With "The Grandmaster" hitting theaters, the TOH! team reviews and ranks the best of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, whose output is just ten features (along with many shorts) since 1988. But first, we have an introduction to Wong's oeuvre from Asia Film wonk David Chute:
Origin Story: Wong Kar-wai Begins
I first saw Wong Kar-wai's early movies over thirty years ago, in theaters in Los Angeles' Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley, when they were first released in the 1980s. I knew him, you could say, before he was Wong Kar-wei.
Wong made his debut as a director in 1988, several months after a "midsection" supplement of articles I had edited, "Made in Hong Kong," was published in "Film Comment. (One excellent piece from that package is available online.) Prior to that he was off the fan radar, a hard-working commercial screenwriter in the HK industry, cranking out mostly fluffy comedies with English titles like "Once Upon a Rainbow" (1982) and "Silent Romance" (1984).
The quality of the projects steadily improved, however, with landmarks including Jeff Lau's "The Haunted Copshop" (1987), Patrick Tam's "Final Victory" 1987) and a personal guilty pleasure, Tung Cheung's "Flaming Brothers" (1987), a flamboyant post-"Better Tomorrow" heroic bloodshed melodrama starring Beretta-master Chow Yun-fat.
When Lau helped his new friend to break in as a director, it was with a personal variation on the newly popular gangster genre. In 1988, "As Tears Go By" made more money at the HK box office than any Wong Kar-wai film prior to this year's "The Grandmaster," and it established a pattern when it was nominated for ten Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It won two, Best Supporting Actor for Jackie Cheung and Best Art Direction for William Chang, a key collaborator who has since worked on every one of Wong's films.) But this was pretty much the last time that Wong, the HK industry and the mainstream HK audience were really in synch.
I happened to be in Hong Kong in December of 1990, just as Wong's second film, "Days of Being Wild," was opening, advertised all over town as a major Christmas-season attraction. I saw flatbed trucks carrying enormous billboards that were just a row of giant iconic star portraits: Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Karina Lau, Jackie Cheung. Even in 1990 HK dollars that was a pricey array of talent, and on the strength of it the film made a decent amount of money.
The result was intoxicating (see blurb below) but this was clearly not a mainstream film. But even after "Days of Being Wild" made a near sweep in '92 of the top HK Film Awards (Film, Director, Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography) there was a fair amount of grumbling behind the scenes. People I knew in the HK film industry said the production had spiraled out of control, as Wong shot and re-shooting, cutting and re-cutting, for months on end. It was mess, went the conventional wisdom, and any artistic greatness that was being read into it was strictly after the fact.
Working filmmakers in Hong Kong weren't the only people who thought I had been bamboozled into liking "Days." Respected indie distributor Bingham Ray went out to Alhambra to see it on my recommendation and came back seething, furious with me for wasting his time, referring to the auteur with eye-rolling sarcasm as Wong Kar-why?"
This emperor's-new-clothes view of Wong's artistry used to be commonplace in the popular media of Hong Kong. It crops up in the 1997 satire "Those Were the Days," for example, in which a Wong-lookalike snob director is hauled back to the Cantonese cinema factories of the 1960s, when movies were movies. Of course he is shown up as a posturing phony by the no-nonsense professionals of that era. Several Oscar nominations later Wong is no longer universally regarded as a poseur.
I'll confess to reacting that way myself at least once, angrily, the first time I saw Wong's first large-scale period film "Ashes of Time" (1994). This was an ostensible martial arts movie with (again) an all-star cast, choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, in which the action scenes were subjected to so much post-production tinkering, slowed down and chopped up and bleached out, that all the clarity and propulsiveness had been drained out of them.
Where genre movies are concerned I tend to be an authenticity snob. Is this or is this not "the real thing"? Is the creator's heart in the right place or does he view himself as superior to the form, patronizing it, offering us something finer than mere vulgar entrainment? I haven't revisited "Ashes" since then; haven't dared. And only its popularity with the Chinese and Hong Kong mainstream audiences has reconciled me to probably watching "The Grandmaster" eventually.
An artist, obviously, can be authentic in a different way. He or she is, it could be said, a genre of one. Sui generis is perhaps the term I'm groping for. Post "In the Mood for Love" (2000), especially, Wong looms larger for me now than he did in 1994. All we have the right to require is that he is authentically himself.
The TOH ranking of Wong's ten movies is below. Plus, check out VICE's Podcast interview with Wong, talking "The Grandmaster."