The World of Wong Kar-Wai: How the Films of Hong Kong’s Most Acclaimed Auteur Have Stayed Thrilling

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 WildChungk­ing 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Best 100 Movies of the 21st Cen­tu­ry (So Far) Named by 177 Film Crit­ics

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

The Secret of the “Per­fect Mon­tage” at the Heart of Par­a­site, the Kore­an Film Now Sweep­ing World Cin­e­ma

Quentin Taran­ti­no Picks the 12 Best Films of All Time; Watch Two of His Favorites Free Online

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.

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