Wong Kar-wai By Stephen Teo London: British Film Institute, 2005 191 pp.; $23.95, paper; $80, cloth
The Hong Kong-based director Wong Kar-wai has been extolled in many parts of the western world. Coincidentally, two book-length studies were published in the first half of 2005 on both sides of the Atlantic to give us overviews of the director's oeuvre to date. While each eponymous monograph approaches Wong differently, the authors Peter Brunette and Stephen Teo embrace his fascinating cinema with the same enthusiasm and adopt similar structures to chronicle Wong's films.
Brunette devotes most of his book to studying the director's mastery of technique, focusing on the way Wong uses formal devices to express rather than stifle meaning traditionally conveyed through narration, dialogue, and conventional drama in cinema. He presents Wong as a filmmaker who has transcended his Hong Kong origins to find a place in international cinema, drawing parallels between Wong and acclaimed directors of the generation before him. Teo, on the other hand, concerns himself more about with the inspirations that Wong derives from his literary and cinematic sources. His encompassing approach to Wong's literary lineage singles his text out as a must-read volume in studying Wong's films. The two authors have somewhat different points of view on Wong, yet their books, taken together, complement one another and form companion volumes that allow us to fully appreciate Wong's work.
For Brunette, the primary attraction of Wong's cinema is its graphic expressivity, and so the author anchors his study of the films in formal visual terms (xv). Brunette admires Wong's masterly use of beautiful, at times stunning, visual styles and dedicates a significant amount of space in his book to analyzing the use of color, "bizarre camera angles" (6), jump cuts, "stretch printing of action scenes" (52) and so on, as well as Wong's tactics for revealing his "recurrent themes of time, love, and loss" (xv). By foregrounding the visual intertexuality of Wong's films, Brunette suggests that his work could be better enjoyed and understood as a whole.
Brunette often juxtaposes Wong's visual techniques with that of some world-renowned filmmakers. He compares several deserted settings in the final scenes of Days of Being Wild (1990) to Antonioni's final sequence in L'eclisse (1962) (29). The framing of protagonists' head shots in the restaurant sequence in In the Mood for Love (2000) recalls Ozu's framing (95). Brunette's perspicacious comments invite readers to look for more in Wong's oeuvre, which the author regards as the "future of cinema" (xiii).
Brunette praises Wong for his marvelous sound management, his "poetic voice-overs" (27) that provide "powerful suggestiveness and allusiveness" (40) in almost every film. The author believes that music, which has been neglected, "is a crucial feature of these films that actually 'activates' much of what is visually brilliant in them" (xv). No matter whether Wong employs Hawaiian, Spanish, or Argentinean music, it always boosts the visual effects in his films.
Near the end of his book, Brunette includes two interviews with Wong. One of them was conducted by Brunette at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1995, and the other by Gilles Ciment in front of a packed audience at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. Both interviews are published here for the first time. They cover some lesser-known facets of Wong's creative thinking and are important pieces of information for researchers. For instance, we learn about why Wong bypasses genre boundaries to achieve his aims, which are largely concerned with Hong Kong and its people (118). We also hear Wong make his own, tactful case for a way to read his films politically against the backdrop of the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China. Brunette, too, suggests such a reading in his analysis.
Admitting his lack of considerable knowledge of Chinese aesthetics, Brunette displays a certain western bias in analyzing Wong's oeuvre. His overemphasis on the visual expressivity of Wong's cinema has downplayed the significance of 1997 to Wong's choice of themes and his filmmaking career in Hong Kong. The author also makes some errors in his text that may affect our understanding of these films. For example, Brunette mistakenly tells us that Tony Leung's blind swordsman in Ashes of Time (1994) eventually returns to his wife (33), when in fact the swordsman dies in the battle that he fights for the girl played by Charlie Young. Brunette confuses the places of origin (a hint at the political bearings in Wong's films) of Faye Wong, the secret admirer of Tony Leung's policeman 633 in Chungking Express (1994), and Chang Chen, who plays Chang in Happy Together (1997). Faye is not, as Brunette says, from Taiwan (51) but from China. Brunette believes that Chang in Happy Together is from Hong Kong (73). Chang is actually from Taiwan, and this knowledge is very important for spectators to understand why Lai Yiufai (Tony Leung) visits the food stall run by Chang's parents in Taiwan in the ending sequence of the film. All in all, these are comparatively minor errors that do not distract us from exploring Wong's cinematic world through Brunette's vivid text.
Yet Brunette has left us to ask certain questions that his analysis does not answer directly. Wong is an exceptional case in the commercialized Hong Kong film industry. What has inspired Wong to make all these exquisite films rarely found in Hong Kong? Why is Wong willing to take the risk of bypassing generic boundaries in filmmaking when genre is such an important element to attract box-office success, which in turn affects the overseas sale of his films? How can Wong manage to secure huge investment for his films without a box-office guarantee? What are the opportunities/threats of the reunification of Hong Kong with China for Wong's filmmaking prospect? In short, can Wong survive in the local filmmaking industry in the long run?
Fortunately, Teo has some of the answers. As a Hong Kong film historian, Teo skillfully places Wong among contemporaries in the Hong Kong film industry at the outset of his analysis, giving us another perspective to understand Wong's cinema. Teo then moves on to trace the literary inspiration for each of Wong's films, which he asserts "remains basically undeveloped in critical analysis of the director" (3). In this regard, Teo's book echoes Jeremy Tambling's monograph entitled Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (Hong Kong University Press, 2003). Tambling's book devotes a large section to tracing the association of Happy Together with Latin American literature in general and Argentinean writers like Manuel Puig and Julio Cortazar in particular. Teo undertakes his study on Wong in a similar direction while identifying more of Wong's literary influencers: for example, Jin Yong and Liu Yichang from Hong Kong, as well as Haruki Murakami and Osamu Dazai from Japan. Teo contends that these authors not only inspire Wong's film contents, they also shape Wong's formal styles and narrative devices.
Teo's monograph is well-researched and thought-provoking, with a lot of contextual details about Wong's career path in the local film industry, his Shanghai roots, his emigration from China to Hong Kong in his early childhood in the 1960s, and the influence of this background on Wong's choice of themes, time periods, and settings. Detailed information on the production and reception history of each of Wong's films also abounds, thanks to Teo's extensive reference sources in both English and Chinese. Similar to Brunette, Teo devotes a portion of his text in each chapter to discuss Wong's signature themes. Teo also appreciates the special visual/aural techniques that Wong employs and believes that Wong's magnificent combination of these two effects enhances the overall mood in his cinema.
Brunette's book stops at the chapter on 2046 but includes the two interviews with Wong. Teo extends his analysis by covering Wong's mini-projects and commercials for some worldwide brands over the years and concludes his book with several paradoxes. Teo argues that Wong's films manifest both local and global elements at the same time. They also combine literature and images in such a way that their literature sources ultimately give rise to Wong's particular way of filmmaking. His beautifully shot films, suffused with real-life human emotions, relate both to the sentiments of pre-1997 Hong Kong and the anxieties of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, making Wong's cinema the embodiment of both dream and reality.
These materials are useful in providing us with glimpses of the aspects of Wong's career that have not yet been widely discussed, and they help answer the questions about Wong and his films that many spectators would like to ask. Still, in stuffing all these features into his limited space, Teo runs the risk of overwhelming his readers with sidetracks and distracting their attention from the author's main concern, which is to trace the literary lineage of Wong's films. His finely written book would have benefited from a more focused and in-depth study of such literary association.
Wong Kar-wai has undeniably inscribed his mark in the global cinema and has in many ways set a trend for his followers to ensue. By placing different emphases on Wong's oeuvre, both Brunette and Teo help broaden our horizons in appreciating Wong's films. Film scholars and movie buffs alike will surely welcome their stimulating discussions.