CINEMA 21: WONG KAR-WAI
by Sean Hespell
“For me, shooting an action scene is no different from shooting a love scene. What really matters is what happens before the penetration and not after.” ~ Wong Kar-Wai
Currently ranked third on Sight and Sound’s poll of top 10 directors of modern times, Wong Kar-Wai, not unlike the enchanting images captured below, could very well be identified as the quintessential freeze-frame of 1990s Hong Kong cinema. Each WKW film, though undeniably unique in perspective, contains similar themes and filmic aesthetics that provide a universal understanding and a level of coexistence that is rarely obtained by a filmmaker or artist for that matter. A deconstruction of any WKW film must be clear and provocative, yet thorough. That is why, for the sake of this introduction, I am going to cover the basics, confident that it will be enough for those not already a member of the club to use as a way in. However, before understanding WKW as a filmmaker, it is important to unveil his post-modern disposition.
Brief Glimpse of Chinese Cinema (1940s-60s)
During the unbending growth of a thriving propagandist censorship responsible for nearly twenty years of communist dominion, the Chinese film industry blossomed. Mass production of a dogmatic and cultivating film society began and soon fashioned itself as a massive consumer‘s market, obscuring the presence of cinema as an art.
These creative influences were merely a faint glow in the shadow of the Communist Party of China and so the essence of Chinese-language cinema inevitably shifted to Hong Kong.
Born in Shanghai in 1958, WKW remained in mainland China for all of 5 years before his parents made plans to leave for Hong Kong. When they arrived the switch became more than a simple transition due to a major language difference. WKW, accustomed to Shanghainese and Mandarin, was not familiar with the isolated, Cantonese dialect of Hong Kong. This communication barrier resulted in a difficult year or two of adjusting and many days spent at the local cinema with his mother; a celebrated memory of Wong’s which lead to an early appreciation of European and Western cinema as well as a mix of Cantonese (native Hong Kong dialect) and Mandarin (dominant dialect of the Mainland émigrés).
WKW developed an interest in graphic design and began attending school at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. After graduating in 1980, he pursued a career in television, eventually landing a position as screenwriter/director through an apprenticeship with Hong Kong actor/producer Alan Tang who starred in the 1976 romantic-comedy Run Lover Run—the film also co-starred Bridgette Lin who played a role in a number of Wong Kar-Wai‘s films.
After eight years in creative custody, his producer offered him the chance to direct a film in the popular gangster genre. Seemingly crafted under the influence of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1974), As Tears Go By (1988) is a poignant character study/discovery in the midst of the unrelenting violence of the gang realm. Critics backed WKW ’s surprising dexterity as a first-time director. The fact that such a mutual anticipation was realized this early in his career is remarkable; perhaps a sentiment to WKW ’s surprising and salient maturity. For now, As Tears Go By ’s success at the box office proved WKW ’s validity as a director and Tang was more than willing to produce his next feature.
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Days of Being Wild was the result of the combined forces of the so-called “holy trinity”: WKW, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and legendary art director William Chang. While it was a commercial failure, critics were astonished by the films intensity and level of artistic innovation, particularly the glorious camerawork displayed by Doyle. A moody piece set in Hong Kong in 1960; Days of Being Wild is saturated in ambiguity and relatable characters in search of answers. Here WKW first established a state of permeable romanticism which is fundamentally explored in all of his films.
The film follows Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a charming yet romantically dispassionate young man, who becomes intimate with a young, beautiful store attendant; Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung). Su ’s affection is sparked by a shared minute of intimacy with Yuddy at 2:59 on April 16th, 1960; “Because of you, I’ll remember that one minute” Yuddy declares and it cannot be denied.
Su gradually falls in love but Yuddy ’s attachment issues prevent a relationship between the two. A chain of events, intersecting the lives of the few individuals affected by Yuddy ’s actions, or inaction, unfolds in unresolved and missed opportunities. This concerning and fruitful sensitivity reminds us just how, consequentially, mere moments in time are of invariably eternal significance.
Wong’s status as a postmodern auteur sees him delve into [these] ‘moments’ that are linked to both history and the personal, whether directly or indirectly. Notions of identity and the ever-present fusion between East and West find context in the themes of love, loneliness and alienation that pervade his protagonists. Tensions between the past and present are linked to memory, desire, time, space and environment. In both Days of Being Wild and it’s counterpart, In the Mood for Love, Wong recreates a ‘60s Hong Kong that is both nostalgic and contemporary, evoking both tradition and modernity. (1)
It wasn’t until WKW established his production company Jet Tone Studios, however, that he was given full artistic and financial stability as a filmmaker. This freedom endorsed his next film, Ashes of Time.
Ashes of Time (1994)
With Ashes of Time it would be safe to say that WKW had intentions of grandeur. His passion for storytelling reached a new level of innovation; as though contemplating the divergences of relaxation and enjoyment to those who seek the possibilities of cinema. This is where WKW joined a number of transcendental and visionary filmmakers—i.e. Jean-Luc Godard,Andrei Tarkovsky , Krzysztof Kieslowski and many others; all who command a deep understanding of cinematic exploration.
Not only does Ashes of Time establish an entirely poetic narrative but the film is, visually, a crowning achievement. Over a year of shooting went into the production of the martial arts epic and resulted in a masterwork in photography. With the help of a $40 million dollar budget in their second WKW collaboration, Doyle and Chang crafted a gorgeous mise-en-scène within the deserts of mainland China; guaranteed to astonish viewers. As if this cinematic beauty wasn’t enough, the films legendary cast of the most renowned, hard-working actors in Hong Kong at the time (Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Bridgette Lin, Maggie Cheung), just about assured box office success. However, the film surprisingly failed to find an audience and went down in history as a financial disaster. Whether the commercial/financial blame was a result of poor marketing decisions, over-budgeted production costs or its complicated themes it doesn’t matter, Ashes of Time remains a timeless work of art.
Chungking Express (1994)
The intensity of editing Ashes of Time sparked the idea for WKW ’s next film. He merely wanted a change of pace; a film shot on-the-go in the very streets Hong Kong as far away from the desert as possible. The spontaneity of it all established the tone and the off-beat narrative was carefully assembled in unscripted, natural sanctity. Within 3 months, Chungking Express (1994) was completed.
All this took place during the post-production of Ashes of Time yet was assembled with intense passion and care. Gradually establishing himself as a director who doesn’t work with scripts, WKW throws his actors into a variety of chaotic affairs and tender romances, often allowing them artistic freedom in defining their character and conforming solely to the single ideology that motivates the desired expression. Emphasis on what philosophies—affection, concern, desire—are exposed establishes a rhythm and brings a singular attitude to each performance. The fundamental uncertainty of it all is something that each actor must work out for themselves.
As with Days of Being Wild , WKW [once again] employs a signature ‘paralleling’ and ‘intersecting’ rhetoric in which his characters arbitrarily cross paths (1)—weaving the characters’ impulsive behavior with the films stunning, atmospheric mythos. This method of accented sentiment’ is what distinguishes WKW from most other romantics in the industry today.
The use of music in WKW ’s films always serves a purpose. Specifically in Chungking Express, WKW , much like the camera techniques of his cinematographer, moves in and out of romantic intimacy—dealing with multiple impulses over a specific timeframe and consistency. Varieties of thematic, musical queues speculate emotion and insinuate the current mood. “Musical repetition is often employed to articulate that which is unsaid or that which cannot be expressed via words and dialogue.” (1) Just as Faye’s (Faye Wong) character development is accented by the insinuating lyrics and nostalgia of The Mamas and the Papas’ ‘60s hit California Dreamin’, WKW subtly enhances the viewer’s emotional connection to what is being communicated on screen—inevitably grasping your attention in one way or another.
*WKW*’s next two films expound upon this transformative treatment of music and visual flair.
Fallen Angels (1995)
With Fallen Angels_—_WKW moves to challenge norms – pitting tense thriller, absurdist comedy, and existential drama into a tug-o-war where narrative is more often contrary than complementary. (2) In terms of sheer scope Fallen Angels is WKW ’s most fleshed out narrative outside of Ashes of Time. However, its strongest aspect is the films explosive and vividly descriptive vignettes.
The film was originally intended to be the third chapter in Chungking Express—thematically the two films are very similar. Fallen Angels conveys the darker elements of romanticism yet retains the intimacy of Chungking Express. The characters are momentarily bound to these abstract relationships as the world around them progresses ever-so steadily.
Happy Together (1997)
WKW ’s first film outside the borders of China was also his first to be recognized internationally, winning him Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Happy Together takes us half way around the world to the heart of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Following the lives of two individuals WKW explores the intimacy of a sympathetic relationship from the perspective of a gay couple in the midst of reviving their relationship. Many refer to Happy Together as the film that formed the bridge between WKW ’s two styles of approach. Fallen Angels and In The Mood For Love are questionable in familiarity but Happy Together fills the gap and it all comes together rather, well, happily.
In The Mood For Love (2000)
For his next endeavor WKW took a nostalgic leap back in time to revisit an old friend. He desired to expand the focus of Days of Being Wild to accommodate his need for further exploration, or recollection, of that era—the irrecoverable condition of a past history remembered from WKW ’s own childhood memories. The result was a ‘sequel’ of sorts set two years after Days of Being Wild.
The film looks gorgeous. This is simply one of the most delicate and sensual means of storytelling ever displayed—an intensely insatiable film full of photographic splendor. Once again, Doyle & Chang were able to stockpile their collective brilliance into nothing less than spellbinding perfection and funnel it out one frame at a time. Such evocative measures help translate WKW ’s distinctive mood to a wonderful tale of nostalgia and recollection.
In The Mood For Love identifies the problematic affiliation of—again with a minimal cast—two individuals as they simultaneously undergo a fascinating transformation. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and So Lai-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) are neighbors in a small, Hong Kong apartment complex.
Engaged in daily routines and business ventures, the two often cross paths. From the first few minutes of the film an obvious tone of sensuality between them implies a significant dilemma as their friendship propels to a now deeper level of intimacy. Attempting to classify this relationship becomes more and more difficult as the film plays out.
What is fascinating is that this story only provides the basis for an exploration- this ranges from the sumptuously sensory experience of evoking a past era (almost as if heightened by memory), exploration (and interpolation) of the emotions of the characters, stretched by longing and inner torment, and the unique connection between film and viewer: what is known and what isn’t, how something is felt and perceived. (2)
It is a restless moment.
She has kept her head lowered,
to give him a chance to come closer.
But he could not, for lack of courage.
She turns and walks away.
That era has passed.
Nothing that belonged to it exists any more.
He remembers those vanished years.
As though looking through a dusty window pane,
the past is something he could see, but not touch.
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct. (1)
This passage alone depicts the enormity of time’s effect on memory.
A third act began to unravel on the set of In The Mood For Love as the final chapter in this ‘love trilogy’. 2046 extends the ambience of the first two films while expanding on quite a bit. Tony Leung’s character has aged by only a few years and yet, oddly, his demeanor tells a different story. Now a womanizer, an ambitious one at that, his restless behavior is reminiscent of the charming but conflicted Leslie Cheung from Days of Being Wild yet with a slightly more mature attitude. There is a parallel taking place throughout the film—1960’s Hong Kong fused with a futuristic, almost dreamlike alter-reality set in the year 2046 where emotion is slightly exaggerated and formality and impulse often clash.
Visually this film is remarkable. The potential to lose yourself in the aesthetics and photography almost requires a second viewing. The music is some of the most enchanting of WKW ’s entire oeuvre (Secret Garden’s Adagio theme will take your breath away).
2046 is a film where WKW goes deeper into the place, the secret, the ‘whispering hole’ that is his art…the patient viewer will find it is one of WKW ’s richest and most touching films to date. (2)
WKW suggests rather than tells his stories; fortifying his characters in their humanistic fidelity and allowing the viewer to formulate assumptions. He is concerned with the deepest vigor of faith and integrity in the human condition and the chilling uncertainty in which a mere reflective moment can bring down a castle wall if not taken to heart. Here—in his films—lies the essence of humanity: a humbling aversion to fulfillment and a desire for ever-elusive potential. That relentless charm and charisma is what solidifies WKW as a modern master of cinema and a timeless impressionist of the past in the present.
1. Senses of Cinema: Wong Kar-Wai
2. Chasing the Metaphysical Express
3. Strictly Film School
This is great, Sean. I’ve told the boardmembers at www.wongkarwai.net about the write-up.
And I’m glad you left out My Blueberry Nights. Some things are best forgotten.
Hey I really appreciate that :) Thanks a lot. Is that sight basically a giant WKW message board?
I didn’t leave out My Blueberry Nights intentionally I just didnt have much left to say regarding WKW’s style that hasnt been said about his previous films :/ hah
oops, I forgot to post this in The Garage portion of the site :( is that ok?
I’m here! ( and reading it now, i’ll get back to you about it soon!) also, tell your mom that if she thought the moon was pretty last night, to check it out tonight, even prettier, i think.
Thanks I will. I just hope the moderators get here on ASAP o.O
Sean, that was remarkably written, you have quite a knack for informative prose. :)
and yeah, hopefully the moderators get here, you just posted a beautifully written essay and this douchebag is plastering his smut all over it.
talk about incredibly disrespectful.
Thanks a lot Nausikaa, I wrote an essay on Orson Welles once but this was more fun for me and a lot more enlightening :P
yeah so anyway, I especially enjoyed your section on in the mood for love. The addition of the passage is a beautiful summation of exactly what you said, time’s effect on memory. Seriously, this essay is better than most of the film essays I wrote in college. :) Its very informative, but as I said in my earlier post, your prose is quite diverse, which keeps the essay interesting. You really emphasized how WKW’s work truly is work of visual mastery.
Happy Together is the next thing coming in my netflix queue. I’m quite excited for it.
I just went back today and read my papers I wrote on christopher nolan and luis valdez when I was in school. Not even close to as good as yours. lol
I love that passage. It could have been written for any of his films really. Its the visual tendencies that separate them for me :) the way he tells his stories cannot be explained on paper or in script format. I find that beautiful and invaluable.
Thanks again for the compliments I havent written in quite a while so this was a real struggle :P
EDIT: I’d like to read them though! Especially the Chris Nolan one his films are quite involving and we are all critical of our own work so Im sure they are quite good :P
I’d like to add more to the Nolan one (even though its already 10 pages…. but thats double spaced so it’s really not that much). I felt like with the paper I couldn’t go into the depth I wanted to because my professor didn’t want me to write the paper on Nolan in the first place. So the paper came across more as a defense with too much explanation of the actual events of the films than anything else, but I can send it to you if you want. She did give me an A on it, lol :) and it was before dark knight came out, which would have made my paper way better. I wrote much better literary analysis than film analysis in college.
Definitely send me some of them :)
The story for In the Mood for Love was inspired by a short story called Intersection Liu Yi-chan which is included in the Criterion dvd. I heard it was also inspired by Fei Mu on Spring in a Small Town.
There’s an excellent review of the film at Reverse Shot.
Excellent article Sean!
I especially appreciate his choice of music. It acts as a commentary on the themes of love, lonelines and urban isolation and sometimes becomes the preferred means of communication – even when its repetitious as ‘California Dreamin’ was in Chungking Ex. (which became Faye’s trademark) Much of his universal appeal, imo, is due to the multicultural nature of his music which I’ve heard expressed as “Wong’s global jukebox.” :) On the merits of the soundtrack, I think Blueberry Nights redeems itself. It’s an impressive collection that stands on its own apart from the film and features a wide range of great music, new and old, from R&B, Soul, Rock, Folk and Jazz.
Thanks Nohea! ’preciate it
I couldn’t agree more. I think I heard someone mention this before but if Wong wasnt a filmmaker he would make an excellent DJ :) I could write an entire article on his music alone :/ I wish I would have talked about that more but there is so much already to talk about…
Damn fine intro, Sek. Gives me a newfound appreciation for the films I’ve seen and a strong impetus for the ones I still need to catch up on. More than anything I want to rewatch Chungking Express immediately ;)
i’ve always found him to be a rather ‘shallow’ director. maybe i should revisit.
Joks, what have you seen by him that made you think so? I can absolutely imagine people feeling that way, though. There’s such an onslaught of style in his works that you often forget about the characters.
JR – Thanks a lot! Im glad you feel that way :)
Joks, I encourage you to watch Days of Being Wild. The amount of depth concealed in that fllm is quite astonishing, though it may take a few viewings to find out where that depth lies. Fortunately WKW’s films are delightfully rewatchable ;)
there’s nothing better than listening to music while reading ;)
DEQ: Chungking Express, which i honestly found pointless and In The Mood For Love, which i enjoyed but didn’t love. i’ve also seen Happy Together which i thought was ok.
also, the film with Norah Jones, which was terrible, but i’ve heard that his fans generally dislike it too.
what did you find pointless about Chungking Express?
I have found that My Blueberry Nights is generally appreciated amoung those who have not seen any other WKW film. My dad loves its, which is totally understandable, but I find it more of a waste of time than anything else he has done, especially Chungking Express.