Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Wong Kar-wai

In celebration of the release of the World of Wong Kar-wai boxset from the Criterion Collection later this month, we have chosen to commemorate the Hong Kong auteur in our Retrospective Roundtable. With almost ten years without a single new project from Wong Kar-wai, we are poised and eager for the auteur to return. In light of the pandemic and the ‘new normal’ that awaits, Wong’s intense focus on love, loneliness, and identity in his work is able to resonate with audiences from a novel perspective. We await hearing -and seeing- what Wong is able to express when the next of his pending projects comes to fruition, but for now, we hope you enjoy our Retrospective on Wong’s cinema.

As Tears Go By (1988)

By Eugene Kang

As Tears Go ByIn all honesty, if viewers back in the late 80’s had seen As Tears Go By and dismissed it as yet another Hong Kong gangster movie, they would have been somewhat warranted. Tears has many hallmarks of that genre – the intense violence, the heightened emotions, even the slow motion shots. Also, Wong had a lot of competition from the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam. Yet there are hints of greatness even in this early work from Wong Kar-wai. There are beautiful compositions that bathe the characters in the deep blues and neon colors of the Hong Kong night life. A scene where Wah (Andy Lau) realizes his love for Ngor (Maggie Cheung) is set to a cover of ‘Take My Breath Away’ by Berlin, and Wong manages to make that scene land in a non-maudlin way. One can even see the beginnings of the visual hallmarks – how Hong Kong action slow-motion and rapid edits would develop into the visual feast that would be Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. As Tears Go By lacks Wong’s bolder experimentations in storytelling and time progression, but his artistic sensibility is still evident at this early stage.

Chungking Express (1994)

By Ben McDonald

Chungking ExpressChungking Express belongs to a list of a select few films (including Safe, Pulse, and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours) that took on a strange, special significance for me in 2020. I had seen and enjoyed Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 Hong Kong nightlife masterpiece a few years prior – along with a handful of his other, equally excellent films – but something about this one’s particular tone, rhythm, and melancholic passion for life so deeply resonated with me when I rewatched it twice in those dark summer months that it instantly became one of my favorite films of all time. It seems strange to be talking about a period of time that occurred less than a year ago, but these are not ordinary times, and furthermore I think Chungking Express is a film that uniquely understands and empathizes with the basic human act of remembering a particular moment in time (not unlike the rest of Wong Kar-wai’s work).

Concerning two tangentially intersecting tales in the chaotic streets of Hong Kong, Chungking Express has always left me with an overwhelming sense of its emotional honesty – for its characters, for its audience, and most importantly for how it views life itself. At times, I find this frankness so forthcoming that it almost feels embarrassing to watch at times, but that’s entirely why it works so well. Key to the film, for me at least, is its purposely repetitive soundtrack and its front half’s charming voice-over. Both leave me with a gnawing feeling of melancholy and nostalgia, both for the moments I’ve already lived and for those that are yet to come. Unlike the other films I mentioned above that resonated with me during the early months of the pandemic, Chungking Express is a film of hope and youthful optimism rather than anxious despair, and for that precise reason I think it will continue to remain a piece of art that means a great deal to me long after these dark and uncertain times are behind us.

Fallen Angels (1995)

By Timan Zheng

Fallen AngelsRuminations on heartache, longing, and loneliness in a materialistic city where glistening neon lights engulf the nightscape — what more could one ask for in a Wong Kar-wai film? Released only a year after the international breakthrough that was Chungking Express, Wong’s follow-up feature and loose sequel, Fallen Angels, is very much a natural extension of its predecessor. Early drafts of Chungking involved an additional subplot following a hitman and his romantic associate, and having shot the film on a tight schedule, in between filming sessions for Ashes of Time, the immediate conception of Angels was practically inevitable. Much like Chungking, Fallen Angels depicts a mirrored narrative with little in the way of a clear-cut trajectory; Wong structures the story around three central characters: the aforementioned hitman, but also He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), last seen in Chungking Express as a hopelessly romantic cop, now an unhinged prison escapee whose woes remain.

To no surprise, the film deals with many similar themes and subject matter as Chungking, although its approach is much moodier and grimy than its cheerful and feel-good counterpart. In fact, there is hardly any dialogue to be found here, rather long stretches of inner monologue from our leads, generally of an existential and melancholic nature. It may be easy to dismiss Fallen Angels as a retread of Chungking Express, but they are best viewed as two sides of the same coin — both parts of the whole, as Wong had intended. All of these characters are analogous to the spirit of Hong Kong; one film represents the voice of the vibrant, lively metropolis during the busy day, the other serves as an ode to the isolated, lonely dreamers of the night. In many ways, this may also be Wong’s most aesthetically pronounced film — often considered the culmination of his early-career idiosyncrasies — it is arguably the most overt representation of his signature style and obsessions.

Happy Together (1997)

By Timan Zheng

Happy TogetherFor my money, Happy Together is simply one of Wong Kar-wai’s defining works as an artist as well as his most aggressive and emotionally devastating film by a significant margin. As a follow up to Fallen Angels — a film that, in many ways, marked an evolutionary conclusion to the first phase of Wong’s career — the increasingly revered Taiwanese filmmaker opted to take a risk with his next project. Up until that point, the films of Wong Kar-wai had a very distinct and recognisable identity, but perhaps to a fault; an increasingly prevalent criticism of his work, particularly regarding Fallen Angels, was that he was self-referential to the point of self-parody. After hitting a stylistic peak in Angels, how Wong would and could progress his career was anyone’s guess. Rather than captivate on what has been established (the characteristics and attributes that defined him), Wong chose to subvert it all with Happy Together.

Gone were any connections to the criminal underworld and gone were any focal women — Happy Together centered around a gay couple. The emphasis on Hong Kong as a living and breathing entity was nowhere to be seen (at least, ostensibly speaking), instead Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, took center stage. Make no mistake: it is clearly a Wong Kar-wai film, but it was unique in its approach. Despite what its title may suggest, Happy Together chronicles the gradual meltdown of a toxic relationship, the basis of the story being that a couple travel to Argentina searching for a better life, only to drift apart. The couple’s disintegration seems inevitable from the get-go as both parties constantly bicker and argue in drama that Wong steadily grounds — keeping it raw, unflinching, and unkempt. For this reason, Happy Together may be Wong’s most difficult film to watch as it is unrelentingly miserable but masterfully so. Here, we have some of Wong’s most mature and fully-realized character work as well as some of his best visual storytelling yet. Additionally, it offers some of Christopher Doyle’s greatest work to date — the cinematography and compositional work present is absolutely phenomenal. There is obviously much more to praise but its prowess is difficult to succinctly capture, just know that while it may not be as internationally renowned as Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, Happy Together is one of Wong’s truly great films and just as essential.

In the Mood For Love (2000)

By Eugene Kang

In the Mood for LoveA romance without consummation. A nostalgia piece about a time very few people remember and may possibly not have existed. In the Mood for Love takes place in Hong Kong in the early 1960’s. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) both move into the same apartment complex on the same day. They are renting rooms within larger apartments, so there is very little privacy and the neighbors can’t help but to become involved in the two leads’ lives. Both have spouses who work long hours and travel often, so they are often alone. Their acquaintance is mostly casual, with no hints of romance. Soon, however, they deduce their spouses are having an affair with each other. Connected by this betrayal, they become strange bedfellows. They become obsessed with the relationship, imagining how their spouses met and who came on to whom. They start play-acting as the cheating couple, but soon real, unexplainable emotions start creeping into their interactions. 

We see images and witness events in this film as if we are living in the same cramped quarters as the leads are. Either we are really close, almost between the two of them, or we are observing them from different rooms of the house in an illusion of keeping our distance. It’s hard not to become a voyeur in such intimate circumstances and the enclosed nature of this film only enhances our voyeuristic tendencies. It also aids us in becoming invested in something so intimate and low-stakes. Everything in this film is so in tune with these characters’ emotional states that they create a rich, romantic epic even though they are really only confined to a few locations.

2046 (2004)

By Dalton Mullins

2046Wong Kar-wai has always been to me the cinema of love – both the physical act and the intense emotion – and its connection to time. He always seems to capture the minute intricacies of love, while never seeming to lose sight of the larger essence of it. He encapsulates the passion and the loneliness, how devastating unrequited love can feel but also the unbridled intensity and joy. Yet, the most remarkable aspect of his films is how he connects those ideals and emotions to the passage of time, how your sentiments ultimately affect the motion and progress of time. They can make the hours, days, and weeks glide by as if it were a breeze on a summer day bringing you joy and jubilation as you slip into the future, yet, the seconds can also tick away slowly, trapping you in your own psyche and preying on your own heart, causing strife, sorrow, and cynicism.

2046 is one of the best expressions of the duality and complexity of love and its relation to time. After Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) loses his love, he travels from woman to woman, leaving his own impression on each of them and their lives as he unravels the mysteries of his own heart and motivations. He attempts to hide his pain by sleeping with as many women as possible and writing his science fiction serial, ‘2046’. Yet, as he searches for the replacement for his one love and involves himself in the relationship affairs of others, his immense regret and sorrow is palpable and so is that of Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), one of Chow’s romantic entanglements. She is the true embodiment of the fervor and passion of love and sex yet also the cosmic vastness of unrequited love and heartbreak, and how it can tear you to shreds from the inside. All of Wong Kar-wai’s films seem to have heartbreak but 2046 appears to cut the deepest as each character aches to be loved deeply by one person, yet they are never able to fully grasp what they are after.

The Grandmaster (2013)

By Alex Sitaras

The GrandmasterKnown for portraying romance and intimacy within his films, Wong Kar-wai has occasionally diverged from his norm in films such as Ashes of Time and The Grandmaster – arguably though, depending on which cut of the film you see. When The Grandmaster premiered at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, the Weinstein Company obtained distribution rights for America. And thus the 123 minute version that premiered at the festival became an 108 minute version for American audiences (differing even further from the 130 minute “Chinese Cut” of the film). With approximately 20 minutes removed, American audiences saw a film that revolved around martial arts fights and a flurry of history lessons delivered in the second half of the film. Less focus was granted to intertwining the deeply personal journeys of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). With this context, The Grandmaster more closely resembles Wong’s filmography all the while showcasing impressive martial arts sequences and conveying a respect for Ip Man’s immense contributions to the proliferation of the Wing Chun practice of martial arts.

The Grandmaster represents arguably the peak of Wong’s international recognition as the director’s highest grossing film. Released almost a decade ago, one can only be very increasingly eager as the years pass to see Wong’s next project, likely his Blossoms Shanghai television series.

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