“Pleasure,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “is a safer guide than either right or duty.” Surely this is true when it comes to watching films. While cinema can be edifying, most of us go to the movies to be set free from our daily lives and carried off to a world richer, more delightful, and more resonant than our own. Few films do that better than those of Wong Kar Wai, the Hong Kong auteur whose iconic sunglasses are more famous than many other directors’ movies. With his blend of pop exuberance and alienated melancholy, he is one of those rare filmmakers whose work is always recognizably their own: you can feel his presence in every ticking clock (there are scads), in every shiver of photogenic heartbreak, in every moment of inspired silliness—such as a policeman talking to his bar of soap. Yet even as they’re devoutly personal, Wong’s films also define a late-twentieth-, early-twenty-first-century cultural moment, both in Hong Kong—where his success upped the artistic ante in a notoriously money-mad film industry—and on international screens. Like Haruki Murakami on the literary scene, WKW became the first Asian filmmaker to occupy the leading edge of cool globally.
Along the way, Wong has, of course, won countless awards and honors. In Sight & Sound’s most recent international critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time (from 2012), In the Mood for Love was the only member of the top twenty-five to come from this millennium. Yet one finds the true measure of his achievement out in the world, where his influence is plainly apparent in acclaimed work that’s as crazily diverse as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Matthew Weiner’s television series Mad Men (which introduces its hero, Don Draper, with a shot borrowed directly from WKW), Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (where, oddly, Wong is cross-pollinated with Andrei Tarkovsky).
If anything, audiences are even more smitten. Wong makes movies that viewers everywhere fall in love with—it’s not for nothing that Time critic Richard Corliss dubbed him “the most romantic filmmaker in the world.” As is evident from the films in this collection—seven of his most beloved features, plus his radiant anthology episode The Hand—WKW has a sensibility that is equal parts high and low, mass and mandarin. His work marries the larger-than-life glamour of golden-age-Hollywood studio moviemaking (“I like stars,” he says) to a quicksilver formal daring inspired by everyone from Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Tennessee Williams and Nan Goldin.
Nothing about Wong’s beginnings would have made anyone predict that he would become the very avatar of hipness. Born into a Shanghai family in 1958, nearly a decade into Mao’s notably unhip reign, he was uprooted at age five when, seeking better economic opportunities, his parents moved with him to Hong Kong. They left his older brother and sister behind with relatives, planning to bring them to Hong Kong when things were settled. Before they could do it, the Cultural Revolution sealed off the country. Wong didn’t see his siblings for a decade, a deprivation that added to his disorientation at suddenly being plunged into a new culture—different food, different fashion, different cinema. He spoke Shanghainese, not the local Cantonese.
Wong’s early sense of displacement and loss may help explain his ongoing fascination with both alienated heroes and the Chinese diaspora. His films have taken him and his characters to Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, and Argentina, and accentuate their sense of cultural fluidity by featuring the collision of many different languages, from multiple Chinese dialects to English, Spanish, and Japanese.
He and his parents wound up living in an apartment in Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, a short walk from where his father would manage the Bayside, a westernized nightclub (visited by the Beatles!) at the base of the very Chungking Mansions building immortalized by Chungking Express.
Just as Federico Fellini’s imagination was rooted in his home city of Rimini, much of Wong’s work has arisen from the swarming, Amarcord-esque vitality that surrounded him when he was growing up. It was in the family flat that his mother staged all-night mahjong games like those in In the Mood for Love. It was in their building that Wong met the prototypes for several of his major characters, from Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing’s heartless, pretty-boy lothario in Days of Being Wild to Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s science-fiction writer and Ziyi Zhang’s party girl in 2046. It was on Knutsford Terrace that young Wong first gazed into kung-fu schools like the one in The Grandmaster (2013) and heard the incessant polyglot pop music that would become a hallmark and driving force of his films. From the very beginning, his imagination was fired by the bustle and poetry of the Hong Kong streets.
Wong positively adored his mother, a warm, lively, supportive woman who was at once more refined than her husband and a cannier gambler. She was also a movie nut, and once in Hong Kong, the two would go to the movies almost every day. “She was my film school,” he likes to say. Wong’s mother loved nearly every genre, and she had a special sweet tooth for glamorous movies with attractive stars, a taste she clearly passed on to her son. Although such things are ultimately unknowable, it’s hard not to think that this nurturing cinematic bond with his mother helps explain why his films have nearly always had juicy female characters, even in a decade like the 1990s, when Hollywood, for instance, could barely be bothered to put women on-screen.
Although his father wanted him to do something more practical, Wong studied graphic design at Hong Kong Polytechnic, which may well have cultivated his taste (and knack) for cinematic imagery that quickly grabs the eye. He’d dreamed of making movies, and after graduating in 1980, he did what so many industry newbies did back then: he started in TV. He began a training course at a local television station, TVB, and was soon turning out scripts, earning a reputation as a screenwriter who was both enormously gifted and allergic to deadlines. He worked with film director Patrick Tam (for whom he cowrote 1987’s Final Victory) and through him met designer and editor William Chang Suk Ping, who would become his longest-standing and most important collaborator (he has worked on all of Wong’s feature films to date). Sharing Shanghainese roots and a deep aesthetic affinity, the two young men talked for hours and hours—bonding so deeply, almost telepathically, that once they began working together, Wong says, they never needed to discuss anything.
In the eighties, Hong Kong was home to a booming commercial cinema, yet even during that golden age, Wong’s ambition was too big for the city. He wanted, he once told me, to be the greatest filmmaker in the world. Although WKW himself is among the least linear thinkers I’ve ever met (it’s no coincidence that he loves jukeboxes), his attempt to reach that bold goal is best understood linearly. His most famous director of photography, Christopher Doyle, likes to say, “What comes before creates what comes after,” and this is certainly true of Wong. Every one of his films not only responds to his life and surroundings at the time of its making but is a reaction to the film that preceded it.
Of course, it’s the nature of the film business that even the boldest directors usually begin their careers with a project that producers think safe—there are thousands of conventional first films for every Breathless. And so it was with Wong’s 1988 debut, As Tears Go By, a gangster picture intended to capitalize on the boom in that genre set off by John Woo’s 1986 blockbuster A Better Tomorrow. Yet far from being pure Hong Kong, the film’s plot is reminiscent of Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese is one of Wong’s touchstones). Knife-thin Andy Lau Tak Wah plays Wah, a triad member who would like to go straight but keeps having to bail out his crazy-ass pal Fly (Jacky Cheung Hok Yau), a born loser whose hopeless desire to be a big shot keeps getting him in trouble. As if that weren’t enough, Wah is also falling for his cousin, Ngor (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk), who embodies all the decency he’d like to get to but is fated never to achieve.
As Tears Go By was a huge success in Asian markets. Its gangster story worked like a charm, providing a showcase for Wong’s actors that made other stars want to work with him. He won Lau’s best work to date, teased out Maggie Cheung’s first successful dramatic screen turn, and pushed Jacky Cheung to an almost hysterical Method ferocity worthy of comparison with Robert De Niro’s performance as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Of course, in retrospect, one is struck less by Wong’s adherence to genre rules in the film than by the moments of ambition around the edges that point forward to his later work: the magpie borrowing from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, the ultralong, music-video-style sequence set to a Cantopop cover of “Take My Breath Away,” and the fight scenes shot at half speed, then double-printed to give the action a hallucinatory blur of which Wong is uncommonly fond.
Pointing forward in a different way was the love story. Wah’s doomed relationship with Ngor (and, really, Fly) anticipates the fate of virtually every romance in Wong’s oeuvre. Whether his paramours are warm or cold, young or middle-aged, gay or straight, carnal or chaste, human or android—their loves go wrong. One might guess from this that Wong had spent his life having his heart shattered over and over, like a latter-day Elizabeth Taylor, yet exactly the opposite is true. This laureate of ill-fated love was a nineteen-year-old student when he met his future wife, Esther (Chan Ye Cheng), also Shanghainese, during a summer job at a store selling jeans. They’ve been together ever since. But life is life and art is art, and Wong’s artistic imagination runs to ruin, if only because he knows (à la Leo Tolstoy’s famous line about happy and unhappy families) that unhappy love makes for the more interesting story.
The popularity of As Tears Go By opened the way for the first truly personal WKW film, Days of Being Wild (1990), launching what would become a very loose trilogy of films (also including In the Mood for Love and 2046) set in sixties Hong Kong. Starring the hottest young actors in Hong Kong at the time, the film is a ravishing, green-hued mood piece suffused with loss and romantic agony. The story, a riff on the Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s 1969 novel Heartbreak Tango, takes place in the Shanghainese community of Wong’s youth (revealingly, the score includes music from Amarcord) and follows the rebel-without-a-cause path of the spoiled Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), who, abandoned by an unknown mother and raised by a manipulative stepmom (a scary-good Rebecca Pan), divides his time between narcissistic angst and seduction. This thuggish Romeo wounds everyone in his orbit, be it the women he seduces—sweet Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung), the brassy cabaret dancer Mimi/Lulu (Carina Lau Ka Ling)—or the men (Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung) who adore them.
In the grand sweep of Wong’s career, Days of Being Wild was both his shipwreck and his lifeboat. Audiences went in expecting a crime blockbuster. What they got was art—and they didn’t like it. The premiere audience in Hong Kong walked out in stunned, unhappy silence; in Singapore, outraged viewers slashed the cinema seats. The whole thing was a disaster—except. Except that it went on to win a slew of awards at home and abroad (including six Golden Horse awards) and is today reckoned one of the greatest Hong Kong films. Except that it showcases his inspired collaboration with his two most brilliant cocreators: William Chang, who gave the decor and costumes a stinging lushness, and bawdy Christopher Doyle, whom Wong calls “the Charles Bukowski of cinematography.” And except that, by becoming persona non grata in the Hong Kong industry, Wong was ejected headfirst into freedom. Henceforth, he would be forced to chart his own path and produce his own films. This has given him almost total control of his work.
Watching Days of Being Wild today, one finds many of the signal WKW virtues, from its shot-by-shot gorgeousness to its superb performances—Leslie Cheung is rivetingly toxic—yet one is still most taken by its unabashedly cockeyed storytelling. If the opening sequence of Yuddy hitting on Li-Zhen offers pure Hollywood pleasure—it is thrillingly enticing—the movie builds to an ending that, even thirty years later, remains shocking. When Tony Leung suddenly appears for the first time in the film, we feel we’ve entered a completely different movie, and then—what the hell?!—the end credits roll. It is probably the most daring shift of context since the famous empty-streets ending of Antonioni’s L’eclisse, a great influence on Wong.
Such audacity was just the beginning. Possessed of a Borgesian awareness of the many forking paths lurking in every story, Wong has never ceased to be a restless narrative experimenter, and his subsequent work owes little debt to linearity. Hopscotching among characters and times, he deals in open-ended finales, intertextuality, vanishing protagonists, and doubled-up stories that reflect and refract each other. While such a description may make his work sound abstract, even off-puttingly arty, his formal brio is unfailingly fun. Nowhere is this clearer than in the two films—Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995)—that established Wong’s reputation as both a cinematic youth whisperer and a Chinese heir to the joie de vivre of the nouvelle vague.
The most sheerly enjoyable and least anguished of Wong’s works—he knocked it out in a few weeks while finishing Ashes of Time (which would come out later that year)—Chungking Express whooshes across the screen like a bulletin from the front line of contemporary romance. Set in the frenetic Hong Kong of fast-food stalls and convenience stores, this joyously inventive diptych tells the loosely linked stories of two lovelorn young cops (goofy Takeshi Kaneshiro and sad-eyed Tony Leung), each of whom gets involved with an elusive woman (Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia’s blond-wigged drug dealer and Faye Wong’s snack-bar employee, respectively). Yet the movie offers more than a witty vision of modern love. It is a portrait of Hong Kong in the final glorious years before it joined China. Whereas Days of Being Wild takes place in a dreamy, eerily depopulated Hong Kong, Chungking Express is a mash note to Wong’s actual home city, with its delirious neon, cramped apartments, outdoor escalators, dingy electronics stores, sweaty restaurant kitchens, vegetable-packed street stalls, and incessant pop-culture din. Its shots stolen on the run by Wong and Doyle—whose visual flair here has inspired hundreds of copycats—the film is a triumph of giddy lyricism. Few modern movie scenes are more delightful than Faye Wong doing a blissed-out boogie to “California Dreamin’,” a hilariously deadpan dance that has been known to leave audiences applauding.
But while it feels breezy, Chungking Express is actually highly worked. The two parts are filigreed with Nabokovian reflections and correspondences. The first episode takes place at night, in the messy, immigrant-thronged streets of Kowloon; the second is set in sunshine, across the harbor on Hong Kong Island. These two parts mirror each other in many ways, from the motif of the heroes’ food, to the constant and precise references to time (one of Wong’s obsessions), to the way the sunlit dance to the Mamas & the Papas echoes a slinky nighttime dance to Dennis Brown’s reggae classic “Things in Life.” Such mirroring is at once an authorial signature, a way of binding together the two sides of Hong Kong, and a reminder that we aren’t merely watching a series of random urban scenes but entering a densely imagined cinematic city filled with mysterious, subterranean connections.
All this doubling was doubled again in the next year’s visually dazzling Fallen Angels, itself a diptych bursting with internal echoes. But where the earlier film was a warm charmer whose heroes are policemen, this one is about crooks—a hit man (Leon Lai Ming) and his runner (Michelle Reis), a gleefully psycho hooligan (Kaneshiro again)—and is almost deliberately charmless. Lai and Reis give uninviting performances; Kaneshiro’s antics are grating; and Wong’s use of wide-angle lensing, while deftly emphasizing the emotional distance between the characters, makes almost every scene alienating. (The only real heart in the film comes in Kaneshiro’s relationship with his father, which was added when Chang said he found the first cut too cold and inhuman.) By the time the film reaches its transcendent motorbike ending—the sky peeking between the skyscrapers to the sound of the Flying Pickets singing “Only You”—no one could be blamed for feeling exhausted. That said, the film’s chilliness was part of Wong’s aim, which wasn’t to copy Chungking Express but to rotate it on its axis and follow its forking paths somewhere new. Indeed, some critics prefer Fallen Angels, which they see as critiquing the earlier film’s blithe spirits, the way The Godfather, Part II comments on and desentimentalizes The Godfather.
With these two films, both set in a luminous, youthful now, WKW became a directorial brand—and a target, at home and overseas. Hong Kong comedies parodied his emblematic visual effects, such as crowds flowing like rivers in front of characters moving at regular speed. Flaunting a dismal aesthetic puritanism, a few old-school critics accused him of serving up mere eye candy, while some others faulted his films for resembling MTV and advertising. Leaving aside the fact that Wong’s style changes constantly to fit the particular story he is telling, the fact is that he doesn’t embrace beautiful and arresting imagery for its own sake alone. He has always been searching for new ways to capture pain, yearning, desire, and exuberance. Surely we’ve all had that sense of being in a crowd and feeling it whoosh irrelevantly by because we’re so caught up in our own feelings. And if Wong uses some techniques familiar from commercials and music videos, it isn’t to sell viewers something—he’s simply extending the visual and aural language of today to pull audiences into his story’s emotions.
Yet even as this husband and father was being charged with callowness, he had already moved on—to Buenos Aires, of all places—where he was shooting a film stripped clean of cuteness and shot through with psychic damage and pain. Another fractured love story, Happy Together (1997) centers on the highly sexual, highly agonized relationship between two Hong Kong travelers to Argentina: the enticing, abusive Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and his lover, the sober, essentially good-hearted Yiu-Fai, played by Tony Leung in the first of his world-class dramatic performances for Wong.
This tango-lashed triumph quickly, and reductively, became known as WKW’s “gay film,” and Happy Together was daring for many Asian viewers—it was groundbreaking to see two male superstars in a sex scene together. But its theme of dangerous love was nothing new for Wong. Doyle may have done his finest work in the film’s high-contrast look, with its spiky, Nan Goldin–inflected interiors, luridly lovely Argentine boulevards, and rapturously overwhelming shots of Iguazú Falls. Thematically, Wong uses Yiu-Fai’s tortured relationship with Po-Wing (and happier one with Chang Chen’s Taiwanese character, Chang) to make oblique commentaries on loss and recovery, cultural identity, the Chinese diaspora, and the looming issue of Hong Kong’s handover to China, which took place six weeks after Happy Together premiered at Cannes (where it won Wong best director). It posed a tacit question that resounds to this day: Can Hong Kong and the mainland truly be happy together?
By this point, Wong, Doyle, and Chang had elaborated a style, at once jittery and gorgeous, that had become so reflexive that this easily bored trio grew eager to try something radically different. The result was Wong’s most beloved and acclaimed film, In the Mood for Love (2000), whose elegant, gliding camera work moves through the claustrophobic apartment hallways and shadowy, nocturnal streets of a sixties Hong Kong taken straight from Wong’s childhood. The story of this memory film could hardly be simpler. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung (both fabulous) star as Mo-Wan and Li-Zhen (an older version of the character in Days of Being Wild?), middle-aged neighbors who, discovering that their spouses are having an affair, themselves begin secretly meeting—will they, too, become lovers?
Wong has said that all his films are like musicals except that the actors don’t sing. He pushes this notion to the extreme in In the Mood for Love, a film of glances and hints and insinuations propelled by Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme,” probably the most haunting movie theme of the past quarter century. (Merely to hear it is to have the film’s images flood your mind.) So little is actually said—even the finale at Angkor Wat is elusive—that In the Mood for Love does feel like a musical, or perhaps a dance; in fact, the Shanghai Ballet performed a version of it in 2007. Considering the budgets he has had, Chang is probably the greatest film designer of our time, and in concocting the film’s burnished surface—the flats, the hairdos, the costumes—he outdid even himself. The twenty-odd cheongsams (or qipaos) in which he dressed Cheung are so exquisite that even my hard-to-impress editors at Vogue once had me write a piece about them. WKW has always been a director hard to catch in the act of being deep, and In the Mood for Love is so seductively beautiful that it would be easy to write it off as all facade. Yet the essence of Wong’s art lies in the disjunction between the allure of the surfaces of his world and the yearning, disappointment, and failure that lie beneath. The film may draw us in with its stylistic opulence, but it holds us with our (hopeless) desire to see Leung and Cheung be happy together, a complicated feeling nicely caught in the Chinese title, which translates as “Kind of like the most beautiful times.”
If Wong has an inescapable theme aside from failed love, it is time, in its many permutations—minute-by-minute time, historical time, geological time, psychological-experiential time, not to mention the interplay among them. Celebrating evanescent moments in which ordinary reality yields glimpses of magic—few directors are fonder of gestures and grace notes—his work is flush with clocks, chronological leaps, and the workings of time’s teasing paramour, memory. All this comes together in 2046 (2004), a film whose title pointedly marks the final year of Hong Kong’s fifty-year existence as a quasi-autonomous administrative region of China and whose story at once evokes a futuristic world and offers a parable about being caught in a nostalgic past that isn’t nearly as glorious as one remembers it.
As Fallen Angels did with Chungking Express, 2046 reworks and refracts In the Mood for Love. We’re back again in the Hong Kong apartments of Wong’s childhood, and Tony Leung is again our star, again playing Mo-Wan, who is haunted by his memory of Li-Zhen. But this time, the theme is not bottled-up desire, and the style has lost its enchanting lushness. Sporting a Clark Gable mustache, Mo-Wan is now a caddish science-fiction writer whose romantic sadism is all the more insidious because he smiles so sweetly. He works his charm on several of Asia’s most famous leading ladies, including Carina Lau (playing another Mimi/Lulu), Gong Li (playing yet another Li-Zhen), and the Chinese Madonna, Faye Wong. His seductiveness reaches its peak in his erotic encounters—first delightful, then cruel—with Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling, in a heartbreakingly passionate performance that marks the peak of her career so far. To this story line, Wong adds a second interwoven layer by conjuring up a science-fiction future taken from Mo-Wan’s writing. Once again, there’s bounteous doubling—starting with the use of much of the same cast in both story lines. In this fictive future world, Takuya Kimura (who plays Faye Wong’s lover in sixties Hong Kong) is a young man trapped on a train endlessly heading toward a city known as 2046; he falls in love with one of its android attendants, played, naturally, by Faye Wong herself.
While 2046 is one of Wong’s richest and most rewarding works, its production was so notoriously laborious and drawn-out that it shocked Cannes by needing to have its scheduled screening postponed (talk about playing with time!). One suspects that its tortured history helps explain a central imperfection: the future world feels visually and thematically undernourished compared with the imaginative fertility Wong brings to sixties Hong Kong.
Ironically, it was during a hiatus from the birth agony surrounding 2046 that WKW made his most undeniably perfect work, The Hand (here in a fifty-six-minute “extended version”), his episode from the 2004 anthology film Eros that thoroughly outshines the contribution by his old hero Antonioni. Bringing together Wong’s obsession with romance and passing time, this short follows the yearslong relationship between a beautiful, high-class courtesan, Miss Hua (a dazzling Gong Li) and the young tailor, Zhang (Chang Chen), who falls under her spell and never loses that fantasy even as her grandeur inexorably fades. Every moment glows, from Chang’s portrait of adoring ardor to Gong’s imperious star turn to Doyle’s supremely sublimated cinematography, which transforms Zhang’s way of measuring Miss Hua’s body or testing fabric into an almost fetishistic form of sensuality.
It would be invidious to suggest that the gemlike perfection of The Hand somehow makes it greater than Wong’s features. That would be like comparing a short story with a series of crackling, live-wire novels. Yet this immaculate short film is an excellent aide-mémoire for the qualities that have defined the WKW universe and made him a cultural touchstone: the deeply felt fascination with time, memory, and thwarted love; Chang’s consummate production and costume design; Doyle’s flair for catching the vibrant luminosity of the human face; and Wong’s own ability to win performances that, without ever trying too hard, carry the wallop of classic star turns. No living director treats his actors more tenderly or makes them look more beautiful.
I once asked him how he managed to get his stars to act so splendidly and look so attractive. He smiled: “I always tell my cast, I’m your safety net. Don’t worry. Jump—and I will catch you.”
One could give the same advice to those opening this collection. When it comes to pleasure, no director working offers a more reliable safety net. So don’t worry or hesitate. Jump right into these films. WKW will catch you.
The Heroic Trio / Executioners: To the Power of Three
Combining the influence of the wuxia genre, the Hong Kong New Wave filmmaking of the 1980s, and loony comic-book futurism, these two ass-kicking fantasias are dazzling showcases of female physicality.
Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year
Through its echoes, resonances, and intricately branching stories, this cycle of films evokes the feeling that life, like the weather, is based on patterns too complex to ever be fully predictable.
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