Wong Kar-Wai

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Wong Kar-Wai
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Article

In the Mood For Hongkong

Wong Kar-Wai, who moved from Shanghai to Hongkong with his parents at the age of 5 in 1963, is said to be the cult director among young Hongkong film-makers of the 90s. In Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000), he and his cameraman Christopher Doyle created various aesthetic milestones of Hongkong and world film-making.
Wong Kar-Wai, who moved from Shanghai to Hongkong with his parents in 1963, is certainly the most influential young film-maker in Hongkong. Wong, who never works with a script, soon became a cult director of the 90s with his experimental style. He first captured attention with As Tears Go By (1988), a film which has often been compared with Scorsese´s Mean Streets. Already his next film Days of being Wild (1991) has a very typical style, which he has continued to develop with his cameraman Christopher Doyle. It involves very close shots, some of them fuzzy, and swift pans and tracks with a handheld camera. As later with Fallen Angels, all the filming is done at night or in shabby flats in a gloomy grey-blue light.

Days of being Wild is a nostalgic view of the chance meetings and passions of six youthful rebels who in Hongkong in the 60s are searching in vain for love and security. Wong goes for poetry more than for realism. ´The film creates the illusion of that era by means of small details: a tray with lemonade bottles, a big clock or the faded decor of a room,´ wrote the Hongkong Morning Post.

In Days of being Wild Tony Leung stood for the first time in front of a camera together with Maggie Cheung, who had already played the main role in As Tears Go By. It was the start of the successful co-operation of the Hongkong triad Wong, Cheung and Leung, whose latest triumph has been In the Mood for Love. The attractive Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) flirts with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) but then turns in boredom to a woman bar-tender, whom he likewise deserts, so as to search for his mother in Manila. The trip ends in a fiasco. His mother rejects him for the second time, and lovesick Su Lizhen spends a rainy night with a stoic policeman who does not really interest her. The lovesick policeman decides to go to sea and gets to know Yuddy in Manila. For both of them it proves to be the last trip.

The tale has not so much a thread as a kaleidoscopic effect. Folk come together and drift apart, and there are continually new constellations. At a calm pace with moody images, the film shows the sorrow of love, loss, yearning and the search for identity. Wong Kar-Wai plays masterfully with the phenomenon time, letting it occasionally seem to stand still. Days of being Wild is an artful homage to French existentialism, is deeply sad and made Wong Kar-Wai popular among international film critics. But though Days of being Wild received a number of Hongkong awards, including the award for the best film, it was not a success with the public. This led Wong to abandon the second part of the film, half of which had already been made.

The extravagant Kung-Fu film Ashes of Time (1994) was likewise a flop, though it brought Christopher Doyle the prize for best camerawork at the Venice Biennale. On the other hand the breathtakingly swift episodic film Chungking Express, which was directed incidentally the same year, soon became an international cult film.

In Hongkong´s neon jungle there is a painful but amusing dance of love. A young policeman (service number 223), who has just been deserted by his girlfriend, gets to know a mysterious woman with a blond wig in a bar. It is a brief meeting which happens to leave its mark on both lives. The policeman does not know that she is a dealer in cocaine, and the viewer knows that he is not going to prosecute her, since it is not a gangster film. A further policeman, who has likewise been deserted, takes a long time to realise that the wonderful waitress in the snack-bar loves him and has already taken his life into her hands. Furtively, she creeps into his flat, clears it up, waters his plants and gives him goldfish. And since she has gone to such trouble, she can hardly let him receive the letter from the stewardess, with whom he has fallen in love...

Chungking Express presents Hongkong as a claustrophobic colourful waiting room with brash shiny surfaces of chrome, glass and tin, in which Wong develops tragic-comical episodes, which hardly knit together into a conventional tale. Chungking Express is a storm of neon images taken by a swift and wobbly handheld camera to the music of California Dreaming.

Fallen Angels (1996) was at first meant to be the third episode of Chungking Express. Once more Hongkong appears at night in a sad, colourful and yet dingy light. Once more Wong Kar-Wai relies on Christopher Doyle´s freely moving handheld camera, and once more the themes are love, violence, hate and death. Here, too, there is hardly a story-line in the normal sense of the word. Rather there are moods, colours and music, often repeated and slightly varied. The protagonists in films by Wong Kar-Wai show their feelings not directly but through the soundtrack, the colour-design and the gloomy images of Hongkong at night.

Fallen Angels is the tale of the professional killer Wong, who is loath to think about the meaning of his job, and his pretty agent, who organises everything and has fallen in love with him. But a love-affair between a killer and his agent would be against the professional etiquette, so she may only behave now and then in his room as if he were there. Wong limits their partnership strictly to business and confides only to the viewer that he views his agent as part of his life. The agent has no choice but to live out her unfulfilled yearning on Wong´s bed and to sieve his litter for traces of the adored being. There she finds time and again visiting-cards from the same bar where Wong drowns his frustration in alcohol. Since he keeps on being shot at more and more during his work, he decides to retire, and on meeting the crazy blond from Chungking Express, he starts to have an affair with her and orders his agent to listen by the jukebox at the same bar to his favourite song Forget Me. The offended agent devises a final job - and her boss´s obituary.

Fallen Angels was followed in 1997 with Happy Together, a film about a homosexual couple in Buenos Aires. ´The film is a tango´, said the director in Cannes, where he was awarded the prize for best director in 1997. Fallen Angels shows a couple of homosexual Chinese exiles Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing on their journey from Hongkong to Buenos Aires. They want to make a new start, but it fails to work out. One of them leaves, and the other stays and works in a tango-bar to pay for the flight back. Seldom has homosexuality been shown on screen as being so self-evident. ´I thought, since I´ve been making films about men and women for so long, why shouldn´t I this time make a film about two men for a change,´ said Wong Kar-Wai. ´The two actors (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) had already made two films with me, and we knew each other quite well, so I thought it would be fun to have them play two lovers on screen. One could say that the film is about a homosexual pair, but the film is not a usual tale about homosexuals but rather a love-story. The same can happen to a man and a woman. I would not say that the film is specifically for homosexuals, since I think that one shouldn´t classify things too neatly.´

Though the film is set in Buenos Aires, Happy Together is also about nostalgia for Hongkong, says Wong: ´I can´t say why, but I couldn´t stop thinking of Hongkong. My location manager in Buenos Aires was very frustrated, since he showed me all sorts of landscapes, palaces and villas and then I made nearly the whole film in a small hotel-room and on the night streets of the Boca borough. Maybe I did it since the light and the smells all reminded me of Kowloon.´

With his latest film In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-Wai surprised all his admirers who were expecting a continuation in the style of his successes till then. On the surface, this film, which was awarded a César, is exactly the opposite of Chungking Express or Fallen Angels. Instead of taking shots from odd angles with a hectic handheld camera, the cameraman Christopher Doyle worked this time statically. Instead of growing dizzy from swift pans, the viewer now has time enough to gaze calmly at the few settings, which Wong is able to show in a continually new light. As in a chamber-work, he shows narrow passages and alleys in the guesthouse and borough, where the protagonists live and work.

All scenes are borne on the wings of music, which is typical of films from Wong. ´The music is normally my starting point. It gives the tempo. In the case of Happy Together it was a tango; and for this film (In the Mood for Love), it was a waltz. And when I start shooting a film, I must first know the space, the place and the surroundings. From a simple street-corner a long film can be made. So I look for a place and then I think: What kinds of folk loiter here; what is the specific sound of this place... I show a person, then I think: Where does he live? In a guesthouse or with his family? If he lives together with his family, how many of them live together under one root? The mother and the grandmother, or would that be too many?´

The journalist Chow (Tony Leung) and the secretary Li-Zehn (Maggie Cheung) get to know one another in a guesthouse in 1963, the year in which Wong Kar-Wai moved from Shanghai to Hongkong. The guesthouse is run by expatriate Chinese in Hongkong, and the journalist and the secretary move in at nearly the same time. They see their wife and husband seldom, as they are mostly away on business. Somewhere along the line, the two of them have to admit that their partners must be having an affair with each other. But also they, the deceived, are in the mood for love. They visit each other so often that their neighbours begin gossiping, though in fact they only talk about the serialised novel which Chow is writing and Li-Zehn is decisively contributing to. To the music of Nat King Cole, they approach each other both cautiously and politely.

But the two betrayed marriage-partners do not come together. Chow fears that his love for Li-Zehn is not reciprocated and decides to leave Hongkong for Singapore. Surprisingly the melodrama breaks out of the bounds of a chamber-work, and their personal fate mingles with the drama of decolonisation. In the epilogue set in 1966, Li-Zehn, now with a child, plans to emigrate to the USA. Chow is seen, after a Buddhist ritual in a temple at Angkor Wat, whispering the sweet secret of his impossible love into a hole in a wall. Then Wong shows us documentary footage of a visit paid to Phnom Penh by Charles de Gaulle, as if to say that the kind of love just shown is as antiquated as the colonial pomp of the general´s visit.

European viewers and reviewers have focused mostly on the melodrama of unrequited love and called the end of the film out of key, if referring to it at all. Wong Kar-Wai stresses that In the Mood for Love was taken in Hongkong and China to be a comedy. ´In the first half it is really almost a comedy, as the folk are all very happy. I think that something is lost in the sub-titles. The dialogues are mostly ambivalent, and the Chinese public, knowing the language, are more able to appreciate that, besides which they are more familiar with the actors, since Tony and Maggie are big stars. For an Asiatic public it´s very funny how these eminent actors rehearse scenes from a marriage. Naturally, a viewer without this background will react to the film quite differently.´

Wong Kar-Wai also stresses the importance of the time in which the film is set. ´It is a film about a certain period in our past. I didn´t want the film to end as a piece of fiction. In ending in Angkor Wat, the film refers to historical events, of which one of the most important was the visit by Charles de Gaulle. He there held a very colonial speech. Moreover, in 1966, there was also the cultural revolution in China. These events all contributed to the political climate of the period which the film is about.´

In his next work, Wong Kar-Wai may deliver what many viewers have been expecting from him since Hongkong was ceded to China: a film about Hongkong in the post-British era, set not in the present but in the future. The film is not meant to be science fiction but a ´futuristic film. It is to be set in a time 50 years from now, which is not very far in the future. In 1997 the Chinese government pledged that nothing in Hongkong would change in the next 50 years. 2046 is the last year for which this pledge holds, and we want to look at what will in fact have changed. Just don´t expect something like The Fifth Element. The film is to be about pledges.´
Author: Ulrich Joßner

Bio

Born in Shanghai in 1958, Wong Kar-Wai moved at the age of 5 with his parents to Hongkong. There he studied graphic design at the Polytechnic and began working in 1980 as a director´s assistant and writer for television. In 1988 he directed his first film, As Tears Go By. It was also the first time that he had worked with Maggie Cheung, who was still very young. In his Days of being Wild (1991) he then worked for the first time with Tony Leung. They then became known as the Hongkong triad. After the ambitious kung-fu costume-film Ashes of Time (1994) Wong Kar-Wai made Chungking Express (1994), which became a cult film all round the world. After Fallen Angels (1995) he made Happy Together (1997), for which he was awarded, for instance, the prize for best director at Cannes. His latest international success In the Mood for Love (2000) also won several awards, including the César and the Five Continent Prize of the European Film Prize.

Works

The Grandmasters

Film / TV,
2011

There’s Only One Sun

Film / TV,
2007
Short film

My Blueberry Nights

Film / TV,
2007
Feature film. Original in English.

To Each His Own Cinema

Film / TV,
2004
Short film

Eros

Film / TV,
2004
Short film

2046

Film / TV,
2004
Feature film. Shanghai. Direction

Six Days

Film / TV,
2002
Short film

The Hire: The Follow

Film / TV,
2001
Short film

Hua Yang De Nian Hua

Film / TV,
2000
Short film

In the Mood for Love

Film / TV,
2000

Happy Together

Film / TV,
1997

Chungking Express

Film / TV,
1995

Fallen Angels

Film / TV,
1995

Ashes of Time

Film / TV,
1994

Days of Being Wild

Film / TV,
1991

As Tears Go By

Film / TV,
1988

Merits

1997
Award for best director, Cannes, for Happy Together
2000
Five Continent Prize of the European Film
2001
César Award, Best Foreign Film (In the Mood for Love)
2004
European Film Awards, Screen International Award (2046)


Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

About Beauty

Exhibition, Dance, Workshops, Conference

(18 March 05 - 15 May 05)

Festival of Vision: Hongkong – Berlin

(27 July 00 - 10 September 00)

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