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March 9, 2014


Favorites Corner: Films of Wong Kar-wai


An occasional feature where the writers compare their favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema.

Wong Kar-wai (b. 1958)

Wong Kar-wai (b. 1958)

In the Mood for Love (2000)

In the Mood for Love (2000)

GEOFF (#1): Wong’s films are oftentimes connected, thematically and stylistically, to be sure, but also by using many of the same actors and continuing certain plot/character threads from film to film. In this case, In the Mood for Love springs in small part from Days of Being Wild, and this trend continues on a few years later with the less successful 2046. This illustrates not just why Wong’s films are so readily identifiable (much like Kubrick’s or Tarantino’s) but also why, for me anyway, they are so easy to sink into. Whenever I see any of his films, I always feel that something, comparable to déjà vu, that sense I’m returning somewhere I’ve been before, but in the same way, the harder I try to cement the details in my mind, the hazier the memory becomes.

In the Mood for Love is the ultimate representation of this sensibility for me, and of all Wong’s films, this is the dreamiest, which, if you’ve seen his work, you know this is saying quite a bit. The swirling kinetic energy seen so purposefully in other Wong films (like Ashes of Time) is lessened dramatically here, blended within a lush color palette, evoking another world from an age long past, useful since the movie takes place in Hong Kong during the early 1960s.

Formulaic Hollywood romantic comedies (no judgment) operate along the same fault lines (seriously, no judgment) as In the Mood for Love. Two characters meet, clearly meant for one another, obstacles are presented, true feelings are realized, missed opportunities/misunderstandings ensue and finally, blessed togetherness and happily ever after. In the Mood for Love keeps the basic structure but eschews the mawkish sentimentality Hollywood tends to employ in favor of a deep, painfully observed sense of longing.

The movie moves in languid fashion between the lives of two lost souls, played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, both Wong Kar-wai favorites, and Cheung in particular has never been better, nor more beautifully filmed. Cheung, the female face of Hong Kong new wave cinema, is amazing in the lead role, loneliness and desperation coming off her in cartoonishly wavy stink lines. A beautiful, great film.

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild (1990)

HELEN (# 1): If you asked me what Wong’s best film is I could give you plenty of reasons why it’s the exquisite In the Mood for Love. Days of Being Wild isn’t his title I’ve watched the most times either. That too would be in the In the Mood for Love, or maybe Chungking Express, both of which I’ve watched several more times than twice. Yet for reasons I can’t quite pin down, it’s this one- Wong’s second, and first fully realized film- that is my favorite. It’s a wonderful movie with a superb cast of iconic Hong Kong actors, including several of my favorites (namely Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung, and Maggie Cheung). Still, neither of those recommendations makes it unique among Wong’s work. In the final analysis something about this movie simply grabs my heart in a special way. Roger Ebert liked to observe that no great movie is depressing. The characters largely experience life along a continuum of sadness, but just thinking about Days of Being Wild leaves me elated.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

GEOFF (# 2): If Maggie Cheung was the queen bee of the Hong Kong new wave, then Brigitte Lin was the reigning princess. A fine actress who appeared in a variety of films and roles, from The Bride with White Hair to numerous Tsui Hark vehicles like the spectacular Peking Opera Blues to Jackie Chan’s Police Story, she possessed Wong’s desired super-filmable cheekbones (see Tony Leung) and the more important ability to convey emotion without a strong attached narrative to help the viewer moving along.

Enter Chungking Express, which is really two movies in one, but they blend seamlessly, like much of Wong’s best work, and both stories create a framework with which to observe intensely lonely characters, despite the multitude of ‘life’ surrounding them, a juxtaposition that makes the pop music soundtrack all the more melancholy. This was Lin’s last starring role, she retired after Chungking Express. She’s in so many of my favorite Hong Kong movies from this era it’s almost impossible to separate the two, much like Andy Lau and Lau Ching-wan have come to dominate my sense of the modern Hong Kong film industry. This isn’t my favorite Lin film, but largely because I knew it was her last hurrah going into it, it remains for me the most memorable of her performances.

HELEN (# 3): Chungking Express is both characteristic and atypical of Wong’s work. It’s the filmic equivalent of two novellas published in a single volume but linked only by their author’s distinctive sensibility and a certain thematic kinship. Genre mash-up melds with finely observed study of romantic longing, the atypical aspect being the considerable, dominant even, comicality of the male characters’ encounters with heartbreak. Like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express has a wonderful particularity. In its overarching sensibility and lovingly observed details of time and place, this is a movie of and for Hong Kong.

I’m glad this was the first Wong Kar-wai film I saw. Representative in its idiosyncrasies, also thoroughly charming and (relatively speaking) accessible, it’s the ideal introduction to this singular filmmaker.

Ashes of Time (1994)

Ashes of Time (1994)

GEOFF (# 3): Brigitte Lin is also in Ashes of Time, as are Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, but I mentioned them in the earlier films because I wanted to spend my Ashes of Time time talking about other things besides the film’s cast, namely the Ashes of Time drinking game (patent pending).

Simple rules. Gather a group of friends and press play, then take a drink whenever the following occurs:

1) A character stares out into the desert for no apparent reason.

2) The camera lingers more than 10 seconds on the wind sweeping across the desert.

3) The camera whooshes about the desert in hyper-kinetic fashion to create a blur of color.

4) Someone in your group furrows their brow and asks any approximation of the question, “Wait, what?”

Ashes of Time, as overtly and absurdly an arthouse film as there ever was or will be, works for me precisely because it is such an abstract perspective on the wuxia genre, and after having seen so many martial arts movies operate in the exact same straightforward fashion, stylistically/visually/tonally, it was refreshing to see something so abstract and unusual.

Fair warning, this movie is not for everyone, it is best seen in the theater, and I take no responsibility for those who attempt the Ashes of Time drinking game. Patent pending.

HELEN (# 2): A tour de force of conjuring emotion out of beauty, Ashes of Time is Wong’s cinema taken to its logical extreme. All the elements are present; the rapturously gorgeous images, slow-burn intensity, faces the camera loves, and elliptical storytelling- and all are cranked up to 11. It’s also a unique embodiment of the wuxia fantasy, Wong’s training ground during his apprenticeship in the Hong Kong film industry and, to the favorites list point at hand, long my favorite movie genre. Oblique and allusive*, lacking a narrative in any conventional sense, Ashes of Time is a mesmerizing fusion of fragments of stories glimpsed through a dreamlike haze.

*On the genre allusions


Share your favorites in the comments.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 9 2014

    It’s not like we had that many choices, but still ,picking two of the same movies for a ‘3 favorites’ list must say something in favor of genetics in the nature vs. nurture argument. Or maybe this is emblematic of the environmental, given we grew up in the same place. Or maybe it’s both. Neither? Anyway, you’re got great taste in movies, sis.

  2. Mar 9 2014

    From Kar Wai’s filmography I’d only watched In the Mood for Love, 2046, My Blueberry Nights, and The Grandmasters (the original 130 minute Chinese version). My favourite film of his is The Grandmasters, but his most perfect film, personally, is In the Mood for Love. :O)

    And a few years back I’d rented Ashes of Time Redux, not having watched the original version, and was bored within 15 minutes. I was immediately lost and then, quickly grew bored. That film just didn’t like me…

  3. Mar 9 2014

    I’ve seen all of Wong’s movies but not quite all of them in the theater, which is significant because home theater vs. real theater makes a huge difference in experiencing his movies. Both DAYS OF BEING WILD and ASHES OF TIME I saw first on DVD and second in the theater and if not for the theatrical viewing, neither would be on my favorites list.

    The ones I’ve seen only on DVD are CHUNGKING EXPRESS (but it has sentimental favorite status going for it), FALLEN ANGELS and his debut, the triad genre movie AS TEARS GO BY. If someday I get to see FALLEN ANGELS on the big screen I’ll have to revisit this list.

    @Geoff: Right back at you, bro. If we’d gone to five no doubt we’d have overlapped completely.

    @Nir: Half your seen list is Wong’s weakest titles (i.e., 2046 and MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS). Along with Geoff’s and my combined top four, HAPPY TOGETHER is also essential viewing.

  4. Mar 10 2014

    lol I never said that My Blueberry Nights was a good film. But I did watch it simply because it’s a Wong Kar Wai film. 0_<

    And even though 2046 isn’t an amazing film, or even a good one, really, it has a terrific soundtrack and looks fantastic. One can definitely tell that Kar Wai was writing it while shooting it. 0_<

  5. Mar 13 2014

    I was pretty excited for both My Blueberry Nights and 2046, which was a useful lesson in the dangers of raised expectations. Still, as Nir wrote, they look fantastic, especially 2046.

  6. Mar 14 2014

    And that’s why I don’t dislike 2046. Kar Wai is all abut atmosphere and the passage of time. I find that 2046 showed that in abundance.

  7. Mar 16 2014

    Well, “weakest” is a relative term. 2046 is the only one of his films I didn’t enjoy and it was still worth seeing for the visuals and soundtrack; and part of why I didn’t like it was that my expectations were likewise much too high for the sort-of continuation of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. There are segments of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS that I liked very much although the movie suffers badly from the connecting thread being Norah Jones, whose casting must surely be explained, as Geoff so aptly put it, by her “super-filmable cheekbones.” (Actually, and I’ve never read anything about the casting or production so this is purely my speculation, I think Wong was also hoping to recreate the magic of Faye Wong in CHUNGKING EXPRESS.)

    @Geoff: I won’t attempt it because it would put me under the table in no time, but I love the ASHES OF TIME drinking game. The first time I watched it was very early in my acquaintance with Hong Kong cinema- I think I’d only seen a Jackie Chan movie or two at that point, maybe a John Woo- and it prompted many a “wait, what?”

  8. Miriam
    Mar 18 2014

    Maggie Cheung descending the stairs to buy carry-out noodles, alone, in swirling light and rain, a cello’s poignant melody – it makes me swoon and weep for the heartbreaking beauty of it. I like and admire several of Wong’s films but I love ITMFL.

    @Helen: I completely agree that it’s critical to see these films in theater scale. Perhaps it’s the importance of light and imagery or the generally understated/subtle performances of the actors, but the emotional intensity increases proportionately with the size of the screen. And they’re so very very beautiful to look at.

    @Geoff: I hope I’ll see the Ashes of Time drinking game in my local store for next year’s Chinese New Year’s parties. I, too, saw this too early in my introduction to Asian cinema, in VHS quality, and on way too small a tv . I was too embarrassed to say “Wait, what?” but I was mentally muttering something like that throughout the movie. Years later I was thrilled to see Ashes Redux several times in the theater.

  9. Mar 19 2014

    Well, can’t say that I remember anything from My Blueberry Nights. I’m pretty sure that Natalie Portman’s in it but that’s it. And I don’t even like her. lol

    And what is the Ashes of Time drinking game? Is it that anytime you fall asleep, others must wake you up and force to take a shot? 0_<