Director Spotlight: Wong Kar Wai
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Wong Kar Wai had a great year in 2020. In addition to announcing a potential sequel to Chungking Express (1994) and an upcoming television series called Blossoms, seven of his most famous films were remastered and given the Criterion treatment of a beautiful box set release. A master at lush visuals and atmospheric doomed romance, Wong Kar Wai is accurately regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. In this director spotlight, we’ll take a look at five of his most famous films and explore what makes them great.
Days of Being Wild - 阿飛正傳 (1990)
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau
As Tears Go By (1988) was Wong’s feature directorial debut. Although that film feels out of place in Wong’s filmography in retrospect, with a rather conventional story focusing heavily on gangster conflict, it still laid part of the groundwork for what we associate with Wong Kar Wai’s style: doomed romances and evocative uses of pop songs. Following his debut, his style of filmmaking is in full force with Days of Being Wild, a film about a playboy, Yuddy (played by Leslie Cheung) who finds out he was adopted and sets out to find his biological mother.
Although it does have this focused central plot, it’s still like any of his later films; there’s considerable emphasis on mood and atmosphere and most of the runtime is dedicated to following the main character as he goes about his daily life, picking up women for one-night stands. Yuddy is not one of Wong’s best characters, as he can be quite an irritating person to center a film on. However, with a magnetic performance from Leslie Cheung, Wong and Cheung managed to ground the character with an underlying sense of pathos.
Chungking Express - 重慶森林 (1994)
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung, Faye Wong
Taking a two month break from filming his wuxia film, Ashes of Time (1994), Wong conceived and filmed Chungking Express in its entirety in only six weeks. Despite the rushed production, Chungking Express remains one of Wong’s best and most entertaining to date. Employing a double-pronged narrative structure, it follows two lovelorn cops on the nighttime streets of Hong Kong looking for romance. One is obsessed with a mysterious woman, while the other meets a quirky snack bar worker named Faye, who is obsessed with him.
Chungking Express is another virtually plotless film that cares more about characters and mood than a carefully structured narrative. Its double storyline intersects as little as possible, leaving enough room for each of them to develop on their own. The scenes of Faye breaking into Tony Leung’s character’s apartment and doing his chores secretly for him is one of the many reasons why Chungking Express stands out as an unusually upbeat and light-hearted film in Wong’s filmography.
Fallen Angels - 墮落天使 (1995)
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung, Leon Lai, Michelle Reis
Fallen Angels is the darker and moodier cousin of Chungking Express. Originally conceived as the third storyline in Chungking Express, Wong developed and expanded it into a stand-alone film. Aside from its original intention, Fallen Angels is not connected to Chungking Express. However, they do share similar themes and settings: lovesick characters, Hong Kong nightlife, and doomed romances.
Now that I think about it, Fallen Angels is a more abstract version of As Tears Go By. Both films center on the criminal underworld and both have characters pining for romances that were never meant to be. However, Fallen Angels contains more of Wong’s trademark style: bold uses of colour, loosely interconnected storylines, pop music to set the tone of each scene, etc. With its use of extreme wide-angle lenses, it gives the film a colder and more claustrophobic look. Instead of investing ourselves into the narrative, it feels as if we’re just voyeurs of a world that’s alienating and strange.
Happy Together - 春光乍洩 (1997)
Cast: Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Chang Chen
Happy Together is Wong’s first and only LGBTQ film. Romances that weren’t meant to be are a common theme in Wong’s filmography. Happy Together is no different in this respect, but what sets it apart from the others is that the central romance is depicted as turbulent and messy, one rife with conflict and selfishness.
However, it is much more nuanced than that. A more conventional film would have just portrayed all the bad times in the relationship, spoonfeeding the audience evidence that it was a toxic romance. Wong doesn’t do that; he also portrays all the good times in the relationship, thus lending more complexity and nuance to what we’re supposed to generally feel about the both of them as individuals.
In the Mood for Love - 花樣年華 (2000)
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung
Here we arrive at what is arguably Wong’s best film to date. In the Mood for Love is Wong’s magnum opus. It’s a culmination of all the themes that he’s been exploring throughout his entire filmography; it’s also where we see Wong at the height of his powers. Deliberately slow and aimless, this is a film about another doomed romance, however this time it’s more melancholic and moody. The scenes of slow-motion walks through corridors set to Yumeiji’s Theme perfectly encapsulate the reason why I love this film: its grandiose beauty offset by a twinge of melancholia.
Its autumnal colour palette combined with the occasional moments of stillness also contribute to its everlasting beauty. Meanwhile, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in the leading roles are simultaneously captivating and heartbreaking, playing two individuals who do yearn for a romance but are constrained by societal expectations. In the Mood for Love is regarded as one of the best films of all time, and deservedly so.