Wong Kar Wai Explains the Controversial New Restorations of His Films

“I’m tired of all this ‘cinema is dead’ shit." As the Criterion Collection releases a box set of his work, Wong Kar-wai explains himself.
Wong Kar Wai Explains the Controversial New Restorations of His Films
"In the Mood for Love"

Wong Kar Wai’s emails are every bit as restrained, oblique, and poetic as you might expect from someone who wears sunglasses to the movies and conjured “In the Mood for Love,” but the right question (or maybe the wrong one) can trigger a sudden pulse of raw emotion.

Ask Wong if he’s concerned about the future of film, for example, and he responds with the rare answer that isn’t slightly canned or softened by metaphor: “I’m tired of all this ‘cinema is dead’ shit. People enjoy watching movies, period. What makes them hesitant are the risks (under COVID) and the costs of watching films in cinemas today. For people who really care about the future of cinema, I suggest they go buy a ticket to support their local cinemas when they reopen, because many of them are barely surviving. Or at least keep positive.”

These days, however, Wong seems to be less focused on cinema’s future than he is on its past. It’s been almost a decade since the release of the famously exacting auteur’s most recent film, “The Grandmaster.” Now, he’s back on set at long last to direct the pilot of the TV series he’s producing from Jin Yucheng’s novel “Blossoms,” and seems happy about it so far. “I am lucky to be working with my crew in a safe space in Shanghai,” he said, adding that his characters “shall be fine under lockdown” and citing the way Cop 663 talks to his soap in “Chungking Express” as proof that “they always find a way to deal with living in their own worlds.”

However, much of his energy in recent years has been devoted to personally supervising the 4K restorations of his older work.

Those restorations, compiled in a staggeringly beautiful new box set from the Criterion Collection, have proven controversial. When screenshots began to circulate online towards the end of 2020, Wong’s fans were surprised (and in several cases quite distressed) to find that the movies no longer matched their fondest memories of them. Some people, having first encountered and forever adored “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” on DVDs that stretched the aspect ratios to 1.85:1, saw the boxier 1.66:1 frames to which these films had finally been returned as a kind of betrayal, similar to how you might resent an old Polaroid for suggesting that you’ve been gaslit by your own wistful imagination.

Already so extreme in its fish-eyed view of Kowloon at night, the crepuscular “Fallen Angels” had been warped into CinemaScope and recolorized in a way that left some champions of Wong’s darkest film — who’ve spent the last 25 years insisting that it’s less hostile than its reputation — wondering if they’d always misremembered it. By the time word got out that “Happy Together” was now missing bits of voiceover that had burned off the negatives in a recent fire, it felt as if we might be careening towards the arthouse equivalent of the Star Wars Special Editions.

For Wong, however, revisiting his previous films was only worth doing because it was done in such an aggressive way. “When a film needs to be restored,” he emailed, “there are always things that can be fixed, otherwise why bother with the restoration in the first place.” True enough, but who’s to say what’s broken? To this, Wong replied that he was “concerned with the limits of how much we should fix in each film without hurting it. But limits, like beauty, is a relative term — it is set in the mind of the beholder.” In other words: Mileage may vary, but he’s driving the car.

And yet, actually watching Wong’s films in this context — the eight that are included in Criterion’s set, and also the three that aren’t — has the power to seduce you to the Dark Side and convince you of something that screenshots alone never could: These restorations are all the more faithful to the collective spirit of their source material because of the changes that have been made to them. From a certain perspective, they even crystallize the same elusive wisdom that Wong’s characters have been chasing as tears go by. Nothing can ever be exactly like it was, even (or especially) if it was never that way in the first place. As Olivier Assayas once put it in a speech honoring his friend at the Lumiere Film Festival: “[Wong’s characters] are beings haunted by the nostalgia of what they have not known.”

Which isn’t to say Wong was unprepared for the controversy. Along with the digital release of the restorations, he included a note defending the decision to prioritize his original vision for these films over a perfect fidelity to our memories of them. An even more poetic version of that disclaimer can be found in the folds of the Criterion booklet, but the key passage has been carried over: “As the saying goes: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’” And later, for emphasis: “I invite the audience to join me in starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.”

Wong had graduated to a new metaphor by the time he wrote to IndieWire earlier this week. “As someone once said: ‘Art is a never-ending dance of illusions,’” he wrote. “It is impossible for us to dance exactly like we did before. What has really changed is not the films but the man on the floor.”

Whatever your choice of imagery, it’s understandable that such a revisionist approach might seem at odds with a fluid and slippery body of work that fixates on the past as the one thing that nobody is able to change. The beautiful people in Wong’s films twist and sway through the world like kites on a string, all of them so tethered to long-expired memories (which knot around food, kitsch, music, kung fu, and sometimes even the dreams of an imagined future) that they can only float through the present as tourists, as much in exile from their heartbreak as Wong became from his birthplace of Shanghai when his family relocated to Hong Kong on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution, leaving two older siblings behind.

“Fallen Angels”

It might seem perverse for Wong to thaw his time capsules back into a liquid state (especially the ones that serve as flashbulb memories of pre-handover Hong Kong), and retcon their flavor to an extent that might throw cold water on the romantic connection that some people have to his films. The changes to the 4K restorations are almost exclusively aesthetic in nature, but Wong — notorious for unscripted shoots that stretch on for years at a time and a purgatorial editing process — should understand better than anyone the subliminal alchemy that separates an emotional touchstone from a can of old pineapples. He certainly understands that refitting “Chungking Express” into a different aspect ratio or slathering “Fallen Angels” under a new layer of saturation are not just superficial tweaks: “I never differentiate the look of a film from its shape,” he emailed. “For me, they always come together like bacon and eggs.”

Wong should also be wary of trying to erase his own footprints. The harder that his characters try to forget the past, the more they’re condemned to remember it. That ironic cause and effect is appropriately at its most obvious in Wong’s otherwise inscrutable wuxia epic “Ashes of Time,” but you can see it scattered across all of his films — even these earlier, less orderly ones. “Days of Being Wild” first suggests that Leslie Cheung’s womanizing Yuddy is ready to spend the rest of his life inside the snow globe of a single minute he once shared with Maggie Cheung. The truth leaks out that Yuddy is hopelessly trying to unmoor himself from a more distant memory stemming from a more distant place; like a bird who spends its entire life in the air only to discover that it hasn’t flown anywhere it couldn’t have walked, Yuddy dies just a few miles down the track from where he was born. As Assayas described Wong’s characters in that same address: “They are beings haunted by the nostalgia of what they have not known.”

The same might be said of Wong himself. Using these restorations to satisfy his own lingering nostalgia for the versions of his films that he was never able to realize, Wong affirms that he’s as much like his characters as people tend to assume. “With all of my films, there is always the temptation [to re-edit],” he told IndieWire, “but I have mostly managed to overcome myself by not giving in to it.”

“Chungking Express”

Mostly, but not completely. In 2013, Harvey Weinstein went in on “The Grandmaster” with the intention of shredding Wong’s delicate kung fu epic for its American release as he had done to so many films of its genre before. Recognizing how even a single punch out of place might dilute the flavor of the most ambitious thing he’d ever made — and perhaps sensing a rare opportunity to remold one of his masterpieces after it had already come out of the kiln — Wong took a proactive approach and personally oversaw the new edit. “‘The Grandmaster’ is very specific,” he said of his Ip Man biopic at the time, “because non-Chinese viewers don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.”

Those changes proved controversial as well (an exhaustive list of the differences between the 130-minute Chinese cut and the 108-minute one released in the U.S. can be found here). Maybe Wong was overeager to reach back into that proverbial tree, or perhaps he was just too close to the material to see how its new form played like a poorly auto-corrected version of something that was never at risk of being lost in translation to begin with. Either way, the American version of “The Grandmaster” is a pale imitation of the original, and the film has never found its rightful place in the upper echelons of Wong’s canon because Western audiences have never been able to see it properly.

And that was hardly Wong’s first rodeo. First came the even more unwieldy and maligned “Ashes of Time.” Four years after the film bowed to a muted response in 1994, Wong visited a shuttering film lab and discovered that his original negatives were already starting to disintegrate. He became obsessed with returning his arid wuxia abstraction to the glory it had only experienced in his own mind.

“Happy Together”

The decidedly mixed response to his 2008 “Ashes of Time Redux” didn’t shake his conviction that he had succeeded. “We came across audiences who hated it,” he wrote to IndieWire, “because ‘Redux’ was not exactly how they had remembered the film. What they did remember was the shaky and grainy versions copied from pirated tapes to smokey video rooms in their hometowns. What they embraced was not the film itself, but the experience of watching it. It makes me very proud to know that some of my films live in some people’s memories, and I respect their frustrations.”

“However,” Wong continued, pivoting towards the river of new restorations that he’s just finished, “as the filmmaker, these films also live in my head. I still vividly remember how they looked, and I have the urge to fix them as close to my original realization as possible. It would be fair for the audience who haven’t seen these films to meet them in their best forms.” And to the audiences who feel that the man who made these films is no longer the ultimate arbiter of what their “best forms” might be? Like the hesitant tailor in “The Hand,” Wong can only hope to thread the needle between memories and reality. “Wim Wenders once said that his films were personal, but never private,” he mused. “That sounds about right to me.”

Wong’s quixotic efforts to satisfy his own nostalgia may irritate people who aren’t ready to detach themselves from their own. But just as Tony Leung’s character in “2046” can only make peace with the pain he still carries from “In the Mood for Love” by imagining a future that’s nothing but a faint echo of his unresolved past, Wong’s films are the source of his regrets, and these restorations his only way of quieting them. The essence of Wong’s cinema isn’t that his characters are cured of their memories, but rather that they find a way to live with them. No man ever steps in the same river twice, but it is only because these are not the same films that they allow us to trace how we are not the same people.

Or, as Wong emailed: “The point of our restoration is not to confront or resolve any problems, but to keep the tree that holds these whispers well and healthy.”

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