I’ve just seen the future of cinema.” So declared the American film critic Peter Brunette after stumbling, “still dazed,” from a screening at the 1995 Toronto International Film festival. “Oh,” replied TIFF Cinémathèque programmer (and respected authority on Asian cinema) James Quandt. “You’re just coming from the Wong Kar-wai film?” Brunette includes this story in his monograph on Wong’s work, which was published in 2005. At that point, his pictures like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and In the Mood for Love had already torn through global film culture, inspiring cinephiles and filmmakers alike to believe that an intoxicating range of cinematic possibilities still lay unexplored.
What’s more, they seemed to do it all of a sudden, having come out of nowhere. Of course, they came out of somewhere: Hong Kong, to be precise, a small but densely populated and economically mighty soon-to-be-former-colony whose distinctive cultural and industrial mixture produced a kind of modernity at once familiar and alien to beholders around the world.
Or at least it felt that way to those beholding it through Wong Kar-wai movies, which created their very own aesthetic world within the context of Hong Kong. That “neon-drenched” world in which “lonely souls drift around, desperately trying to make a meaningful connection, no matter how fleeting,” is the subject of the new BFI video essay at the top of the post.
As a part of Hong Kong’s “second new wave,” Wong found his cinematic voice by telling “highly atmospheric stories of restrained passion, using dazzling visuals, memorable songs, and unconventional narratives,” all the while “pushing the boundaries of Hong Kong genre cinema to create something fresh and inventive.” The West got its first big dose of it in 1994 through Chungking Express, whose worldwide release owed in part to the enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino. In the clip above Tarantino does some enthusing about it and the rest of Wong’s oeuvre up to that point, which “has all that same energy that Hong Kong tends to bring to its cinema, but he’s also taking a cue from the French New Wave” — and especially Jean-Luc Godard, who showed how to “take genre pieces and break the rules.”
None of Wong’s films has made as much of an impact as 2000’s In the Mood for Love, the tale of a man and woman brought together — though not all the way together — by the fact that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, analyzes the movie’s power in the video essay “Frames within Frames.” Watching it, he says, “you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of somebody in complete control.” By restricting his cinematic language, Wong “echoes the restriction of action that plagues Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in 1960s Hong Kong.” The recent 20th-anniversary restoration of In the Mood for Love and those of Wong’s other work are even now being screened around the globe. Having caught one such screening just last night, I feel like I’ve seen the future of cinema again.
Note: The Criterion Collection now offers a Wong Kar-wai box set that features seven blu-rays, including 4k digital restorations of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, Happy Together and more. Find it here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.