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Retrospective: The Films Of Wong Kar-Wai

by The Playlist Staff
August 19, 2013 2:00 PM
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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” (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” (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” (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” (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-]

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  • jean vigo | August 29, 2013 1:28 AMReply

    WKW is one of a kind - one of contemporary cinema's greatest working filmmakers. I can only rank his films in comparison to one another. So, a "C" compared to an "A" in his universe makes that "C" an "A" in the bigger world.
    "My Blueberry Nights" is so much more engaging than American-directed films of the same type of lovelorn wanderlust. I urge folks to watch it again.

    My dismay is with the US release of "The Grandmaster" with 20+ minutes chopped out. TWC should at least give aficionados in the US a brief run of the full cut. Friends in Asia are telling me to find the import Blu Ray and save myself the "chopping of WKW to dumb it down and remove the deeper layers." Sad, sad, sad.....

  • Evan D | August 27, 2013 7:34 PMReply

    Chungking isn't a bad movie by any stretch but the second half is too damn quirky for my liking. I'd rate Fallen Angels and Days of Being Wild above it. I realise this won't be a popular opinion.

  • Keith L | August 20, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    I never understand why people cannot follow the plot of Ashes of Time, which i think is WKW's first great movie. It basically has the same structure of 2046 (i.e. the latter is a rehash of Ashes of Time): the protagonist was left ruing for his loss love (Maggie Cheung who married Leslie Cheung's brother in AoT, and Maggie Cheung AGAIN who left Tony Leung in 2046), and met various different characters over the course of the movie which made him realise that his one true love is gone. All the characters the protagonist met are sad or had problems with love in their own way, but in both movies 1 character would get his/her happy ending (Jacky Cheung in AoT, Faye Wong in 2046). The realisation of the importance Maggie Cheung similarly came in the final parts of both movies. The internal dialogue much more memorable in AoT, and is generally regarded as iconic, in the chinese speaking world at least.

  • Adgy | August 19, 2013 5:53 PMReply

    Isn't Chang Chen the star of The Hand? Not Tony Leung?

  • Ray H | August 19, 2013 5:50 PMReply

    I recently rewatched/watched all of his films. His best are the Days of Being Wild/In the Mood for Love/2046 cycle, Happy Together, and Chungking Express. Surprisingly, I liked My Blueberry Nights and could not stand Fallen Angels. While the My Blueberry Nights was an honest failure, I found Fallen Angels to be a pretentious piece of crap. Ashes of Time is interesting but doesn't quite work. As Tears Go By is a fairly typical Hong Kong gangster flick. The Grandmaster is all over the place and never really succeeds at being any of the 3 or 4 films it tries to be.

  • Neil | August 19, 2013 5:16 PMReply

    "Hua Yang De Nian Hua" is actually a rather sad montage of clips. The song playing in the background is an ode to happier times before WWII. There is a clip in the montage of a bombing raid. After that clip the subtle shimmers of the clips before are replaced with more violent flashes that I see as alluding to the bombing. The short film is melancholy in the vein of "In the Mood for Love" and "2046". Yet Wong Kar-wai as we all know is not always a pessimist. If anything "The Grandmaster" is hopeful for the cultural heritage it tries to engage with.

  • Nidsam | August 19, 2013 4:01 PMReply

    Yesssssss. A+ to In the Mood for Love, that's a rarity on The Playlist and a well-deserved one. You guys should do a hall of fame or something, keep a permanent and updated record somewhere on the site of the grades all these movies get in your retrospecs and features as well as the new reviews, kind of like they do on The Millions with books. It'd be a much better cine-barometer than the badly flawed Rotten Tomatoes.

  • Caroline | August 19, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    Yuddy is played by Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild, not Andy Lau. I love WKW and Christopher Doyle.

  • wes | August 19, 2013 3:38 PMReply

    Wong Kar-Wai is one of my all-time favorite directors. I rank him among folks like Tarkovsky, Ozu, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Kieslowski, and Antonioni. I'd grade his films like so:
    As Tears Go By: B-
    Days of Being Wild: A-
    Chungking Express: A+
    Fallen Angels: B+
    Ashes of Time: C
    Happy Together: A
    In the Mood For Love: A+
    2046: A

  • wes | August 19, 2013 4:29 PM

    I take it back, Fallen Angels: A-

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