Wong Kar-wai. I was trying to figure out how to continue a sentence with his name as the subject, but adding a verb like “is” or “does” or “makes” seemed too simple. He started out with a degree in graphic design, moved on to work in television as a screenwriter, and transitioned into writing and directing films in the mid-eighties, making him part of the Second Wave of Hong Kong directors. The First Wave (also referred to as the New Wave) was from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s (before this, you had the “classical” period, which is Post-WWII to when the First / New Wave began, and composed of Shaw Brothers and the like). The Second Wave picked up from there and included Fruit Chan (who I’m unfamiliar with, but I’ve had Three … Extremes wrapped up on my shelf for years now), Stanley Kwan (don’t know), Peter Chan (saw Perhaps Love but don’t remember much about it, and Warlords has been sitting in my cue for a long time now), Clara Law (who?) and Evans Chan (To Live was good). Of all these directors, WKW is way above the rest. His films include As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994) [this film, for me, was nigh incomprehensible – perhaps that is because I saw the Redux version done in 2008], Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) [another Criterion film that I will eventually revisit], and 2046 (2004). There are three main characteristics of WKW films: unique visual style, infectious use of music and themes of love and longing. This has led critics to brand him an auteur, much like New / First Wave directors Tsui Hark and John Woo.
WKW works primarily with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. They were quite experimental for their time, putting multiple lenses and filters on the cameras they used for CE and using a wide angle lens for most of the shooting of Fallen Angels. It’s a kinetic style, sometimes blurry, sometimes looking like photographs spliced together rather than 24 fps movement, but then sometimes lingering on subjects, still. Tony Leung’s character’s apartment in CE was Doyle’s apartment. Doyle and WKW seem like very different people (WKW seems cool, reserved, laid back, while Doyle is talkative, gesticulating), yet their collaboration works well for what WKW is evoking, which is more based in emotional impact than narrative flow. It’s the impression he seems to be after. And it’s not just about the cinematography. Color plays a huge role in setting the tone. Some of this movie looks like sherbet, while others glow neon. Objects have their own pigmented vibrancy.
Music is almost its own refrain in WKW movies. There’s a lot of Nat King Cole in In the Mood for Love. There’s Frank Zappa in Happy Together. The Chinese version of “Take My Breath Away” in As Tears Go By. A remixed “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack punctuates Fallen Angels. And in this film, you will have “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas stuck in your head for a while. KWK’s use of music often underscores passion. But in this movie, at least for me, it was used comically. And that’s what struck me about this movie was how funny it is. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud watching a movie this much. I’m not saying it’s a comedy, but the writing in this appealed to my sense of humor. I don’t find anything about In the Mood for Love, 2046, or Happy Together all that funny. There were some funny moments in Fallen Angel (there are some sketchy links between characters, locations, and situations in CE and FA), but CE really tickled me.
Something else I appreciate about WKW is that in a lot of his movies, he casts Tony Leung. Leung got his start being a heartthrob on Hong Kong soap operas and made the transition to movies. He’s incredibly handsome. And he has quite a range of roles (cop [CE] / undercover cop [Hard Boiled – another Criterion movie I will eventually get to] / crook, straight [most movies] / gay [Happy Together], hero [Infernal Affairs] / amazingly assholish villain [Lust, Caution]. KWK also uses Andy Lau, another great HK actor, in his movies – but not this one. Maggie Cheung, who isn’t in this film, is another actor in multiple WKW movies. He is certainly good at including talent in his works.
But to get to the third characteristic running through most of the WKW movies I’ve seen, there is a lot of unrequited love and loss. CE centers on two police officers, identified primarily by their numbers, 223 and 663. 223 has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, but he’s having a hard time coming to grips with this fact. An odd countdown involving dated, canned pineapple ensues. When the last day of the countdown arrives, and he must make peace that he will not be getting back together with his girlfriend, he meets a woman in a bar and tries desperately to communicate with her. Her life is in absolute chaos due to a drug deal that has gone very, very badly, and she seems to tolerate 223 simply because she feels she is on the tail end of her doomed time left on the planet. The movie then transitions, about a third of the way in, to a woman 223 had seen earlier during an arrest, who works at a food stand. She waits on officer 663, as he brings food to his girlfriend. He always brings her the same thing. It is suggested that he bring her something different – how else would he know what she likes? After a couple of times of bringing her something different, the girlfriend leaves 663 (presumably for something else). Nice metaphorical irony there. He has a fling with a stewardess, feeling that she is the one. However, she is in and out with too much frequency, and he waits for her with little hope. The girl working at the food counter eventually gets access to 663’s apartment (I’m not going to explain all of this – watch the movie) and starts redecorating while he’s at work. But the two never hook up. It reminds me of Andy Lau’s character Tide in Days of Being Wild, who while walking his beat has Maggie Cheung’s character Su confide in him. He seems to like her, but she’s so damaged over Yuddy that she can’t see Tide and what a better man he’d be for her (Yuddy being a complete loss emotionally to Su and his other girlfriend Mimi). Once she does try to contact Tide, he has become a sailor and is gone. A series of missed opportunities and pining for something that can’t or won’t happen. Nothing exemplifies this more or better than In the Mood for Love, where two neighbors who clearly are attracted to each other stay loyal to their spouses, even when they find out that the spouses are cheating on them together. I don’t know much about WKW’s personal life, but as he wrote the screenplays for almost all the movies he directs, it would be difficult not to make the connection, covering the same theme and ground time after time.
I find it interesting that in the two previous films that I commented on, one was trying to go for emotion (sans narrative and intellect) but only got apathy from me (3 Women) and the other was supposed to be erotic but left me cold (Black Narcissus), yet watching Chungking Express, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild nearly back to back, all three are deeply emotional and seductive and don’t have to have their intention stated outright by their director.