As Criterion celebrates Wong Kar-wai’s career with the release of a seven-film restoration, James Balmont provides a guide to the vivid cinematic universe of the Hong Kong filmmaker
Civil unrest has been a predominant image of Hong Kong in recent years, but in the films of Wong Kar-wai, it’s an insatiable melting pot where romance, style and swagger can be found around every corner. His vision of the city caught the imaginations of audiences around the world in the 90s – and in 2021 that allure remains just as magnetic.
Once labelled Hong Kong’s enfant terrible for his tendency for time-wasting, re-shooting and budget-spending, Wong would become a darling of the international film festival scene with a series of cerebral, solipsistic dramas centred on love, crime and passion. These vivid themes are embodied by a revolving cast of complex, Godardian characters, whose personalities are revealed through voiceover monologues, imbuing a sense of noir-ish mystery amidst nostalgia-soaked settings.
Hong Kong is often the most vivid character of them all; brought to life by the stellar craftsmanship of master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose giddy camera movements are only amplified by the kinetic editing and exquisite set and costume design of William Chang. Wong – who often acts as writer, director and producer – would always be the guiding force. His ascendency is no better exemplified than by his constant presence at the Hong Kong Film Awards, where every natively-produced feature of his has been nominated for both Best Film and Best Director. (He’s won each award three times.)
In March 2021, Criterion celebrates Wong’s career with the release of a seven-film restoration titled The World of Wong Kar-wai – it comes just a month after the BFI screen their own career-retrospective of the director online. It’s clear that Wong’s boundless vision of Hong Kong as a multi-faceted metropolitan wonderland still resonates powerfully today.
So where does one even start with a cinematic universe as vivid as this? AnOther dived in to pick five sensuous Wong Kar-wai features that show why he remains Hong Kong’s most enduring independent filmmaker.
Days of Being Wild, 1990 (lead image)
Days of Being Wild follows Leslie Chung’s York (or ‘Yuddy‘) – a rebellious young beatnik who yearns for the love of his mother but can only find shallow romances with various disposable girlfriends. The original Cantonese title for the film was the same as was used for James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause – and this 60s-set drama makes for a fitting parallel.
Days of Being Wild was his first to involve long-time collaborator and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His striking visual style here would effectively guide the direction of Wong’s canon in the years that followed. His dreamy, floating camerawork blurs each lucid scene into the next, as a bottle-green tint creates deep, verdant hues amongst great jungle canopies and dilapidated dwellings. A soundtrack of gentle island surf music brings a tropical euphoria to this otherwise strangely desolate vision of Hong Kong, marked by outpours of heavy rain and recurring images of a clock stuck in time.
It’s a scant tale of love and lust brought to life by its visuals, with an ensemble cast of Hong Kong A-listers (including Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung) – already at the very top of their game – providing a depth that would be the core of Wong’s works hereafter.
Chungking Express, 1994
Frustrated by the constant delays in production for period drama Ashes of Time, Wong opted to take six weeks off to film Chungking Express during a gap in the film’s laboured editing process, on a budget of just HK$15m. Against the odds, this dynamic love letter to Hong Kong – partly inspired by the Haruki Murakami short story On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning – would turn out to be among the most alluring pieces of work in Wong’s entire canon.
Chungking Express concerns two separate tales of potential romance in the lively alleyways of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions. The first half takes the form of a thinly-veiled noir, with a detective falling in love with a mysterious femme fatale in the midst of a Blade Runner-esque bustle. The second is a blooming romance between a free-spirited fast-food worker (Faye Wong), and a charismatic cop (Tony Leung).
Despite a cavalcade of captivating performances, Hong Kong remains the most endearing presence of all. Here, the city is characterised by a constant sense of stimulation, provided via neon lights and crowded streets where leather merchants, neon nightclubs, convenience stores and public toilets collide. It is a film that shows the cosmopolitan city-state in its full, spellbinding glory, captured with frenetic cinematography, and a fragmented editing style directly inspired by the voguish productions of MTV.
The film cleared up at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1995, winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Tony Leung) and Best Editing. It would then become the first of Wong’s films to be distributed internationally, via Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder label.
Fallen Angels, 1995
Chungking Express had been envisioned as a triptych, but its proposed final chapter would instead become the basis for Fallen Angels. This is a grimier version of Hong Kong, focusing on two unconventional relationships: one between a hitman and his partner, the other of a mute troublemaker and an erratic stranger.
Despite numerous characters and settings being carried over from Chungking Express (including the now-deserted fast-food outlet Midnight Express, so central to Tony Leung and Faye Wong’s romance in the former), this colder, more desolate portrayal of Hong Kong is a wholly different story. It is one of the funniest entries in Wong’s canon; a string of slow-motion shootouts is over-the-top to the point of absurdity, while the mute He Zhiwu’s night-prowling antics are a constant source of oddball comic relief. But it is ultimately a much bleaker tonal shift, signposted early on by the moody, Massive Attack-inspired soundtrack.
Shot in an aggressively close-up style, Fallen Angels erects an invisible barrier between the viewer and the characters, using a wide-angle lens to distort the space between the camera and its subjects. It serves to highlight the insolvable social isolation of these grey characters, teetering on the edge of madness.
Christopher Doyle would win the Best Cinematography Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards as a result – an honour he would become almost synonymous with throughout his career with Wong.
Happy Together, 1997
On one of the most significant years in Hong Kong’s modern history – the year of the official handover from Britain to China – Wong chose to make a film set in an entirely different country. Decamping to Buenos Aires might have seemed unconventional for a filmmaker so readily concerned with Hong Kong’s ever-changing identity. But in fact, this drama about a volatile relationship between two gay lovers is a nuanced commentary in itself.
In 1997 the gay community bore palpable anxiety over the civil liberties that could potentially be lost under communist Chinese rule in Hong Kong. Wong made it his mission, then, to make a gay film before any potential transformations could occur. By moving the narrative to Argentina, Happy Together offers a statement on alienation and ostracisation by casting the film’s main characters, played by queer celebrity Leslie Cheung (Days of Being Wild) and Tony Leung (Chungking Express), adrift in a foreign country apparently entirely devoid of women.
The romance between these two men is depicted both in black-and-white flashbacks and splendorous colour, gradually developing from unflinching, close-up sexual fulfilment (in the opening scene, no less), to co-dependency, lustful jealousy and, eventually, emotional fallout.
Despite missing out on the Palme d’Or, it went on to win Best Director at Cannes Film Festival – thereby cementing Wong’s master status at one of the world’s most prestigious competitions.
In The Mood For Love, 2000
Shot back-to-back with spiritual sequel 2046, 60s drama In The Mood For Love follows two temporary neighbours who quietly develop feelings for one another upon discovering that their conspicuously absent spouses are likely having affairs.
A lonely Maggie Cheung plays the doting wife to a husband who never returns home; hard-working Tony Leung, meanwhile, learns that his wife has been seen in public with another man. Their bond is built in a most reserved fashion, befitting of the moral standards each character wishes to uphold. And thus, the whole film is soaked in suspense over whether they will each leave their spouses in favour of a happier life together. Being a Wong Kar-wai film, the climax of this tension is not as straightforward as the audience might hope.
Time is a constant presence in In The Mood For Love, with the film effectively broken up into chapters by the recurring image of a clock face. Shots and scenes repeat themselves, and slow-motion footage seems to evoke the characters’ deep will to remain in this moment for longer. But just as Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung continually pass on the stairs like ships in the night, so too does their chance to fulfil what could have been Hong Kong’s greatest screen romance.
Tony Leung won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance (becoming the first Asian actor to do so in the competition’s history) before picking up the same plaudit at the Hong Kong Film Awards, alongside his co-star, Maggie Cheung. It remains one of the most critically-acclaimed non-English language films of the 21st century, and Wong Kar-wai’s finest achievement.