Director Profile: Wong Kar-Wai

Being one of a collection of movie directors whose work I particularly like and why.
Best known for: As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004), My Blueberry Nights (2007), The Grandmaster (2013)
Most emblematic: Chungking Express
Widely considered the best: In the Mood for Love
Most underrated: Ashes of Time Redux
Personal favorite: Chungking Express
First one I ever saw: 2046. In theaters: None.

Favorite actors: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau, Chang Chen.
Recurring themes and tropes: A yearning for (often impossible) love. 1960s Hong Kong. Conflicted youth. Chinese covers. Anthology. Recurring characters that are really echoes of characters we've seen before. Mood and atmosphere over plot.
Elements of style: Films built in editing. Fractured narrative. Lush, neon cinematography (usually in concert with DP Chris Doyle). Frames within frames. Painterly, blurred, slow-motion action.
Reputation: Maverick avant-garde director. Meticulous to a fault, but improvising every step of the way, writing while shooting. Prone to writer's block that can hold productions up for weeks. Driving actors to their breaking point.
Appreciation: Wong Kar-Wai is perhaps the director I find most amazing in the entire canon of human cinema. My mind simply can't wrap itself around his highly improvised methods resulting in meticulously detailed films of incredible resonance. It should be one or the other, but both in the same work? Unthinkable.

The eye opener is the making of documentary packaged with Happy Together, his "Apocalypse Now", a troubled production that left actors stranded in Buenos Aires without a script while he faced agonizing writer's block, a film that had to take an entirely different shape once one of the leads had to leave for a music tour, one that includes scenes of actor Tony Leung walking around and visiting random places in the city, never meant for the final edit. But as the documentary tells us, this is often the way with Wong's films (case in point his masterpiece In the Mood for Love, for which he shot 30 times more film than what ended up on screen). He gives actors outlines, makes them develop characters in rehearsal, writes scenes based on those improvs, shoots them on the fly and with an eye towards experimentalism, edits the footage into a coherent story (or tone piece) the actors were never privy to... How these films can then be so emotional, subtle and thematically rich is anyone's guess. It's magic.

Of course, plot is secondary in a Wong Kar-Wai film. If that. Mood, atmosphere and style are more important. Even his action films (his early crime dramas, or the wuxia of Ashes of Time) are often meditative character pieces. If you're being unkind, replace "meditative" with "torpid". And despite it all, the films seem to all be part of a shared world, a tapestry spreading across time and parallel universes, connecting partly but not entirely through 2046. So there are the individual films, and there's the entire corpus, so it's interesting to revisit these lush, gorgeous movies for more than their visual and audio virtuosity, seeking unwritten character histories and thematic ground across all of them.

Bottom line, this is a director who continually amazes and intrigues me. I'll follow him wherever he goes.

But how do YOU rate Wong Kar-Wai?


Toby'c said...

First I saw was Chungking Express, for a university course in late 2010. I've since seen In the Mood For Love and 2046, and I'm not too enthusiastic about any of them.

Siskoid said...

Mileage may vary on any of these featured directors, but I'm a bit more art house than most.


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