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13th March 2021

The World of Wong Kar-Wai: A retrospective of the Hong Kong auteur

Remasterings of the major works of Wong Kar-Wai feature timeless and urgent love stories and pay homage to the city of Hong Kong
The World of Wong Kar-Wai: A retrospective of the Hong Kong auteur
Photo: Wikimedia

The World of Wong Kar-Wai presents remasterings of most of his major works from the late 1980s to early 2000s. The retrospective runs ahead of a Criterion Collection box set works – the highest accolade the cinephilic world can offer.

How would one describe the World of Wong Kar-Wai? He is a director whose work begs for adjectives: Beautiful; Romantic; Dramatic; Tender; Subdued; Intoxicating; Insightful; Moving; Etc.

But a better question to start would be where is the world of Wong Kar-Wai? That is more simple: Hong Kong. His love for the place he grew up is stamped on every frame of his work. It is the connective tissue between his films. His affection is strikingly parochial contrasted against the city’s position as a cosmopolitan, transitory, globalised hub. 

Hong Kong is, he reminds us, more than a port, a trading floor, a geopolitical pawn. It is a place where people live and breathe and love. Even when we leave Hong Kong for Argentina in Happy Together, the city’s gravity pulsates within the characters. They are made by the city as much as it is made of them.

When artists turn their focus to cities, they often emphasise how perversely alienating it can be to live amongst other people. Realities of repetitive work, class and race are more pronounced the more people bump against one another. The recurrent stories of cities in cinema often emphasise how, under capitalist logic, identity is broken down. Characters are estranged from others and themselves, as if pushed against a lathe to be tempered.

Wong Kar-Wai’s world can be melancholy and his Hong Kong. But what he revels in showing, and perhaps is more interested in, is the spontaneity and opportunity of the city. How chance encounters at late night eateries under harsh lights are beautiful and should be treasured, even if they lead to sorrow. His characters are built with care, imbued with internal forces and mechanisms that govern their lives and thrown, into the city on collision courses. Under the pressure of Hong Kong, none of them emerge unchanged.

Most of his films are concerned with love. Ideas of Great Romance are a little hokey and associated with novels so classic they’re clichéd – but they’re also real. In real life we are put in these situations and what we do is to some extent within our control, isn’t it?

Of the eight films on offer, I watched four of them: Chungking Express, Fallen Angel, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love. This was my first exposure to Wong Kar-Wai’s work, and what an introduction it was. Chungking Express in particular is a gorgeous looking film. It was made in a frantic two months as a diversion during the protracted editing process on another project (The Ashes of Time). The urgency of the shoot bleeds into the finished film. Lightbulbs gain tails like comets as the camera races through dense streets of the city. It is a brilliant, moving film that remained perched in my chest all the next day.

On its heels, Fallen Angels (originally conceived as a part of Chungking Express but spun out to feature length) doesn’t reach those heights for me. But Happy Together, a thoughtful drama about a gay couple on holiday in Argentina, was one of the most nuanced films about relationships I’ve seen in a while. The monologues from Chungking Express are exchanged for extended shots that let the actors and sets breathe. In The Mood For Love takes this a step further, with the actors often being obscured or missing from the frame. But it is their absence that is so resonant.

As a rule, I’m not a believer in the cult of the director. Although helpful in establishing a common constellation of reference points, I don’t really believe in a sanctified “canon” of auteurs. One of the many great joys of cinema is that it is a collaborative medium. While Wong Kar-Wai’s direction and writing are invaluable, he surrounds himself with professionals of the highest quality.

His excellence is matched by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editor/art director William Chang, composers Michael Galasso, Frankie Chan and Danny Chung, and great performances from Leslie Cheung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong and Maggie Cheung. His muse, perhaps, is Tony Leung who is outstanding in three main roles as men wrestling with powerful feelings of love and loss, trying to be decent and good in the face of a complex and difficult world. His face conveys more pathos in a scene than some actors manage in a career.

The collaborative nature of filmmaking is a great mirror for the city itself. Above all, that may be the meaning of the world of Wong Kar-Wai: other people. Complex, remarkable, beautiful people.

Wong Kar-Way films are available to rent on BFI Player.

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