In the 1990s, Hong Kong was home to a staggering number of the most gifted and charismatic actors in the world. It’s impossible to imagine the films of Wong Kar Wai—or the global art-house phenomenon they generated—without these extraordinary performers; at its heart, Wong’s cinema is an ode to their star power, and their artistry anchors his explorations of time, love, memory, and urban life. But the collective story of these key collaborators remains an underappreciated one. At least in the West, appraisals of these actors’ work often focus exclusively on their beauty and glamour, neglecting their cultural resonance beyond the realm of this one celebrated auteur.
Chinese-speaking viewers who encountered Wong’s movies in the nineties would have already been familiar with Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai through the dozens of roles they had played in films and TV shows, mostly pop entertainment that conformed to the industry standard of being cheap and easy to produce. Working with Wong, these stars were able to stretch their talents and collaborate in a slower, less formulaic creative process. In front of his camera, they achieved a richness of emotion that came to define Hong Kong cinema at a particularly explosive political moment, when the former British colony was shrouded by the anxiety of its handover to Mainland China in 1997. As the local movie industry became increasingly transnational and Wong’s gaze turned outward, his stable of regular players grew to include more members hailing from elsewhere: Taiwan’s Chang Chen, China’s Gong Li.
Decades later, the intensifying geopolitical conflicts within the region have made the short-lived golden age of Hong Kong stardom—which kicked into high gear in the 1980s and began to wane at the turn of the millennium—all the more poignant. These actors have also continued to capture the imagination of Asian audiences living on the other side of the world; for those of us in the Sinophone diaspora, their performances in Wong’s breathtaking run of masterpieces offer the opportunity to see Asian talent on the big screen, portraying characters who are sexy, zany, romantic, unpredictable—everything we’ve rarely had a chance to be in American movies.
In celebration of our box set World of Wong Kar Wai, released earlier this year and now playing on the Criterion Channel, we’ve gathered an array of U.S.-based writers with roots in various parts of the Chinese-speaking world—including critics, scholars, and novelists—to share what their favorite WKW actors have meant to them. Though we haven’t covered every one of the director’s greatest stars, we hope this series of nine tributes illuminates a significant part of his films’ legacy. —Andrew Chan
Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, Spite Marriage
Despite the studio system’s stifling conditions, Buster Keaton’s follow-up to The Cameraman remains a testament to the funnyman’s singular style.
The Same Old Song: A Guide to Neonoir
Since its classic-Hollywood heyday, noir has remained a vibrant mode in both studio and independent filmmaking, taking on nostalgic resonances in the highly referential work of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, and the Coen brothers.
Carole Lombard’s Divine Lunacy
A raucous, fast-talking diva, the actor had a remarkable ability to convey both glamour and silliness, a gift that made her the queen of screwball comedy before her untimely death in 1942.
You have no items in your shopping cart