2½-minute-long collection of clips from old black-and-white Chinese movies, set to one of the classic tracks used in “In the Mood for Love.” On the surface, it should be the most anomalous and possibly anonymous of these short films, as it contains no footage shot by Wong himself. And yet, especially if you view it as a kind of reference board for the same year’s “In the Mood for Love” (and it’s included on the Criterion edition of the film), it’s a fascinating and beautiful artifact in itself, focusing especially on women, their clothing (the structured cheongsam dresses that his female stars often wear are in much in evidence), makeup and hairstyles, but also on their expressions and movements. To a Western eye, it’s also a rare glimpse of a vintage Chinese cinema that’s fully as glamorous as any Golden Age of Hollywood compilation. Gorgeous.

— Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky

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