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Wong Kar Wai.

Wong Kar Wai is one of cinema's greatest romantics. His films are intuitive, freeform works that aren't screenwritten but invented and improvised as they go. When production starts, no-one except Wong knows where things will head, and, sometimes, even he surprises himself. But his pictures all drift towards the same tendencies: his fragmented narratives filled with thwarted desire and broken hearts, full of lonely, lovelorn dreamers, pining away nights in neon-lit Hong Kong, confessing their deepest feelings only to a complicit audience via voiceover. Wong understands that memorable cinematic romance doesn't come from people getting together, but remaining apart--no love burning so bright, and burrowing so deep, as unrequited love.

From his striking second feature, Days of Being Wild (1990), through his international breakouts Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995); his queer classic Happy Together (1997); his acclaimed masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000) and its spiritual sequel, 2046 (2004); and his unfairly maligned English-language feature My Blueberry Nights (2007), the filmmaker--often in league with Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and editor, production designer and costume designer William Chang Suk Ping--has forged an impressionistic, singular visual style. Wong's films look as romantic as their sentiments: all saturated colours, evocative blur, intuitive camerawork, slow motion and varying rates of exposure, combining to create an air of melancholy hanging as thick as fog, sadness flickering in every grain of celluloid. Even his exercises in genre--his gangster-flick debut As Tears Go By (1988); his wuxia epics Ashes of Time (1994) and The Grandmaster (2013)--are shot through with a lingering sadness, less about their fight sequences than the broken hearts of their violent protagonists.

Wong was born in Shanghai in 1958. He left for Hong Kong with his mother when he was five, with the plan that the rest of the family (his father and older siblings) would soon follow. But the arrival of the Cultural Revolution meant the closing of the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, stranding Wong with his mother. He characterises his childhood as one of loneliness and isolation: 'I didn't understand Cantonese, and we didn't have any relatives,' Wong recounts. 'I became like an observer.' (1) In an attempt to counter that loneliness, Wong's mother would take him to the cinema. 'The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies,' he says. (2)

Having grown up watching films, Wong studied graphic design, then cut his teeth working in TV production. He progressed from writing soap operas and cop shows to genre movies, before getting the opportunity to make his debut feature. As Tears Go By was made to capitalise on the popularity of gangster movies in Hong Kong, but it betrayed the hints of Wong's future auteurist trademarks: lingering melancholy, expressive visuals, a story big on atmosphere but short on regular plot beats. It was a personal riff on genre, setting the tenor for his career. 'I'm not coming from film school, I learned cinema in the cinema watching films, so you always have a curiosity [... like] what if I make a film in this genre?' Wong offers. (3)

As Tears Go By marked Wong's first collaboration with Maggie Cheung, whom he'd later direct in Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love and 2046. As far as leading men go, Wong's career has been one ongoing collaboration with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who's starred in Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and The Grandmaster. Working with the same collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, exploring common themes, and employing his wild visual style, Wong makes movies that all feel part of the one artistic continuum. This singularity has made Wong one of the most adored of auteurs--the filmmaker feted not just for his greatness, but for the sumptuous, swooning romanticism of his sustained cinematic world.


Days of Being Wild

Days of Being Wild was Wong's second film, but his first truly personal work. After making a gangster movie on debut with As Tears Go By, Wong wondered, 'What else can I do?' (4) Drawing influence from old Hollywood melodramas and the work of austere Swedish film titan Ingmar Bergman, (5) Days of Being Wild is a portrait of love-struck youths, set across sweaty days and endless nights over 1960-1961 in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Wong's first collaboration with Doyle, the film employs an impressionist visual swirl and fragmented narrative, suggesting the director's career to come--not least of all in the fact that Days of Being Wild bleeds into In the Mood for Love and 2046 narratively.

With a host of film stars--Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau and, in a late, mysterious arrival, Wong's soon-to-be leading man eternal, Leung--dressed in glamorous period wardrobe, we enter Wong's cinematic world: all crumbled and cramped apartment buildings, hot weather, surreal colours, super-close-up shots, out-of-focus objects occupying the foreground of the frame, rain falling heavily and tellingly, wet streets reflecting neon light, clocks, phone booths, evocative strands of hair draped down the necks of starlets, weird bouts of comic violence, smoked cigarettes, and fated meetings and poignant moments--anchored on specific dates, and on specific moments, in history.

Though, in hindsight, it's seen as Wong's first true expression of his singular style, Days of Being Wild was met with a muted reception on its release, its fragmented, lingering narrative an acquired taste that'd yet to be acquired.

Ashes of Time

Where As Tears Go By was a financial success, Days of Being Wild was a commercial failure. So Wong returned to genre, and attempted to erect a tentpole picture: Ashes of Time a grand martial-arts epic shot in the deserts of northern China with 'ten of the most famous movie stars in Asia'; (6) the cast including Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Leung, his near-namesake Tony Leung Ka Fai, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung and Jacky Cheung. 'It is not very often that a director is offered the chance to make a big-budget martial arts epic,' Wong muses. 'I jumped at this opportunity with all my knowledge about this genre, fearing that there wouldn't be a second chance.' (7)

The facts of the production--a high-budget genre movie, made with established stars--might suggest that Ashes of Time is Wong's most conventional movie. In fact, it's the opposite: the film best known, in either its original 1994 cut or 2008 'redux', for its complete narrative incoherence. Even devotees of both director and genre struggle to piece together its plot, in which Lin plays three characters, including an identical brother-sister pair named Yin and Yang. While the troubled, oft-delayed production--which dragged on due to the conflicting schedules of its stars--could be assumed to be the cause of the film's incomplete, uneven feeling, the recut suggests there's more intention at play. Ashes of Time's fragmented, elliptical, symbolist story is clearly secondary to its hyper-stylisation; this, perhaps, is Wong's most audacious case for a phenomenological form of cinema, in which sensorial experience trumps linearity or logic.

In Ashes of Time, Wong and Doyle run wild with visual tics: sunlight bleeding into the lens, framing erratic, figures and horizon-lines decentred, angles off-kilter, colour grading utterly bonkers, action sped up and slowed down. Its fights bounce from ultra-close-up shots to brutal cutaways, disorienting the audience, refusing to let action rescue them from the flick's all-consuming sensorial swirl. It's a film functioning with something approaching dream logic: bizarre, surreal and twice-removed from reality. The only thing that penetrates this hazy, opaque, distant film world isn't, of course, the bursts of action, but the painful emotion--Ashes of Time featuring fewer fisticuffs than lonesome figures staring longingly into the distance.

Chungking Express and Fallen Angels

During the downtime on Ashes of Time, Wong decided to make something super fast and super cheap, working with a production approach somewhere between guerrilla film and student movie. 'I made Chungking Express with a very low budget, and we made the film very quickly, only six weeks from the idea to the edit,' Wong recounts. 'I wrote in the daytime and we shot at night. We were shooting in chronological order.' (8)

Set against Chungking Mansions--a chaotic complex in downtown Hong Kong filled with immigrants, tourists, transient types and criminals--and its markets and food stands, it's a film divided in two. In its first story, a police officer, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), existentially hung up on his ex-girlfriend, eventually meets a blonde-wigged, trenchcoat-wearing criminal in sunglasses (Lin), with whom he spends a solitary, sexless night in a hotel room. In its second, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) pines after his ex-girlfriend (Valerie Chow), a flight attendant we see largely in flashback. He's oblivious to the fact that Faye (Faye Wong), the 'quirky' worker from his favourite late-night take-out, is so smitten with him that she lets herself into his apartment and cleans it when he's not around.

A 'leftover' story initially mooted for Chungking Express formed the basis for Fallen Angels, which Wong made--again, cheaply and quickly--soon after. It's another film divided into two tenuously-related tales. One follows a mysterious hitman (Leon Lai) who works with an 'agent' (Michelle Reis) he never sees, inhabiting the same places on opposing schedules; she's obsessed and besotted with the man she works with but never sees, often throwing herself into tortured masturbation sessions. The other story is a ridiculous comedy about a zany blaggard (Kaneshiro) who breaks into stores in the middle of the night and runs them in his own ridiculous style, his path crossing with various nocturnal oddballs including a would-be love interest (Yeung) who's trying to track down the girl (Karen Mok) she blames for stealing her man.

These two films are slight and silly on the one hand, but incredibly beautiful on the other--Chungking Express, in particular, perfectly captures Wong's obsession with lovers kept apart by quirks of circumstance, chance, fate or poor timing. Widely hailed upon their releases for their incredible visuals, these two films put Wong on the map as a formidable filmmaker. In each, Wong and Doyle mount a (highly influential) visual shrine to Hong Kong as a place pregnant with possibility, a neon-hued, fluorescent fantasia down whose subway tunnels and escalators drift stylish, sexy, oh-so-lonely pin-ups: little lost figures swallowed up by the teeming metropolis, briefly coming together only to be inevitably drawn apart. 'To me,' Wong says, 'Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long.' (9)

Happy Together

With that year's handover of the former British colony to Chinese control, Wong 'didn't want to make a film about Hong Kong in 1997'. (10) So, instead, his sixth feature--and first since he'd ascended to 'internationally acclaimed auteur' status--was largely shot in Buenos Aires. Framed by the uncertain legal fate of Hong Kong homosexuals in a more conservative, post-handover climate, Happy Together is a tale about a pair of male lovers whose coupledom is, in an evocation of those tenuous times, on uncertain footing, their mercurial union echoing that between Hong Kong and China.

Happy Together turns out to be one of cinema's most unstinting, unwavering portrayals of a tortured relationship, following two characters stuck in an on-again, off-again loop, each bout of getting-back-together a worse idea than the last. These are a different kind of tragic lovers for Wong: the destructive, unbridled Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) and the oft-wounded Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) not a perfect couple kept apart by fate, but a terrible couple kept together by circumstance.

They've come to Argentina in the hope of 'starting over'; but, as an introductory narration from Yiu Fai lets us know, this is just the latest time they've tried to begin again. In a foreign country on the other side of the world, they're both stranded; the only work they can get, in kitchens and bars and slaughterhouses, is so poorly paid that they couldn't go home if they wanted to. In Buenos Aires, their relationship is further isolated and strained, the situation heightening their now-entrenched cycles of reconciliation, depression and detonation, in which abject relationship dysfunction has become a horrifying kind of normal.

The film is shot largely in black-and-white, with occasional, sudden transitions into saturated colour. But, where the distinctive visuals of Wong and Doyle are usually thick with romance and dreaminess, here the bleached-out whites and washed-out direct light sources feel stark, hostile--communicating something more akin to depression than crushed-out longing. Where Wong's filmography is filled with lovers drifting apart, the lonely figures in Happy Together feel more beaten down than mystically misfortunate, their lives more grim than stylishly melancholy. Its title is, ultimately, ironic, Yiu Fai and Po Wing miserable whether together or apart.

In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love is an astonishing portrait of longing, an oft-non-verbal film in which the tiniest gestures and glances between Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) are loaded with all the things they cannot say, the feelings they cannot express.

Its reliance on such fine details suggests precision, but the production was chaotic. Filming, as ever, without a script, Wong spent fifteen months shooting, working out the story as he went. Doyle had to leave the project halfway due to other commitments, and whole storylines hit the cutting-room floor when Wong had to fashion his mountain of footage into a coherent whole. Leung, upon seeing what the film had ended up as, hated it. 'I thought it was shit,' he told me, of that first viewing. 'I thought it was so distant [...] that it must be so hard for [viewers] to get into these two characters, to feel the intensity between them.' (11)

History would prove kinder to In the Mood for Love than its leading man; the film--rapturously gorgeous, all patterned wallpaper and resplendent cheongsam dresses, in which Cheung walking in ultra-slow motion holding a noodle tin is somehow the most beautiful thing ever--has been acclaimed as an all-time great film, (12) and is beloved by viewers. Wong perfectly captures not a torturous affair, but how paralysing a harboured crush can be, creating a debilitating form of inaction.

Leung and Cheung pick up their fringe characters from Days of Being Wild, playing a pair of lonely souls who, in Hong Kong in 1962, move into rooms in neighbouring apartments in a tiny tenement. They discover that their respective spouses--whom we never see, only occasionally hear talking from outside of frame--are having an affair, and, as they get together to discuss what to do and air out their feelings, they fall for each other. But these would-be paramours, cowed by social conditioning and their domestic proximity, can't bring themselves to cross the same line their partners have. 'The story is governed by the reactions of these two characters under the observations of their neighbors,' Wong explains. 'So I wanted to treat it like a Hitchcock film, where so much happens outside the frame, and the viewer's imagination creates a kind of suspense.' (13)


2046 is a spiritual sequel to In the Mood for Love, and comes as Wong's grandest gambit: an ambitious, time-straddling, multi-layered movie that functions as a kind of 'overview' of his cinematic world. Its title is inspired by the Chinese government's pledge of fifty years of autonomy for Hong Kong post-handover, but, of course, it's not really about that; it's more interested in Hong Kong's history (with archival footage of civil unrest in 1966-1967) than its future.

Here, In the Mood for Love's Mo Wan holes up in apartment 2047, obsessed with the lives of the impossibly glamorous women that blow through room 2046 next door. After writing a kung-fu serial in In the Mood for Love, here he writes a sexy sci-fi saga, which is titled '2046', is set in the year 2046, and features characters trying to make it to a place called 2046. 'Every passenger going to 2046 has the same intention,' says Tak (Takuya Kimura), the Japanese narrator of the story-within-the-nlm. 'They want to recapture lost memories.' (A title card soon reads, thereafter: 'All memories are traces of tears.')

Befitting Wong's oeuvre, these memories are often of past loves. Mo Wan still pines for the prior pic's Su Li Zhen, whom we see in flashback; but then there's another Su Li Zhen (Gong Li), with whom he had an affair. Tragic passion isn't just his lot: Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the building owner, is carrying out a forbidden, oft-long-distance romance with a Japanese salaryman (Kimura). And when a nightclub girl, Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), moves into apartment 2046, she undertakes an affair--no repressed lust, here--with Mo Wan. He wants to keep it purely physical, agreeing to a system in which they are merely offering each other their 'time'. She goes along, but over time the set-up brings her sadness, Zhang's expert performance conveying the complex feelings of someone harbouring both conflicting desires and a heavy heart.

Mo Wan funnels these stories into his science fiction book, whose world we see within the film. The CGI of its future metropolises, stitched together by a high-speed train network, already looks dated. But the human action shot in this future-world is familiar: full of bright, frame-dominating colours, changes in film speed and motion, and artful blur, the wildly distorted visuals conveying the writer's imagination. 2046 is hugely romantic, ultimately tragic and serenely beautiful--a fitting culmination to Wong's early career.

The Grandmaster

Wong's latest film--his only movie of the 2010s, unbelievable given the furious pace of his early days--was a much-hyped, much-delayed martial-arts epic whose shoot lasted years, and whose international release was tied up with interference by the infamous Harvey Weinstein. The inspiration for The Grandmaster--a sweeping chronicle of the godfather of modern kung-fu, Ip Man--came when Wong saw the 79-year-old Ip demonstrating his beloved Wing Chun method in a video recorded three days before his death. 'I always wanted to tell a story about the rich tradition of Chinese martial arts, rather than [using it] just as a vehicle for kicks and punches,' Wong says, of the project. (14)

Wong sets the life of his hero against the tumult of twentieth-century history: civil war and revolution, the Japanese invasion, Manchuria, the establishment of the Chinese republic, the closing of communist borders. By touring through history, and tracing kung-fu back to its roots, Wong was tackling his biggest thematic subject yet: changing Chinese cultural values; old notions of family, honour and sacrifice falling away with the march towards modernisation. 'The modernization of China cannot merely be Westernization,' Wong said, upon The Grandmaster's release. We have to revisit our heritage.' (15)

Of course, even as Wong tours through Chinese history and stages glorious, memorable fights choreographed by martial-arts legend Yuen Woo Ping--from an opening sequence doused in torrential rain to a climactic battle on a train-station platform amid a flurry of hissing steam, swirling smoke, drifting ash, gathering snow--The Grandmaster is never the genre movie promised by its poster. Instead, it's another drifting, meditative tone poem about the tragedy of unrequited love. Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wong's leading-man standby, plays the titular don, but the radical reveal, an act in, is that this film is to be as much about Gong Er (Zhang), with whom he spars in an early fight, then yearns for over years. With her arrival, the narrative is spun around: the early forward momentum, of a driven man on a journey towards greatness, is suddenly turned backwards, as we journey into her past, from the recent death of her father (Wang Qingxiang) into the hazy impressions of a distant childhood. In fashioning his portrait of lovers divided and lives filled with longing, Wong employs his familiar array of visual devices: the whole thing, from martial-arts stoushes to insurmountable pining, told as cinematic poetry.


Colour, black-and-white, neon light

Wong is an amazing exponent of colour, his films employing saturated shades to convey mood and emotion. The only times his films aren't wildly colourful are when they switch--sometimes, seemingly, at random--to black-and-white: a tactic he employs, evocatively, in Fallen Angels and Happy Together.

Where certain filmmakers are synonymous with a single colour--like Martin Scorsese with red (16)--Wong's films use all manner of vivid colours. Sure, there's a lot of red, that colour of desire, anger and China: all through In the Mood for Love; in the PVC dress Reis wears in Fallen Angels, and the red-painted hallways of that film's subway underpasses; and, in a similar colour-matching effect, in 2046, in which Faye Wong's android wears a red dress down the red corridors of the high-speed train. The Memphis section of My Blueberry Nights--a second act penned in homage to Tennessee Williams--is soaked in the red of stoplights and bar-room neon. This contrasts with its opening act, set in New York, which is coloured blue: in light-polluted skies; the cold interiors of apartments; the stylised light in its cafe; and the blueberry pie eaten by its leading lady, played by Norah Jones (again echoed in wardrobe, when she wears a dress whose fabric literally looks like blueberries and ice-cream). The whole of Ashes of Time is soaked through with deep yellows, conveying not so much its desert setting but a hyper-stylised unreality--something mirrored by the futuristic storyworld within the film in 2046. And green is the colour of Hong Kong's nocturnal worlds, from the stained glass of 2046 to the fluorescent-lit traffic tunnels of Fallen Angels (a 2002 video clip Wong made for DJ Shadow's 'Six Days' is similarly soaked through with bulb-lit greens).

'It's a neon world; it's a garish, exuberant, possibly empty world,' cinematographer Doyle says, (17) of Hong Kong's nocturnal realm. Working quickly and cheaply in this urban setting for Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Wong and Doyle found a way of using available light to their own benefit, the softness of non-directional light and the need for greater exposures leading to a gloriously ambient, hazy fog, strewn through with the colours of Hong Kong's buzzing neon signs. That evocative fog was memorably echoed, far from Hong Kong and its lost souls, in Happy Together, by a shot at Iguazu Falls (on the border of Brazil and Argentina), where an enveloping cloud of watery mist swallows character and camera in a glowing, heavenly halo.

Experimental visuals, intuitive stories

'He remembers those vanished years,' reads In the Mood for Love's final title card, 'as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.'

Blurred, indistinct visuals are something Wong's used to evocative effect, capturing the haziness of night-time, romance, memory. To do so, he and Doyle have employed various experimental techniques from a pre-digital age, from different forms of chemical development (bleach bypassing, pull/push processing) to step printing, in which some frames are duplicated while others are removed, creating an erratic, uncanny effect, as if the image is moving in both fast and slow motion (something vividly seen in a Chungking Express chase sequence). Doyle would manually manipulate the film speed as it fed into the camera, 'undercranking' or 'overcranking' to make images play back faster or slower. In another memorable Chungking Express device, Wong set faked slow motion against the sped-up frenzy of time-lapse photography, instructing his actors to move at impossibly slow rates while those around them moved normally--the net effect being characters who remain still amid a furious landscape, visually out of time with the world around them.

Neither Wong nor Doyle went to film school, and their experimental approach gives Wong's early flicks a free-spirited, exuberant, chaotic quality ('I just like how much freedom there is, in the way [Wong] juxtaposes images,' Moonlight (2016) director Barry Jenkins, a filmmaker hugely influenced by Wong, enthuses (18)). Doyle's handheld camera, often fitted with wide-angle lenses, tilts at wild angles, following characters through surreal environments.

But this isn't just empty style. In Fallen Angels, ultra-wide-angle lenses are used to make characters always feel far away; in Chungking Express, long lenses and mid shots forever situate characters within their environment. In In the Mood for Love, the camera occupies the position of a nosy neighbour, constantly peering around corners and through cracked-open doors. Windows and glass are used to create reflections and refractions, suggesting characters' internal states by creating visual clarity or chaos; in 2046 and My Blueberry Nights (the latter especially), Wong shoots characters behind windows, obscured by signage and writing. In Happy Together, an upside-down camera conveys the feeling of living on the other side of the world to your home, and a sideways camera flip evokes a life knocked over. Where the step printing in Chungking Express visualises the pumping adrenaline of a chase, the effect is used, in Happy Together, to suggest the palpable quiver of repressed lust.

Wong's approach to narrative is just as experimental. He doesn't write screenplays, but pens loose scenarios before each day of shooting, gathers vast amounts of footage, then fashions different versions of the movie in editing. 'That's the way it works: we have no idea what the film is about,' laments Leung, his longtime leading-man. 'Often we wonder if he has any idea what the film is about.' (19) Wong sometimes lets loose those varied versions: Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and The Grandmaster all came out in different forms, at different times. Where most directors are obsessed with the final cut, Wong is never so finite (he once said he hoped to put all the footage shot for Happy Together onto the internet, to allow people to edit their own versions (20)). T don't want to commit to certain ways to tell this story, because I want to see how the story should go,' Wong says, of his approach. (21) Elsewhere, he puts it more succinctly: T make films mostly by instinct.' (22)

Fate, chance, desire, longing, yearning and cigarettes

'In Chinese there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like "chances",' Wong explains. 'I think all my films are about chances.' (23)

In Wong's filmography, his vast repertoire of romantics are caught in the throes of luckless, lovelorn longing. Even when their desire is consummated, it feels ill-fated, these star-cross'd lovers soon to drift apart. Tiny incidents of chance or fate bring people together or keep them apart, small moments spiralling outwards into grand emotions. 'Love is all a matter of timing,' Mo Wan says, in voiceover, in 2046. 'It's no use meeting the right person too soon or too late.' Failed unions and mistimed romances leave characters filled with yearning, which Wong captures by filming his lonely characters staring into the distance, languorously smoking, sometimes in slow motion (or, even, in Fallen Angels, sadly smoking while masturbating or eating dumplings).

All this pining works in concert with Wong's other great thematic preoccupations: the things that people cannot say, and the feeling of time slipping away. In Happy Together, Chang (Chang Chen) takes Yiu Fai's 'sadness', in the form of a recording, to a lighthouse at the end of the world to set it loose. In In the Mood for Love, Mo Wan whispers his secret into a crevice in the temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and covers it with mud. And in 2046's sci-fi future, confessions are spoken into 'whispering holes', grand golden instruments shaped like open flowers or the horns of old gramophones.

Time is symbolised, of course, by clocks, which are foregrounded in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, My Blueberry Nights and The Grandmaster (many of these shots are re-used by Christian Marclay in his iconic twenty-four-hour 2010 video-art masterwork, The Clock). None of those films feature anything akin to an antagonist; it's time, instead, that pulls paramours apart, makes memories slip away, summons bittersweet nostalgia. Late in In the Mood for Love, when Mo Wan returns to the site of all that tender yearning, he finds his hoped-for lover gone, never to be seen again. A title card reads, simply: 'That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.'

Foregrounded pop songs, movies like music

There's a particularly, um, memorable scene in Fallen Angels in which Reis' agent character, lost in the throes of Wongesque pining, takes out her throttling desire on an old Wurlitzer jukebox. Ringing up a song (Laurie Anderson's 'Speak My Language'), she drapes herself over it and grinds against it, Doyle's camera roaming up and down both her body and the jukebox, both soaked in red, orange and yellow neon light. This sequence symbolises Wong's love of pop songs, and the way his films--music foregrounded, visuals evocative, sex palpable--can often play like music videos (in making As Tears Go By, Wong took admitted influence from MTV (24)).

Happy Together is named for the song by The Turtles that plays therein, and uses an ironic Frank Zappa song, 'I Have Been in You', to sincerely articulate the connection between its tortured male lovers. The Mamas & The Papas' 'California Dreamin" plays throughout Chungking Express, where Faye Wong's character--in what seems like a literal music video--also dances to 'Dream Lover', a real-world single by Faye Wong. 'Dream Lover' is a Cantopop cover of The Cranberries' 'Dreams', just as As Tears Go By is built around a Cantopop cover of Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' by its own star, Sandy Lam.

Many of Wong Kar Wai's actors are also musicians, from starlets like Lam and Faye Wong to leading men, too, like Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Leslie Cheung (who featured on the soundtrack to Days of Being Wild) and Kimura, who all started out as musical performers. His only American film, My Blueberry Nights, casts two non-actor musicians, Jones and Chan 'Cat Power' Marshall, in key roles, and matches its soundtrack to its shifting New York-to-Memphis-to-Nevada setting. 2046 is filled with orchestral allusions to his own films, and films by others (including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Francois Truffaut and Krzysztof Kieslowski).

Beyond merely using music, Wong movies often unspool like music: intuitive, expressive, ridiculously romantic; works of lyricism and improvisation in which feelings trump logic. New York outfit Blonde Redhead--a band that, like Wong, is clearly influenced by French Nouvelle Vague cinema--gave their 1998 album a title that effectively evokes Wong's singular approach to, and hope for, his filmmaking: In an Expression of the Inexpressible.

Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.



(1) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in James Mottram, 'Wong Kar-Wai Interview: The Revered Film Director on Returning to His First Love--Kung Fu', The Independent, 6 December 2014, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(2) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in Han Ong, 'Wong Kar-wai', BOMB, issue 62, 1 January 1998, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(3) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in Todd Gilchrist, 'Exclusive Interview: Wong Kar Wai', IGN, 10 October 2008, p. 2, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(4) Wong, quoted in Ong, op. cit.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid.

(7) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in 'Christopher Doyle & Wong Kar Wai', Interview, 24 November 2008, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(8) Wong, quoted in Ong, op. cit.

(9) ibid.

(10) ibid.

(11) Tony Leung Chiu Wai, interview with author, 2001.

(12) In the Mood for Love came second in a 2016 BBC critics' poll of the best films of the twenty-first century; see 'The 21st Century's 100 Greatest Films', BBC Culture, 23 August 2016, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(13) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in Scott Tobias, 'Wong Kar-Wai', The A.V. Club, 28 February 2001, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(14) Wong, quoted in Mottram, op. cit.

(15) Wong Kar Wai, quoted in Michelle Lhooq, 'The Demonstrative Wong Kar Wai', Interview, 22 August 2013, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(16) See, for example, 'Scorsese in the Red', Film Scalpel, 16 August 2015, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(17) Christopher Doyle, in 'Christopher Doyle: Filming in the Neon World | NEONSIGNS.HK', YouTube, 14 May 2014, <>, accessed 18 April 2019.

(18) Barry Jenkins, in 'Under the Influence: Barry Jenkins on Wong Kar-wai', YouTube, 29 November 2016, <>, accessed 19 April 2019.

(19) Leung, op. cit.

(20) See David Bordwell, 'The Grandmaster: Moving Forward, Turning Back', Observations on Film Art, 23 September 2013, <>, accessed 19 April 2019.

(21) Wong Kar Wai, in 'Wong Kar Wai on Crafting Roles for Actors | MoMA Film', YouTube, 31 May 2016, <>, accessed 19 April 2019.

(22) Wong, quoted in Ong, op. cit.

(23) ibid.

(24) ibid.
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Author:Carew, Anthony
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Date:Jun 1, 2019
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