The Beginner's Guide: Wong Kar-Wai, Director - Film Inquiry (2022)

The first time I saw Chungking Express, I didn’t realize what love was. An over-dramatic statement, but Wong Kar-Wai films are truly worth viewing. It’s about the human condition in terms of emotional separation from each other. We keep up shields, afraid that if we let up just a little bit, vulnerability will lead to emotional scarring that cuts deep into your heart.

If you don’t know who Wong Kar-Wai is, I’ll introduce you. He’s a Bronze Bauhinia Star ranked Hong Kong citizen which is a honor program based on a person having given outstanding service to his/her country. Notable Chinese critics group him as part of the Hong Kong Second Wave, a group of high profile directors from the late 80’s and 90’s. Before his directorial debut though, he received his start as a scriptwriter for television and film. Even better than all of that is his international recognition as an auteur director. Those scenes of young passion, crippling loneliness, and wild freedom are all representative of his vision and style. The intensity, the tragedy, the curiosity I intend to introduce you to are all stories pulled directly from his magnificent brain. For a more intimate look at Wong Kar-Wai, please check out this interview between himself and Martin Scorsese.

Before I move on, I have to inform you I’ve only picked 5 of his films to talk about with you instead of his entire body of work. These picks are based on the films being his directorial debut, his most critically acclaimed, his Cannes festival winner and his first in English. The first film I will be talking about is the one I’m familiar with the most. Hence it will also be the one which communicates that vulnerability element of this great man’s films. Each movie I’ve chosen, in my opinion, represents themes and ideas sensitive to how people really are. I mean that in the sense of dismissing comedic elements as a defense mechanism. Or not overloading a film with action scenes which reduce the substance of emotional vulnerability. Taking away all that, all you have left is a person, frail but beautiful.

Chungking Express (1994)

Everyone has their own interpretation of a movie. A certain characteristic just feels viscerally in tune with your experiences. With Chungking Express, most everything resonates from the technique, to the setting, to the actors involved.

Imagine going through your life unable to connect to most people, an utter stranger in the society you’re a part of. You see people every day but you can’t create a meaningful conversation or become a person idealized by others despite your efforts. You’re a freak, an outcast separated from others by an invisible wall you’ve tried to break down all your life. For a single moment though, you meet someone who is actually similar to you. The rarity of this opportunity is paramount. Maybe for the first time, and maybe the only time, you get to feel something that is not the loneliness of life. That is the best possible description for the relationships in this film.

One of the stories involves pineapples that Takeshi Kineshiro‘s character, Cop 223, gets into during the film. His girlfriend breaks up with him during April so he creates a coping mechanism by rationalizing that it’s an April Fool’s prank. He thinks that on May 1st his loneliness will go away. Up until that day, he collects canned pineapples for each day in April. The best description for this is “romantically sad.” It’s sweet naivete but expressed in such a way rarely seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. Wong Kar-Wai takes the time to make this type of character human, not a “pathetic loser” archetype.

It works for women too. Faye (Faye Wong), the femme lead of story two, grows fond of Cop 663. 663 is depressed over his breakup with an air stewardess. Intent on uplifting his mood Faye breaks into 663’s apartment and rearranges his life. Their relationship is something akin to night and day. When 663 is away, Faye comes in to replace things such as a worn washcloth. Observation skills become dull in depression so when his small worn washcloth suddenly becomes large and full, 663 romanticizes that its personality has changed. This change starts to affect his thinking. The negatives in his life become positives. In observing her character, it is extremely easy to dismiss her as a stalker rather than an awkward person. Her role is not the ideal of society. Rather, she is the vulnerability and self abjection that is common to vilify. If her character can be seen as simply human, her role in the film is strikingly beautiful.

In this entry, his writing style holds the most importance. As mentioned before, Wong Kar-Wai started out as a scriptwriter and there is almost always a pattern or style to it. His lead characters are never archetypes meant to be simplified or weird for the sake of faux originality. The first and foremost thought is that they are human first. That means existing as best as one can with personal issues and flaws. Not bad considering he wrote many scenes either the night before or on the morning of filming. Incidentally, this also speaks volumes about his other talent: improvisation. Considered a constant source of struggle for many people that work with him, Wong Kar-Wai likes to improvise and experiment throughout the whole film-making process. For an idea of that skill, he shot Chungking Express in 23 days during a hiatus from editing his other film.

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As Tears Go By (1988)

In As Tears Go By, Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung are Hong Kong performers that are highly regarded from the 90’s decade. They’re both actors and singers who are known as two of the Four Heavenly Kings, popular music idols. In this movie inspired by Martin Scorsese‘s Mean Streets, they’re just the mid level gangster, Wah, and his inept protege, Fly.

Wah has no direction in life outside being a gangster. Things change for the better when Ngor, his cousin, comes to visit. Throughout her stay, he is called on to get Fly out of trouble. Fly’s life goal is to earn respect within the gang but he is inferior in both mind and body. Wah and Fly are the same people on a symbolic level. They begin with no sense of future; they lack purpose beyond the moment. As the film moves on, Wah’s path curves off. Ngor, his love interest in addition to being his cousin, creates the curve due to her intervention into his life. She represents that sense of future, an alternate path outside the life of a gangster worth pursuing.

Moving on from the story, the focus here is on visual aesthetics. This is his directorial debut movie and hence lacks the finesse and refinement Wong Kar-Wai‘s future films carry, yet it’s still magnificent. One of the things most pronounced are the colors in the film. The night scenes in the city are basically walls of neon, similar to New York’s Times Square. It gives a feeling of bewilderment because of how unnatural yet colorful and all-encompassing it looks. Another scene has Wah in a silhouette cast against a moonlit blue background as he pours water on himself. It’s very evocative and somewhat erotic.

Blue tint over the camera lens adds to a cold expression upon his face as Wah enters a rundown restaurant. He attacks the enemy gang member, currently torturing a cat, before the man can even realize what is going on. Here is where the focus here is the use of jump-cuts. This scene is the best example of great fight editing. First shot is the pot of boiling water being tipped forward jumping to a closeup of the pot about to splash the gangster’s face and clothes. Jump cut again to Wah kicking a table into another shot of the table slamming into the man’s waist. Then cut to our protagonist pulling a knife and so on. It’s very vivid when you see it rather than just reading it here. Essentially, everything is fast paced and chaotic like a real fight. The manner it’s brought to you not only feels poetic but is visually exciting.

These aesthetic touches serve to enhance their story. In several scenes in the movie, there are edits that slow down the shots. Continuing from the fight described above, the shots slow down at certain points as if to take a breath from the intensity. From these scenes, you realize that this man is not going to be as dignified as he is outside of this very moment. That is very telling when you remember an old phrase like “thug-4-life.” That kind of life, the one Fly yearned for, is short and the best thing that can be hoped for is barely a sliver of glory.

Wong Kar-Wai‘s romantic expression is not limited to how he writes a film. Like a true storyteller, he can use visual and editing techniques to accentuate the emotions behind his films.

Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together tells the story of a couple taking a holiday in Argentina. It stars Tony Leung (a.k.a “Little Tony” as opposed to “Big Tony,” another actor with a similar name), who was Cop 663 earlier in the article, and Leslie Cheung, considered one of Asia’s greatest performers who passed away in 2003.

Lai Yiu-Fai (Leung) is in a toxic relationship with Ho Po-Wing (Cheung), a self absorbed emotional wreck. Sometimes you fall for a certain kind of person. You’re either too nice or too scared to turn them down until you actually do. Yiu-Fai is in that precarious situation baring the fact that he’s stranded in Argentina because of Po-Wing. Lai is responsible and intent on working hard enough to return to Taipei. At the start, they’re on their breakup phase of the relationship until Po-Wing turns up battered and broken. Bleeding heart Yiu-Fai takes it upon himself to nurse his significant other back to health for the time being. Like a person without impulse control, Lai bends over backwards to meet the demands of Ho going so far as to cook their meals.

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The elements to highlight here are the music and choice of modest settings. If you haven’t noticed, many of his movies takes their names directly from old songs. That is just simply a sample of how music influences these films. For a better analysis, please check out this dance between the two. Notice the music, it has no tones that are offensive or meant to incite. Rather, it represents that rare peace from the storm that is their relationship. No ambient sound is heard when they start. The audience must simply bear witness to this peace as a distant voyeur.

Another notable element of these films are the settings. Most of the films I mentioned so far take place in humble city dwellings. It elicits reminders that these characters are part of a blue-collar culture as opposed to tech savvy culture. Things are cramped, dirty, and small yet a sense of community is present. Lai goes to work, heads to the local bodega and even attends movie theaters for downtime. He is part of this new culture instead of being victim to the “stranger in a strange land” or “culture shock” trope.

The best visual from this film would have to be the waterfall shots. As a subject, it is simple yet awe-inspiring to watch the serenity it evokes. Water has many representations in the narrative world ranging from the waves of rebirth to the tears of catharsis. In this scene here, it is calm. The music additionally delivers context that it is not a random image. It’s part of Argentina, its culture, and personality viewed through the eyes of visitors.

The music and settings are elements you see again in other Wong Kar-Wai films. None of the poetry or romanticism gets lost.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Now to express how great Tony Leung is as an actor, I will use this movie as my sample. In addition is the great Maggie Cheung who appeared in As Tears Go By as Ngor. In the Mood for Love deserves admiration for its unbelievable attention to detail, clever camerawork, and excellent low energy acting. For a better understanding of low energy acting, it’s like Godfather Al Pacino vs. Dog Day Afternoon Al Pacino.

“Little” Tony Leung is the Far Eastern equivalent to what an Oscar caliber actor is in the West. To explain his relevance, I have to address his interview. As a child he hid his emotions. That lead to his lack of communication skills in adulthood. Through acting, he found his voice, “You can be somebody else, you can cry but nobody knows that’s your feelings. They will think, ‘Oh, you’re doing that character very well,’ but actually that’s my feelings, that’s my own emotions.” His contemplative nature enhances how the audience views his struggles with personal morality. In this film, he is friendly with Maggie‘s character but never forceful in his approach. He always addresses her with respect but his fleeting glances betray his feelings. It’s the subtlety in his actions that mean so much to the viewer who pays attention.

Maggie played Ngor in As Tears Go By who spurs Wah away from gangster life. I restrained myself from prominently discussing her before because her role was mainly to empower the protagonist. Here, she is the other half of this film’s emotional force. It seems difficult enough to play a period piece but her movements are literally restricted in that dress. Despite it, she manages to pull off one of her most acclaimed performances.

As the story goes, two married couples come to live next to each other. Tony‘s character Chow Mo-wan is part of one couple and Maggie‘s character Su Li-zhen is one-half of another couple. Their theme is loneliness as their spouses often leave them behind for business reasons. As time passes, they suspect their spouses are cheating on them. This leads to meetings between the two centered around role-playing situations their cheating spouses might have created. Eventually, they fall for each other but also fall victim to the experience often described as “the one that got away”.

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One of the most interesting cinematic techniques in this film was the mirror trick. In the middle of the movie, Chow and Su are hanging out together. During this scene the camera rotates around the two while a mirror catches glimpses of Su smiling and Chow glancing over. Cut to another scene where the camera is filming the two through a hole in the wall. It’s basically like peeping on them but it’s also catching them in an intimate moment from the perspective of your own eye. Techniques like these are so subtle yet effective in relating their attachment to each other.

In the Mood for Love is the quintessential Wong Kar-Wai movie. It showcases everything that makes Wong Kar-Wai great. Those things are his great sensitivity to human nature, his cinematographer, and his cast of top level talent. It’s my recommendation as a type of “chicken soup for your soul.” Of all the things his movies teach you, its to respect human vulnerability and the strength people hold inside.

My Blueberry Nights (2008)

My Blueberry Nights is several things. It’s Wong Kar-Wai’s first film in English and his first time in years without Christopher Doyle as his cinematographer. This film is interesting because it’s hit or miss with many people and felt so lacking when compared to all the above. It is also the reason I’ve added it here as a huge contrast to the other movies mentioned.

Let’s note the changes.

Christoper Doyle becomes Darius Khondji

Darius Khondji is a well regarded cinematographer responsible for films like David Fincher‘s Seven. Khondji was experienced and had an established career prior to Blueberry Nights. My observations about the cinematography are that they were adequate for a big budget film. That’s inherently the problem. Before I go on, I want to make it clear I’m not blaming Khondji for the lost traits of a Wong Kar-Wai film. I’m trying to pinpoint why it lacks in comparison to his other art.

It may be the cultural divide between the two. Doyle is an Australian that immigrated to several Asian countries in the 1970’s and subsequently became quite ingrained within Asian, mostly Chinese, culture. Doyle‘s cinematographic style meshes well with many Asian directors. Additionally, he worked with Wong Kar-Wai from 1991 to 2007 so he knows how “eccentric” he can be. In contrast, Khondji developed his style in his native France as well as under the tutelage of major universities in the states. It’s common knowledge how much the French New Wave has influenced filmmakers and you’re probably aware of UCLA and NYU. This movie would be his first feature with Wong.

Maybe it was too condensed in that most of the scenes take place indoors and lack the splendor of the outside scenery. The first scene is in New York where Elizabeth is stuck in a cafe. For the sake of fair, the film does go out of the cafe but for minor shots meant to further the plot. One scene has the audience following her as she cries over her boyfriend being intimate with another woman. Many people go through break-ups but nothing makes this scene stand out as engaging or poetic. Then she heads for Tennessee sticking to another cafe while other people’s stories unfold. It all seems bland when compared with his previous work where the majority of the films are focused on the beauty of particular cities.

Different set of actors/story

Rachel Weisz, Jude Law and Norah Jones become the Western counterparts to the Hong Kong pantheon of actors. Norah becomes the replacement for Faye Wong, the girl opposite Little Tony in Chungking Express. Norah doesn’t compare well. Throughout the film, the fate of her character was dictated by her ex-boyfriend leading to a cross country trip. She couldn’t deal with her feelings. Her presence in the film is passive as witness to the stories of other people. In contrast, Faye was the femme lead of her own story and was fearless in pursuit of her love interest. Wong Kar-Wai has stated that Norah can become very “classical” or “modern” in relation to what USA state they were shooting the film in. This can be interpreted as inconsistency in Norah‘s identity because she was upset Elizabeth in New York, insecure Lizzie in Memphis and absolved Beth in Vegas. Those descriptions refer to names she took in addition to the emotional state her character exhibited in context of dealing with her breakup within each city.

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Jude Law replaces Tony Leung as leading man, Jeremy. Law manages to be very charming and take charge. He is also a witness type character except only to the patrons of his cafe, and especially to Elizabeth. He is supposed to be a very active and bright character which met the acceptance of the director and his staff. Contrasting Leung’s characters, Jeremy is actively following his love interest, going so far as to send postcards to every place he can find her name. In the films mentioned above, Leung is less active and more contemplative. He is always deep in his own head trying to figure out his life and what his next actions should be. It’s an extrovert and introvert disparity. Additionally, this is a great example of cultural shift in that extrovert traits are favored in the West while introvert qualities are favored in the East. Otherwise, they simply share the qualities of being smart, handsome leading men.

Rachel Weisz‘s role in the interview is most telling of communication issues. Wong Kar-Wai had an entire back-story for Rachel‘s character, Sue Lynne, in living a Lolita lifestyle. By his description “David [Strathairn], he’s like a thirty-something cop and you are 17, like a Lolita. And this guy is just crazy about you, and you are rebellious, so you have a problem with that.” He continues, “…you always want to move out and you try, but it doesn’t work, so you come back. And he marries you. That’s the beginning of this marriage.” Weisz didn’t realize his interpretation had this much depth. She rethought her part and developed “a very strong last scene.” Sue Lynne’s role was limited to brief appearances and information about the age difference was not emphasized. Despite that, it was a strong performance. It might be a similar case for the other actors in that Wong Kar-Wai may not have communicated his vision very well.

He was brave enough to take a risk

Looking through Rotten Tomatoes reviews, there are many jabs at the film. Some criticisms were against Norah Jones, some just dismissing the movie as a whole, and some even say that he is out of love. Despite their criticisms, he’s everything a filmmaker should be. Wong Kar-Wai was brave enough to go out of his comfort zone to work with a different cast, with a different director of photography, and in a culture that was different from his own.

He never walked the streets of New York as a child or built a long working relationship with Western actors. Instead, he’s a son of Hong Kong. He knows its streets, its people, its style and soul. For all the faults a person can find in this movie, it takes a worthy person to go venture into unfamiliar territory. His staple actors and cinematographers weren’t there to collaborate in this film’s vision. Yet without them, he managed to complete a film that was not lazy or ill-conceived. Fans and critics hold him up to a standard but he is still a man. Blueberry Nights may not be his best film but he deserves more opportunities to create more films with strengthened resolve and experience. Hopefully this entry makes it understandable that directors aren’t perfect, but worth supporting for meaningful directorial vision.

Conclusion

Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most endearing directors you can find in Hong Kong cinema. He brings out the beauty of life through his writing, improvisation, use of visuals, his collection of actors, his editing style, and cinematography. He teaches you to love misfits: people trying to live in a world with other people but lack understanding between each other. Like people in real life, they live as best as they know how to. They endure pain but march on regardless. The visuals and ideas he uses drum up an image of lone people passing by a sea of strangers and blurry faces. If not loneliness, then awkwardness in communicating with each other. It’s striking and something everyone can relate to. Other works worth viewing are Ashes of Time, 2046, and his most recent, The Grandmaster.

Do you have your own Wong Kar-Wai film to share? Share your thoughts below!

(top image source: Melissa Kuypers/NPR)

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