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TOH! Ranks the Films of Wong Kar-Wai

TOH! Ranks the Films of Wong Kar-Wai

But first, we have an introduction to Wong’s oeuvre from Asia Film wonk David Chute: 

Origin Story: Wong Kar-wai Begins

I first saw Wong Kar-wai’s early movies over thirty years ago, in theaters in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley, when they were first released in the 1980s. I knew him, you could say, before he was Wong Kar-wei.

Wong made his debut as a director in 1988, several months after a “midsection” supplement of articles I had edited, “Made in Hong Kong,” was published in “Film Comment. (One excellent piece from that package is available online.) Prior to that he was off the fan radar, a hard-working commercial screenwriter in the HK industry, cranking out mostly fluffy comedies with English titles like “Once Upon a Rainbow” (1982) and “Silent Romance” (1984). 

The quality of the projects steadily improved, however, with landmarks including Jeff Lau’s “The Haunted Copshop” (1987), Patrick Tam’s “Final Victory” 1987) and a personal guilty pleasure, Tung Cheung’s “Flaming Brothers” (1987), a flamboyant post-“Better Tomorrow” heroic bloodshed melodrama starring Beretta-master Chow Yun-fat.

When Lau helped his new friend to break in as a director, it was with a personal variation on the newly popular gangster genre. In 1988, “As Tears Go By” made more money at the HK box office than any Wong Kar-wai film prior to this year’s “The Grandmaster,” and it established a pattern when it was nominated for ten Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It won two, Best Supporting Actor for Jackie Cheung and Best Art Direction for William Chang, a key collaborator who has since worked on every one of Wong’s films.) But this was pretty much the last time that Wong, the HK industry and the mainstream HK audience were really in synch.

I happened to be in Hong Kong in December of 1990, just as Wong’s second film, “Days of Being Wild,” was opening, advertised all over town as a major Christmas-season attraction. I saw flatbed trucks carrying enormous billboards that were just a row of giant iconic star portraits: Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Karina Lau, Jackie Cheung. Even in 1990 HK dollars that was a pricey array of talent, and on the strength of it the film made a decent amount of money. 

The result was intoxicating (see blurb below) but this was clearly not a mainstream film. But even after “Days of Being Wild” made a near sweep in ’92 of the top HK Film Awards (Film, Director, Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography) there was a fair amount of grumbling behind the scenes. People I knew in the HK film industry said the production had spiraled out of control, as Wong shot and re-shooting, cutting and re-cutting, for months on end. It was mess, went the conventional wisdom, and any artistic greatness that was being read into it was strictly after the fact. 

Working filmmakers in Hong Kong weren’t the only people who thought I had been bamboozled into liking “Days.” Respected indie distributor Bingham Ray went out to Alhambra to see it on my recommendation and came back seething, furious with me for wasting his time, referring to the auteur with eye-rolling sarcasm as Wong Kar-why?”

This emperor’s-new-clothes view of Wong’s artistry used to be commonplace in the popular media of Hong Kong. It crops up in the 1997 satire “Those Were the Days,” for example, in which a Wong-lookalike snob director is hauled back to the Cantonese cinema factories of the 1960s, when movies were movies. Of course he is shown up as a posturing phony by the no-nonsense professionals of that era. Several Oscar nominations later Wong is no longer universally regarded as a poseur.

I’ll confess to reacting that way myself at least once, angrily, the first time I saw Wong’s first large-scale period film “Ashes of Time” (1994). This was an ostensible martial arts movie with (again) an all-star cast, choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, in which the action scenes were subjected to so much post-production tinkering, slowed down and chopped up and bleached out, that all the clarity and propulsiveness had been drained out of them.

Where genre movies are concerned I tend to be an authenticity snob. Is this or is this not “the real thing”? Is the creator’s heart in the right place or does he view himself as superior to the form, patronizing it, offering us something finer than mere vulgar entrainment? I haven’t revisited “Ashes” since then; haven’t dared. And only its popularity with the Chinese and Hong Kong mainstream audiences has reconciled me to probably watching “The Grandmaster” eventually.

An artist, obviously, can be authentic in a different way. He or she is, it could be said, a genre of one. Sui generis is perhaps the term I’m groping for. Post “In the Mood for Love” (2000), especially, Wong looms larger for me now than he did in 1994. All we have the right to require is that he is authentically himself. –David Chute

The TOH ranking of Wong’s ten movies is below. Plus, check out VICE’s Podcast interview with Wong, talking “The Grandmaster.” 

1. In the Mood for Love (2000, ****) Wong began the millennium with one of the more deliriously beautiful movies ever made, a feature-length swoon built on mood, mist and the faces of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, who play cuckolded spouses falling in love — in a typically Wong-made world of suspended perspectives, sumptuous color and tantalizing sensuality. In his first film since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, Wong sets his romance in 1962, and via his two stars – who did the sexy ‘60s thing long before “Mad Men” was even half crazy —  creates a canvas of longing, regret, seduction and temptation. –John Anderson

2. Days of Being Wild  (1990, ****) A feature length mood piece about a narcissistic loaner (Leslie Cheung at his most languid) who attracts people irresistibly but gives them nothing in return, leaving everyone he meets feeling drained and empty: an emotional vampire, in effect, cooler than cool but not the easiest guy to root for. I loved the movie when I saw it first run in a Chinese language theater in LA’s China Valley, for its moody glamour and its stylish evocation of Hong Kong in the 1960s. Reportedly in my “Film Comment” review at the time I called it “an intimate film about lost youth, with an undertow of sensuality in the images.” I was smart enough, apparently, to declare that Wong Kar-wei was “a real discovery, a major artist,” although the rest of that review is buried somewhere in the graveyard of dead brain cells and obsolete digital formats. –David Chute

3. Chungking Express (1994, ****). Breathlessly shot and edited, this diptych of unrequited lovers, big time drug dealers and criminals, and an admiring waitress with a habit of breaking and entering is Wong in top form. While the director’s preoccupations with breaking form and structure got in his way in the past, his obsession with multilayered narratives works seamlessly in the melodramatic art film “Chungking.” The slick, handsome Tony Leung is, of course, devastating here as a disillusioned cop with girl problems. You’ll never hear the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” the same way after this intoxicating gem of a movie, where even the smallest gestures occur on a grand scale. –Ryan Lattanzio

4. Happy Together (1997, ****). “Happy Together” remains, for my money, the landmark gay film of the 1990s and maybe even of all time. Stylistically, this is Wong’s most adventurous film and with all its strobe effects, imperfect edits and lens filters, it feels like he is discovering cinema for the first time. Two men — played beautifully by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung — may be falling in and out of love in the streets of Argentina, but the film is more beatnik travelogue– about two broken souls with enough ennui to go around– than gay romance. But on that level, too, this is sexy, stunning work, a new classic that won Wong the best director prize at Cannes in 1997. –Ryan Lattanzio

5. The Grandmaster (2013, ***). When discussing his new film “The Grandmaster” at a recent Academy event, Wong described the alchemy of image and sound in cinema: “It isn’t one plus one. It’s chemistry.” This chemistry is on breathtaking, ravishing display in “The Grandmaster,” a period piece set in China from the 1930s through the early 1950s, starring Tony Leung as the titular grandmaster Ip Man (who would go on to train Bruce Lee) and Zhang Ziyi as a fellow kung fu expert to match Ip’s skill. The fight sequences — which occupy well over half of the film’s running time — are dazzling both in action and stylistic terms, with a gorgeously melodramatic score heightening the wistful yet impossible romance that builds between the two main characters. The clunky biopic aspects of the film only momentarily deter from what is bound to be one of 2013’s best examples of sheer, no-holds-barred filmmaking. –Beth Hanna

6. As Tears Go By (1988, ***), co-written with Jeff Lau, featured a trio of rising young stars, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung as glamorously doomed twenty-somethings. The literal rendering of the Cantonese title, “Mong Kok Carman,” refers both to the Bizet opera and to the gang-infested neighborhood in central Kowloon to which the story was relocated. The comparison drawn most frequently, however, is not to “Carmen” but to “Mean Streets,” as most of the action involves Andy Lau’s blindingly cool slacker gangster, Wah, repeatedly pulling his trouble-prone sworn brother Fly (Jackie) out of threats of his own making. Wah’s sensuously depicted romance with Maggie is in narrative terms only an intensifier: Wah finally has a strong reason to step away from his life of crime, but thanks to Fly it’s already too late. -David Chute

7. Fallen Angels (1995, ***). Boasting some of cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s best work, “Fallen Angels” is Wong’s underrated tribute to the French New Wave, and a cinematic slice of sangfroid. Godard said all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, so Wong takes that equation literally, centering on a down-and-out hit man whose affections for his icy female protege become a distraction to tragic ends. Not as soul-searingly melancholy as “Happy Together” or even funny as other Wong films, this one brims with brilliant cinematic flourishes — that zoom! — and a cool, detached demeanor. From 1995, it truly feels like a Gen X film by way of Wong. –Ryan Lattanzio

8. My Blueberry Nights (2007, ***) Anyone still regarding Wong as a narrative filmmaker got a wakeup call from his first English-language film — and his first without cinematographer Chris Doyle, who had worked on every Wong feature since “Days of Being Wild” and had occasionally been credited with BEING Wong Kar-wai. With the virtuosic Darius Khondji positioned at DP, Wong again created his own contexts, bent reality to his will and proffered a “story” that was more an excuse for a parade of exquisitely lovely faces – including Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz and Jude Law. A sort of road movie that also refashions Manhattan into Wongland, “Blueberry Nights” is principally a framework for its director’s elegantly oblique visual architecture. -John Anderson

9. 2046 (2004, ***) Arriving late to Cannes in 2005, seemingly on purpose, and riding a wave of breathless anticipation it couldn’t possibly match, this futuristic fantasy (and sort-of-sequel to “In the Mood for Love”) featured competing Chinese beauties (Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang) and warring instincts — Wong’s problematic proclivity for obscure narrative and an alchemical gift for atmosphere. Although greeted with predictable ambivalence, “2046” is visually sumptuous, sexy and oh so close to satisfying.  – John Anderson

10. Ashes of Time (1994, **) Wong’s first large-scale period film was an ostensible martial arts movie with an all-star cast, choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, in which the action scenes were subjected to so much post-production tinkering, slowed down and chopped up and bleached out, that all the clarity and propulsiveness had been drained out of them. Were these animated smudges being presented as some kind of great achievement? I beg to differ. In between these abstracted sequences of arm waving, wounded warriors extrapolated from the classic Jin Yong wu xia novel “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes” lounged around in middle age acting glamorously depressed, exactly like the bummed out characters in Wong’s contemporary films. An avowed lifelong fan of the wu xia genre, Wong had a strange way of showing it. – David Chute

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