Features

The Wonders of Wong Kar-wai: He Will Make You Revisit His Craft

A humble homage to the craft, which continues to transcend boundaries and age like fine
wine – of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, on his 62nd birthday.

Characterised by his classic captures of cityscapes of Hong Kong, and of course, the dark
sunglasses that he puts on even if it’s night, which perhaps gives him some vision for his next
noir, is the transcendental writer and director, Wong Kar-wai. Born in Shanghai, he later moved
to Hong Kong, at the age of five, where he grew more fond of cinema as he watched one film
every day with his mother after school. He was separated from his siblings, who were still in
China due to political turbulences which had a huge impact on his filmmaking.

A still from Happy Together (1997); Image Credits: scmp.com

One can see his subtle insertion of political metaphor in his movies like Days of Being Wild
(1990) where the young and the reckless are trying to come to terms with their identities
providing for an allegorical work of how Hong Kong was also going through the same phase. In
the Mood For Love (2000), where the broken relationship and marriage provides for an allegory
for ruined relations between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China during that time, 2046
(2004), where the title itself represents the final year of the promise of 50 years of Hong Kong’s
autonomy within China. All three are said to be connected to form a part of a loose trilogy
unofficially. Even the film Happy Together (1997) was heavily political with its take on
homosexual relationships, but politics is just the tip of the iceberg in his stories.

Wong Kar- wai manages to bring Hong Kong’s fast-paced and colourful essence to the silver screen. His unique storytelling weaves bold visuals with characters and music in a work of pure art while bringing alive the streets of Hong Kong in a way, unlike the Jackie Chan type movies.

Tashi, a first-year student of Delhi University, on how he feels about Wong’s cinema standing out from his contemporaries.


Not only Wong’s childhood, but also his venture in films was characterized by a time which was
influenced by Hong Kong’s new wave which enabled the young and new infusions of talent in the
industry. Making films in those times and being a product of times of turbulence itself, highlights
his work in being heavily axis-ed around an era or a time period taking the central thematic and
aesthetic stage.

He began as a graphic designer, and quit to start as a screenwriter under the
mentorship of Partick Tam, until he got his directorial debut with As Tears Go By (1988) which
had inspirations from Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), which turned out to be a commercial and
critical success. However, his first international recognition came through Chungking Express
(2004) which was shot in a short hiatus he took from making his biggest epic Ashes of Time
(2004), on a very stringent budget.

A still from Chungking Express (2004); from the Criterion Collection

Chungking Express has touched so many hearts, and still continues to do, as there are people who are still discovering it for the first time. It’s a two-part story, attached randomly with no
superficial or dramatic link at all, one set in the night and other in the day. It’s a homage that
Wong gave to Hong Kong by shooting in Chungking Mansion where he spent his childhood.
Inspired by Gena Rowlands’s character from John Cassavetes, Gloria, was Brigitte Lin’s character in blond who was kept nameless in the movie. The iconic rhythming to California
Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas by Faye in the movie is unforgettable.

Wong brought to this film a romance, less between the characters and more with the idea of it, and that too not within the characters, but other things like pineapple cans, apartments, coffee, old movies, heartbreaks, longing, loneliness, etc.

His collaboration with his supremely talented cinematographer Christopher Doyle and effortless
actor Tony Leung works like magic in his films. The step printing method and the beautiful
minimalism in the movie were not intentional aesthetics, but practical approaches by Wong to
solve the issues of lack of resources such as dim lights, lack of permission or license to shoot in
the city, low budget, etc which later on turned into his organic and more professional style of
filmmaking. As Wong says, “everyday was like planning a robbery!”

I think Wong Kar-wai has touched me to a dream level. In other words, he touched us at a subconscious level. How do I put it? I think he enchanted us with the most romantic, beautiful, and mystic mood. The ambiguity stimulates so many feelings and imaginations. The characters talk to themselves, it’s so personal, but it’s actually so universal at the same time. The nights in Hong Kong, drifting, cutting off, elusive, in the 60s, creeps in my collective consciousness.

Filmmaker Ang Lee trying to define what Wong Kar-wai’s cinema mean to him at Museum of Moving Art, 2008


Wong’s cinema never answers or shows ‘why’ behind the story, it rather concentrates on ‘how’
it will unfold. Many people might get exhausted consuming his work, and call it boring, since the
stories are neither linear nor have a graph, rather they are cyclical or rhythmic; while every frame of his communicates. Sometimes there are multiple frames within a frame like In the Mood for Love, where it’s quite clear that the movie is seen from the perspective of an observer
witnessing the melancholy from the outside.

His use of mirrors, clocks, saturation, colours and popular music in the background add multiple flavours to his filmmaking. His unique style will make you want to revisit his craft because it’s highly likely that you couldn’t grasp everything that he tried to show in one go.

One may be fairly passive while watching his film, but the after-effects will turn you to be actively looking for answers he teased you into telling, but never did, so you crave in anticipation for a possibility that it might get a continuation in his next work, or fantasize that a pager with the ‘password I love you for 10,000 years,’ will do you the favour!

Feature Image Credits: South China Morning Post

Umaima Khanam

umaimak@dubeat.com

Author