Retrospective: The Films Of Wong Kar-Wai

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by The Playlist Staff
August 19, 2013 2:00 PM
10 Comments
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Ashes of Time” (1994)
Before there was “The Grandmaster,” there was “Ashes of Time,” Wong Kar-wai’s first go-round at the Chinese literary and filmic wuxia (literally: “Martial Hero”) genre. And it didn’t have a much easier journey to the screen than its upcoming cousin—Wong shot for over a year, with the production suffering numerous delays and rumored budget overruns. Boasting an all-star cast of major Hong Kong stars, arguably only subsequently outshone by the wattage of “2046,” “Ashes of Time,” however was a notorious flop. A restored, rescored and shorter version “Ashes of Time Redux” was released internationally in 2008 and did better, as of course by that time Wong Kar-wai had established himself on the international arthouse circuit. But whichever version you see (and it'll most likely be the Redux cut, since the reason for it was the deterioration of the original theatrical cut’s negative), it’s not difficult to fathom why the film failed to find much of an audience at first. Wrapped in semi-mythological, period package, the story is maddeningly elliptical, overpopulated with enigmatic characters whose identities shift and blend into one another as they reminisce and wax poetic about affection spurned, the nature of memory and the self-defeating lengths people go to to “win” the unwinnable game of love. But it is also quite extraordinarily beautiful to look at, with Wong experimenting with painterly post-production effects that enhance Christopher Doyle’s legendary, hypnotic shotmaking, and one particular fight scene, in which the assassin in question (Tony Leung Chui-Wai, the nearest thing to a Wong muse) must fend off seemingly hundreds of opponents while going blind, is masterfully, thrillingly evoked. Indeed, though the film may frustrate attempts to piece together a coherent plot, it’s arguably more successful than “The Grandmaster” in achieving a sustained mood, with the overtly poetic voiceover and dialogue perfectly suited to the dreamy, fluttery, sensual imagery, whether it’s bloody death or wistful regret that is being depicted. Essentially the story details an assassin’s agent (Leslie Cheung) whose woman (Maggie Cheung) pines for him even after she married his brother to spite him, who encounters a series of swordsmen, a magical wine purported to erase memory, a beautiful but penniless girl who wants to avenge her brother, and a quasi-incestuous, identical brother/sister duo who may or may not, in fact, be the same person. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but how it feels is more the point, and its heady, drifting lyricism, that marked a slight departure for Wong from the more pop-culture sensibility of what had come before, makes “Ashes of Time” worth reevaluating now. [B-]

Happy Together” (1997)
In Wong’s cinema, there are love stories, to be sure, but love is the heaviest burden of them all, leaving open wounds that, even if they heal, leave permanent scars. But when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he was for this love story about two men (frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung and pop star Leslie Cheung, who tragically committed suicide in 2003) who share a deep passion, but are otherwise all wrong for each other, the melodrama works because you get a sense of how the characters evolve and learn from their past. “Happy Together” works like our memories, offering quick glimpses and moments at a relationship that you know from the beginning can’t work, but is nonetheless compelling to watch for its raw, visceral honesty. Anybody—gay, bi or straight—who’s been with someone to whom you felt an intense connection that while meaningful, left you sad, lost and frustrated more often than not can find truth in the struggles of these two men. Watching Wong’s good films, how can you not be impressed by his command of tone, atmosphere, mood and style, and how they all coalesce to form a wholly alive, warts-and-all, cinema. He’s the eternal sensualist, tuning you on to the sounds, images and smells of the environment and somehow building a wellspring of interiorized feeling from all these exterior details. The inherent irony in the title only adds to the emotional heft and atmosphere. “Happy Together” puts you through the wringer, putting almost embarrassing private moments on display, but there’s a sense of hope left at the end when you realize the characters, damaged and lonely though they may be, are better for having met each other. [A-]

In the Mood for Love” (2000)
No other sensualist filmmaker can so quickly wrap the audience in his spell but while Wong’s films are alive, breathing, they’re also capable of changing the viewer’s perception. Watching “In the Mood for Love,” the pinnacle of his career thus far and a flat-out modern masterpiece, it’s as mood-altering as smoking some really good weed. You watch the gorgeous gliding camera, the way it dances with the music, how much time is given to take in a hallway, or a moment between two would-be lovers who never take the romantic steps they so longingly desire, and you feel different, changed by what’s on screen. It’s a haunting, absolutely stunning piece of work. The period details are lush, perfect and unbelievably evocative: this is easily the most romantic film ever about a couple who never consummate their love. Following a journalist (Leung) who moves in to an apartment in the same building as Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), the film chronicles the longing, chance encounters and missed opportunities between the pair as they realize their spouses are having an affair. Despite being cuckolded, they never stoop to the level of their partners, and instead aim for a platonic friendship, which, this being a Wong film, has its own sad realities and heartbreak. This is the last film on which the Hong Kong filmmaker would work with DP Christopher Doyle (barring some parts of “2046” and short film "The Hand"), as the production proved to be straining on their fruitful collaboration. We do wish we could add more nuance and original thought to the glowing praise this film has already received (one of three films made in the 2000s that landed on the most recent Sight and Sound greatest films of all time list), but sometimes you just have to join the chorus: this film is lush, luxuriant, undeniable greatness. [A+]

2046” (2004)
Narrative concerns seem miles away from “2046,” Wong Kar-wai’s strangest and most adventurous picture yet. Four years in the making, the film robbed us of one of the world’s most vital filmmakers for an extended period, shrouded itself in mystery and ultimately ended up vexing those who sought easy answers. After all, Wong is a director whose trademarks are ambiguous motivations and ambivalent characters all portrayed with deceptive figurative lucidity—and in "2046" he gives full, expansive rein to all those instincts. The story picks up after “In The Mood For Love,” following that film’s protagonist, Chow (Tony Leung) as he recovers from the fallout of his relationship with Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) by sequestering himself in his hotel room. The science fiction stories he starts to write there are portrayed as a microcosm of his ongoing life, adding Su Li-Zhen to his tapestry of past lovers in an act of catharsis. And so the film becomes a multi-character study that follows the emotional entanglements of several women, including Zhang Zi Yi as a showgirl with a double life, as well as Chinese cinema all-stars Gong Li and Faye Wong. Not everyone was appreciative of Mr. Wong’s sluggish working style, including DP Christopher Doyle (one of two cinematographers credited here, the other being Kwan Pung-Leung), who told the Guardian, "I feel that '2046' is unnecessary, in retrospect... I think probably Wong Kar-wai realized that somewhere, and that's why it took so long. You do realize that you have basically said what you needed to say, so why say more? I think you have to move on." But, respectfully, “2046” nonetheless feels alive with the lyricism of a reinvigorated filmmaker, one not afraid of forming bonds that don’t always connect, and one who is aiming so high that even a failure to achieve those heights leaves a film that at times towers above most others. “2046” is messy and sometimes disjointed, but then so is love interrupted, life on hold, and so are the broken ties to a past you can neither forget nor escape. [A-]

My Blueberry Nights” (2007)
Known in some circles as Wong Kar-wai’s most egregious misfire, the Asian director’s maligned English-language debut, “My Blueberry Nights” isn’t quite as bad as its legend suggests, but it does have its share of problems. Fetishist that he is, one of the road trip-cum-romance’s most glaring issues is how WKW uses visual shots of various sumptuous pastries and confections to express desire and longing, that come across as a kind of unintentionally hilarious dessert pornography. And Darius Khondji, while one of the great living DPs, in lensing his director’s wishes, shoots a movie so overblown and oversaturated in luminous neon-soaked lighting, that it takes on the quality of a cinematographer shooting a parody of a Wong Kar-wai film. Then there’s the thin narrative and a lead, musician Norah Jones, who hadn’t acted before and it shows. While Jones, a terrific singer who knows a thing or two about heartache, isn’t terrible, she’s not the most dynamic force on screen either. Which leaves this hopelessly romantic picture—about a heartbroken woman, Elizabeth (Jones), who travels the U.S. to get away from her pain—to rely on its supporting characters, most of whom work, but that’s also far from a certainty. An alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz) in Memphis, Tennessee give the movie some engaging southern flair and genuine emotional depth, plus a chance for Elizabeth to focus on something other than her own sadness. But the miscast Natalie Portman never convinces as a sassy, free-spirited (and crucial third-act) gambler in Nevada who helps Elizabeth find her way spiritually. There are more surprising highlights, too. Cat Power, nee Chan Marshall (who provides some key cuts in the movie’s romantic soundtrack) has a completely electric cameo as the ex-girlfriend of Jude Law and their brief time on screen crackles with regret, anguish and a genuine-article wistfulness that you couldn’t bottle if you tried. And musically, Ry Cooder provides an exceptional dusty twang score with emotionally resonant melancholy notes around the edges. But even the sum of these first-rate elements can't add up to anything resembling a first-class film. Notoriously taking several years to direct and edit a movie (“2046” took up five years, “The Grandmaster” was shot over a three-year period, minus the editing), “My Blueberry Nights” was shot in a scant seven weeks, indicating that as frustrating as those long waits can be, perhaps they're justified. That said, a “rushed” production is hardly the worst of its problems, and "My Blueberry Nights" remains the black sheep of WKW's back catalogue. [C-]

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10 Comments

  • 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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