Wong Kar-Wai

To me, all my works are different episodes of one movie.”

Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.”

Born: 17 July 1958, Shanghai, China.

Directing career: 1988 –

Movement: Hong Kong’s ‘Second Wave’.

Traits: Highly stylised mood films, full of romantic longing, yearning, emotionally resonant memories and association.

Collaborators: Christopher Doyle (cinematographer), William Chang (art director and editor), Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung (actors).

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Despite As Tears Go By, this is the real beginning of Wong Kar-wai’s sprawling tapestry of recurring characters and Proustian memory-tunnels. All the layered associations and references begin here with this 1960s set flurry of moody romance, fatalistic petty criminals, cops, waitresses, troubled beauties trying to hide their vulnerabilities… In short many things we’ll see again later in Wong’s films. It begins here and predictably it all begins with time, with a clock looming over the persistent Leslie Cheung’s smooth spiel as he offers bored waitress Maggie Cheung the gift of one minute. As they watch it tick by together on his watch, he claims that she will always remember him because of these 60 seconds. And so will we remember these characters when they wash over us again to far more resonant effect in In the Mood for Love and 2046, not to mention all the mood associations with Chungking Express or Happy Together. 

This was the beginning of Wong defining a sensibility that would pierce across international culture in the ’90s, when he and his films epitomised longing and cool, some sort of mix between Godard and Haruki Murakami.

Chungking Express (1994)

Wong Kar-wai’s films are imbued with longing and romantic nostalgia for the past. Characters recur across his filmography as if through internal wormholes of memory (of the kind depicted almost literally in 2046). Most of these characters are lovelorn, city-dwelling romantics, who internalise their urban loneliness and fail to ever quite get together. Nowhere is this mood, and by connection the peculiar sense of time that goes with it, more tangible than in Chungking Express. Across this diptych of jilted cops we find time-shifts, countdowns, and mental jet-lags.

The first cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) obsessively counts the days, backwards, to the day his ex left him (May 1st, which he also commemorates by gorging on all the pineapple cans he can find with this expiration date) and forwards to his birthday, as if this is his way of making every minute count as time ticks on. The second cop (Tony Leung) has been left by his air-hostess girlfriend, and misses his connection with the girl who serves him coffee every day at his regular snack bar (Faye Wong). The latter, unbeknownst to him, is so infatuated that she sneaks into his apartment with a spare key and moves his furniture around. But Leung is an oblivious dreamer, lost in his own time-zone within the sprawling metropolis that is Hong Kong.

One scene perfectly encapsulates this. Leung, pensively meditating against a jukebox, is lost in his own mental world as he enters coins into the machine, while behind him crowds of anonymous fellow-Hong-Kongers rush by in a blur. This is the modern metropolis, a grid of perpetual movement, but within it millions of nodes: millions of individuals with their own consciousness, their own senses of time, their own need to sometimes slow down even as the world whizzes past. In this image, we see and feel this relativity of time, as two distinct time-zones combine in the same shot, Leung’s individual time in his bubble and the collective time of the anonymous crowd.

Wong, assisted by his trusty cameraman Chris Doyle, has created a distilled experience of relative temporality, of time lurching or speeding, depending on mood. Chungking Express is full of these manipulations of time via the manipulation of film-speed, slowing down or accelerating the action, or in this scene creating the effect of both at the same time. In fact, it was achieved by having Leung perform his gestures extra-slowly, then later speeding up this footage, so he appears to move at normal pace while those behind him are a sped-up blur. The whole of Chungking Express is about the attempts of these individual nodes of time to connect within this massive metropolitan network. But independent time-zones still always remain out of sync. (Sept 2016)

(First published in: https://cine-scope.com/2016/09/18/some-musings-on-time-and-asian-cinema/)

The Grandmaster (2013)

Nominally a historical biopic focusing on revered kung fu innovator Yip Man (famed for being Bruce Lee’s mentor), The Grandmaster is clearly Wong’s most genre-defined piece since his 1988 gangster debut As Tears Go By. Even his only previous directing foray into martial-arts movies, Ashes of Time, was coloured by his own arthouse sensibilities and none-too-interested in depicting coherent action scenes.

From the outset, as Yip Man (Wong-regular, and Hong Kong acting legend, Tony Leung) ceremoniously dismisses an unidentified gang of attackers in a rain-drenched nocturnal street scene, we get a sense that is going to be martial arts the Wong Kar-wai way. The super-fast cutting gives an impressionistic overview of the close-quarters combat, mixing tight close-ups with gliding shots from further back, as well as the occasional graceful slow-motion.

It’s the first of several stand-out fight scenes (choreographed by the master Yuen Woo-ping) including a dance-like challenge where Yip Man must break a small round cake in the hands of elusive elderly master, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), and, best of all, a texturally beautiful showdown on a train platform between Gong’s daughter Gong Er (the coldly fierce Zhang Ziyi) and effectively the villain of the story Ma San (Zhang Jin), this time under delicate snowfall.

However these set pieces aren’t enough to hold together the sprawling narrative, whose rhythm flows in fits and starts. With its backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China during WW2 and the exile of many Chinese (including Yip) to Hong Kong after the Communists win power in 1949, the film loosely covers Yip’s story from the 1930s to the 1950s but makes no claims to being an authentic biography. Its basic outline is factual, as is the premise of Yip’s attempts to unite several different martial arts schools into his wing chun technique, but many plot strands are entirely fictitious.

One such example is the tale of Gong Er’s revenge against her father’s murderer Ma San, who also turns out to be an unscrupulous Japanese collaborator (again, he’s very much the villain here…). This actually fills the central bulk of The Grandmaster, making it just as much Zhang Ziyi’s film as it is Tony Leung’s. Actually, Yip Man remains a mystery overall, with Leung’s detailed acting doing just enough to suggest a personality behind the self-effacing discipline.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Wong film without a doomed liaison and so Gong Er and Yip Man fall for each other during one particularly charged clash of contrasting martial arts technique. The two of them also represent the film’s primary thematic dichotomy, Gong being the active agent of change who will never pass down her knowledge and Yip the passive, stoic mentor who ensures the continuation of tradition.

In a narrative disorienting in the way it stalls only to abruptly accelerate (no doubt this has much to do with the 108-minutes version’s cuts enforced by Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein), the regrets over their unconsummated romance provide a welcome emotional pillar to hold on to. In a move that perfectly encapsulates Wong’s own cinephile inter-textuality with his themes of memory and nostalgia, he sets his quietly devastating ending to Ennio Morricone’s music from Sergio Leone’s nostalgia-infused epic of memory and loss Once Upon a Time in America. (Dec 2014)