Retro: The Films of Wong Kar Wai

Perhaps the best way to describe Shanghai-born, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is as a fetishist of romance. Throughout his entire career, which spans four decades of filmmaking, the director has manifested his obsessive preoccupation with details and minutiae time and again; the little fleeting moments and impressions that that add up to a mood. “I’ve never worked with someone who’s put so much emphasis on a single moment,” Jude Law said in a New York Times interview in 2008, describing an entire night of shooting devoted to different angles and set-ups on a kiss within “My Blueberry Nights.” But the absolute focus on the smoking of a cigarette, a furtive glance, a kiss, the application of make-up or the fixing of a perfectly coiffed beehive is never unmoored to an emotion: there is a purpose to everything, even if that purpose is rarely straight-up storytelling in the classic Hollywood sense. Indeed, the criticism most frequently leveled is that WKW is a director concerned with style over content, but that seems to us a fallacy—for Wong, emotion, and not necessarily story, is the content; style exists to evoke it. And the emotional currency he deals in is romantic love, in all its forms but especially those tending to be on the melancholy end of the spectrum: love stolen, lost, unrequited, doomed, remembered but inaccessible.

But in amongst the delirious, swirling, enveloping moods he summons so brilliantly there is often a hard edge to the love affairs he details—the foolhardy, self-defeating belief by one or either party that love is, if not a game, then a competition that can be won or lost. And so his characters preemptively leave or hurt or spurn each other, for fear of future rejection. They regard the object of their affection as also part adversary, and the choreography of the romance takes on the qualities of a war, with battles won and lost along the way, strategies succeeding and failing. Which is why Wong's preoccupation with martial arts (the wuxia literary tradition of China) is not as anomalous as it may at first seem. Not only were the old, often schlocky movies and TV shows in this genre the formative viewing experiences of the lonely and isolated Wong after he moved from the mainland to Hong Kong at age 5, not speaking any Cantonese, but the thrill of the fight, the triumph and despair all seem analogous to Wong's view of romantic relationships. "The Grandmaster," which opens in the U.S. this week, is the second feature Wong has dedicated to wuxia ("Ashes of Time" being the first), but it's his first time assaying kung fu specifically. Still, neither movie represents a departure, in fact both are, in their different ways, a fusing of the martial arts Wong admires and the love stories he's drawn to tell. 

You can read our Berlin review of "The Grandmaster" here (bearing in mind that there is a different, slightly shorter U.S. cut), but if you'd rather wait until after you've seen it, here's our complete retrospective on the films of Wong Kar-wai to date to get you in, well, the mood. Read; rewatch; swoon.

As Tears Go By

As Tears Go By” (1988)
The slinky pop music of a Cantonese cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" swells, kinetic visuals blur romantically in that now iconic shuttering step-printing aesthetic and a hail of bullets, fists and kisses fly by in a flurry of violently edited images: and so marked Wong Kar-wai's arrival as an indelible and striking cinematic auteur. Modeled after Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” right down to the unhinged best friend and the girlfriend from afar, the crime melodrama “As Tears Go By” eschews the sin and guilt motif of Little Italy and hangs its tale on two parallel stories of love (one romantic, the other brotherly). A young, handsome gangster, Wah (Andy Lau), is caught between two people: the cousin he has fallen in love with, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), and the loyalty he has for his volatile triad “brother,” Fly (Jack Cheung), who is constantly getting into life-threatening trouble. Wah has a choice: leave the gangster life for Ngor or stick around to protect Fly, who is always one insult or major affront away from death. As you might imagine, it doesn’t end well. Named after a Rolling Stones song and incessantly featuring the aforementioned Berlin track (co-written by Giorgio Moroder; famously used on the "Top Gun" soundtrack) as its impossibly romantic theme, “As Tears Go By” would also announce WKW’s cosmopolitan, pop-song sensibilities that would continue through all his films. Not as emotionally potent or dramatically engaging as his later work, ‘Tears’ is slight by early Wong standards. But it’s still a helluva stylish and arresting debut that’s endlessly watchable and that shows a nascent flair that would later develop into his more artful and painterly eye. Cinematography aficionados will also remember this as the only early WKW not shot by Christopher Doyle (who would go on to shoot seven of his films in a row). “As Tears Go By” was lensed by Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, who also shot the first half of the two stories in “Chungking Express.” Lau would go on to be a director in his own right and helm the celebrated “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, which, in the cyclical way of things, was remade as “The Departed” by, of course, Martin Scorsese. [B]

Days of Being Wild

Days Of Being Wild” (1990)
Described as the Cantonese version of “Rebel Without A Cause,” WKW’s second feature would further refine and push his lush, kinetic and musically-oriented style. Fragmented, elliptical and romantic, the film was Wong's first collaboration with DP Christopher Doyle and another direct attempt to imbue the energy and pulse of the then-novel and dynamic MTV form into its narrative. Starring familiar members of WKW’s regular repertoire, “Days Of Being Wild” is a moody and brooding unrequited love ensemble drama set in 1960s Hong Kong. Disturbed by revelations about his prostitute mother, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a handsome wayward playboy, goes on a journey to the Philippines and leaves a careless trail of lovers in his wake including Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mimi (Carina Lau). They in turn confide their frustrations in other empathetic men who soon fall for them both. Far less preoccupied with plot, like many WKW films, its introspective characters narrate their emotional isolation and the complications that have created a collective atmosphere of longing and disconnection within them all (Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung and Tony Leung, also co-star). A triumph of WKW’s pop aesthetics, with heart-stopping visuals and an exotic-flavored soundtrack, “Days Of Being Wild” also has an emotional depth with its themes of alienation, sadness and rejection. While perhaps a little more feral and uneven than some of his later works (its hypnotic aura is sometimes abruptly interrupted by explosions of dynamic energy), the way WKW pours on style to articulate disconnection is tremendously engaging, and if it sometimes feels a little chaotic, more often it simply pulsates with life. [A-]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express” (1994)
Few filmmakers can capture the swooning romanticism of WKW’s breathless, old-school eroticism. He has never been one to shy away from staccato storytelling in evoking the fractures of a broken heart, and his multi-layered narratives, (which find a companion piece in the following year's “Fallen Angels,”) accurately capture the heady confusion of a fugue state in between love and passion. The first portion of “Chungking Express” concerns a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who takes a deeply philosophical view of a tumultuous breakup, one that lands him the attentions of a mysterious bewigged woman with criminal associations (Brigitte Lin). The connection between them isn’t obvious: in fact, it’s very much like a wind that blows through town, a hazy, abstract notion that nonetheless feels concrete to both of them. Trusting an arcane sense of chance, the cop nonetheless pursues her, and the two of them become intertwined almost as if transported to another world, where their regular concepts of just and unjust become secondary to the companionship offered by each other. The second story, only superficially related to the first, regards a chirpy shop employee (Faye Wong, iconic) who falls for another cop (Tony Leung), only to take it upon herself to crash into his perceived destiny, breaking into his home and providing a cleaner living environment. More playful than the elliptical beginning (but not by much; the pacing is a delight throughout), this segment finds one outside force trying to reshape someone's possible future. But it culminates in the two characters reaching a place neither had expected, as if stranded at the edge of the world, smiling wistfully. “Chungking Express” is a pop masterpiece, exploding with color and lust, not so much a story of wayward lovers as a map of the shared journey of broken and mended hearts. You don’t watch “Chungking Express”; you feel it in the moment, like a song filtering through your consciousness, that you're sure you already know, when you’re actually hearing it for the very first time. [A]

Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels” (1995)
Intended as a portion of “Chungking Express” and marked by the same dreamy stylistics that made the prior film such an ethereal delight, “Fallen Angels” takes a decidedly more fatalistic look at life, death and everything in between. Once again composed of two stories, Wong Kar-wai and ever-brilliant DP Christopher Doyle luxuriate in flourishes, damn near sexualizing the conquests of a hitman (Leon Lai) carrying on a questionable partnership with a woman (Michelle Reis). Reis’ nameless vixen supplies Lai’s hitman with target info and cleans his apartment in a pining way that feels like a polar extreme of 'Chunking’s happy-go-lucky Faye Wong. “Fallen Angels” tells stories of longing, of words unsaid, memories fading in a city without a name (Hong Kong is shot with a dreamy elegance that makes it feel both anonymous and utterly specific). The second story involves Takeshi Kaneshiro’s gentle mute pursuing a woman (Charlie Yeung) reeling from a breakup. It’s the heart of the film and a single scene where Kaneshiro remembers his father via videotapes he’d made of their day-to-day life is heartbreaking in its sincerity. Elsewhere, the characters stumbling the deserted streets and seedy alleys that dot the landscape of “Fallen Angels” are alternately chasing hazy dreams or moving through a world distanced from a more ordinary life. Which all contributes to it seeming like a weightless endeavor on the surface, when in fact “Fallen Angels” is pop-culture poetry, a film that gradually reveals itself and revels in an outpouring of deeply felt emotion. [A-]