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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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Short Films
Wong Kar-Wai also has seven short films to his credit—though some are more accurately described as commercials, or "branded entertainment." Perhaps his most well-known is 2001’s “The Follow,” the fourth installment of BMW filmsThe Hire” series written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Notable for being a Wong collaboration with famed cinematographer Harris Savides instead of usual DP Christopher Doyle, the short does boast a blue-ish gray palette of more restrained hues than we're used to from the director. But it's a very slick and wonderfully shot piece nonetheless, and the mood brought to the simple story of a man (Clive Owen) hired by an agent (Forest Whitaker) to follow a beautiful woman (Adriana Lima) whom her husband (Mickey Rourke) suspects of infidelity is all Wong Kar-wai: elegant and enigmatic, with an undertow of melancholy.

Wong's first brush with the world of commercials, though, was back in 1996 with the copy-and-paste-mandatory "wkw/tk/1996@7'55''"Decoding the title explains a lot: it's a collaboration between "wkw" and "tk," which stands for Takeo Kikuchi, a fashion designer, the film is 7mins 55 seconds long without credits, and was shot in "hk" (Hong Kong). It's a pretty gonzo few minutes of jittery editing that have a hip, kinetic energy following a loose story about a young couple repeatedly playing a game where they hunt and shoot each other. Some of the shots are again extraordinary (the scene with the noodles and the gunsmoke especially), and the good-looking central pair (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and Hong Kong actress Karen Mok) look appropriately cool, dishevelled and kooky throughout. In its entirety the film is now apparently only available on the Japanese laserdisc of "Fallen Angels," though you can watch a pretty low quality rip of it below.

Most recently, commercial-wise, Wong directed a short piece for Chivas Regal which premiered in Cannes 2013. Lacking Christopher Doyle the film feels a little flat and it is far more a traditional commercial than, say, his BMW short—complete with copious pouring shots, glory images of the bottle and a plot that appears to revolve, Milk Tray-man style, around a beautiful woman's (Du Juan) demand that a handsome man (Wong regular Chen Chang) buy her a 100-year-old bottle of Scotch and make it snow in India. It's hokum and Wong's touch feels very muted here, so really, all we get is some very glossy and rather anonymous ads for scotch, which you can watch below.


A much more successful commercial venture was in 2007 for Philips Aurea LCD technology. Entitled "There is Only One Sun," this 10-minute short is very much in the vein of the sci-fi-neon futurism of "2046," detailing a beautiful agent (Amelie Daure) who falls for the man she has been assigned to entrap. Many Wong staples are here, a narrative about regret and impossible love, a pre-emptive killing and some spectacular sets, costuming and shotmaking. And the commercial aspect of it would be easy to overlook — a subtle mention at the beginning and a screen that appears in the film are the only real nods to the brand, so mostly we're free to simply enjoy a little sampler of Wong at his glossy, neony best.

Wong Kar-wai's one and only music video so far is 2002's DJ Shadow track "Six Days." Apparently coming about after the musician contacted Wong as a fan and discovered the admiration was mutual, the song could have been written for Wong, with its looping lyrics and refrain "Tomorrow never comes until it's too late." It's actually a pretty great slice of the Wong/Doyle aesthetic, with the underwater sequences especially blissed out and ethereal, and the story, opaquely told, hits all the familiar WKW high notes. A young guy (Wong regular Chang Chen) tries but can't forget his true love (Malaysian model Danielle Graham), despite her faithlessness, and remembers their affair complete with mysterious tattooing, swimming and frequent references to the number 246 ("2046" was due out soon). Wong even gets to work in a short fight scene and ends the video, as he does "The Grandmaster," with a Bruce Lee quote.

Away from the commercial/music video end of the spectrum, there is 2004’s "The Hand," a type of companion piece to “In The Mood For Love,” that could have easily been one of the “Summer in Beijing” triptych of stories that WKW had conceived for his 2000 romantic masterpiece (in the end, all three stories were said to be folded into “In The Mood For Love”). It has the same endless shots of a well-dressed, slicked-back Chang Chen smoking countless cigarettes and cosmetics-lacquered ladies in wonderful beehives. An erotic short in the “Eros” series (which also contained shorts by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni), it teeters on that razor thin line between the sexiest and the most unintentionally funny short about a handjob ever.

In 2007, Wong participated in another portmanteau film, albeit with a much shorter entry, as one of the 33 directors featured in "To Each His Own Cinema". His 3-minute segment "I Travelled 9000 km To Give It To You" literalizes the film's theme of "love for cinema" by portraying a fumbling but passionate encounter in a movie theater while a French film plays. Of course, this being a Wong joint, it's ambiguous as to whether the encounter is real, imagined or remembered. It's pretty slight and feels a little disposable by contrast with some of his other shorts, but you can judge for yourself below.

And finally there's 2000's "Hua Yang De Nian Hua," which is a 2½-minute-long collection of clips from old black-and-white Chinese movies, set to one of the classic tracks used in "In the Mood for Love." On the surface, it should be the most anomalous and possibly anonymous of these short films, as it contains no footage shot by Wong himself. And yet, especially if you view it as a kind of reference board for the same year's "In the Mood for Love" (and it's included on the Criterion edition of the film), it's a fascinating and beautiful artifact in itself, focusing especially on women, their clothing (the structured cheongsam dresses that his female stars often wear are in much in evidence), makeup and hairstyles, but also on their expressions and movements. To a Western eye, it's also a rare glimpse of a vintage Chinese cinema that's fully as glamorous as any Golden Age of Hollywood compilation. Gorgeous.

-- Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky

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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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