Among the many filmmakers who have made the jump to television in recent years, one of the most intriguing names to join the fray is Wong Kar Wai. The Hong Kong auteur’s lyrical, romantic dramas about poetic loners — including such beloved titles as “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” — treasure texture over dense plot. So it was something of a surprise when Amazon unveiled five new series in the works in early September, including one from Wong called “Tong Wars,” described as combining the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S. with a crime potboiler and scripted by Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show,” “Donnie Brasco”).
Details on the series were scant at the time, but in a conversation with journalists at the Lumiere Festival in Lyon, Wong explained the epic sweep of the show. “The thing that attracted me to this project was the first opportunity to tell the story of the first Chinese-American experience in the most authentic and proper way, because I think there aren’t many films about this experience,” he said, noting that the story begins in 1905 and concludes in 1971.
“So it’s a long story,” he said, but downplayed the idea that the episodic format marked a major shift for him. “The format of a TV series just provides filmmakers to have a bigger canvas to tell their stories.” He recognized the surprise surrounding his decision, singling out French cinema inventors Louis and Auguste Lumiere in justifying the move. “Of course, I know why there are questions about this because today people are worried about whether this TV series or this kind of storytelling will become a competition to cinema,” he said. “I don’t think so. They are just the different children of Lumiere. For filmmakers, they are just different canvases to pain their work, to show their ideas and tell their stories.” Wong was unable to comment on the recent news of Amazon CEO Roy Price stepping down following sexual harassment charges, though sources close to the company said that plans for the production on “Tong Wars” had not been interrupted.
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Adorned with his trademark sunglasses as he showed up at various events around the city, the filmmaker was in town to be presented with the Prix Lumiere, an annual award handed out by this nine-year-old festival of classic films run by Cannes director Thierry Fremaux. The night before he spoke with the press, Wong’s career was celebrated in a lively arena where he received adoring speeches from longtime colleagues and friends, including his wily cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“Thank you so fucking much, you bastard,” Doyle said in a profanity-laced salute) and filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
Prior to accepting the award, Wong sat through a series of clips from his films, which he said brought him new insight into his upcoming television work. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’ve made 10 films; to me, they’re all one film. They’re like different episodes of my life. I can see it this way.” He referred to a question from earlier in the weekend about the different versions “The Grandmaster,” his 2013 drama about martial arts master Ip Man. The film was released in the U.S. at 108 minutes, almost half an hour shorter than the Chinese version, and 20 minutes shorter than the one that played festivals. He has considered an even longer version. “When I finished it, I thought, we could have another part to it,” he said. “We could have had six hours, eight hours, 10 hours to tell this story. Sometimes because of the restrictions of the length of a feature film, a format like [television] provides filmmakers with a longer narrative form that could make an idea like this possible.”
But Wong hasn’t abandoned feature filmmaking, as he shared details about his next movie that he has been developing in tandem with “Tang Wars.” An adaptation of Jin Yuchen’s novel “Blossoms,” the story follows the lives of Shanghai residents from the end of China’s Cultural Revolution in the early ‘60s through the end of the 20th century, with some scenes set in San Francisco. For Wong, it has a more personal dimension than anything he’s done before. “Shanghai is my hometown and the time that the book describes is the time of my absence from Hong Kong because I went to Hong Kong when I was 19, in ’63,” he said. “I hadn’t been back to Shanghai until the early nineties. This is my opportunity for me to fill in all the things that I have missed.”
Wong famously takes his time on his projects, tweaking them up until the very last minute (“2046” nearly didn’t make it to the Cannes Film Festival, and the filmmaker had to rush the print to the south of France moments before the premiere). That remains the case with “Blossoms,” which he has been developing for last two years. “I’ve been working like an architect and a historian, because I have to restore and rebuild the San Francisco Chinatown and part of Shanghai, which doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “That’s been very rewarding. It’s hard, but very interesting.”
He shrugged off reports from last year that he had been developing a U.S. murder drama called “Gucci” with Annapurna Pictures, and rumors that Margot Robbie was attached to star. “You get a lot of information from the internet and trade papers,” he said, “but sometimes that information is not 100 percent correct, OK?” He declined to comment further.
The typically press-shy filmmaker remained silent when later asked about the recent news surrounding Harvey Weinstein, whose company released several Wong films over the years. However, he did acknowledge Quentin Tarantino, when a journalist brought up that filmmaker’s recent interview about his relationship to Weinstein, since the “Pulp Fiction” director had played a role in championing Wong’s “Chungking Express” to American audiences through Miramax’s Rolling Thunder label. “I really appreciated that,” he said. “But the thing is, I haven’t heard much about him and we haven’t had much contact in person. But I respect him as a filmmaker.” (Watch Tarantino’s introduction to “Chungking Express” below.)
At his masterclass a day earlier, he attributed his finicky creative process to several factors, starting with writer’s block. “I hate writing, so that’s why I always don’t like to sit down and do it,” he said. “It’s the loneliest moment when you’re dealing with a piece of paper. But I have to write so I just wait until the last minute.” He explained that after the commercial failure of his second film, “Days of Being Wild,” he started his own production company and got used to working with limited resources. “The goal is to make a film we believe in and make it as good as it can be with the limitations we have,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of money or time, but we just want to make it right.”
He was especially keen on pointing out the creative freedom he enjoys while working in Hong Kong. While Wong’s 1995 “Chungking Express” highlights local fears about the 1997 handover from British rulership to the Chinese government, the country has yet to have an impact on his work. “That was our worry before the handover, but it’s obvious we over-worried because the censorship for China hasn’t applied to Hong Kong yet,” he said. “I think that makes Hong Kong a very special place…filmmakers should be aware of this. We have our space to tell stories that other Chinese filmmakers don’t.”