Watching a Wong Kar Wai film means entering a world of heightened emotions. It’s not just that they tell unforgettable stories of ill-fated romance, but it’s the masterful way the Hong Kong auteur draws you in ever so tantalisingly. Dreamlike textures, vivid colours and evocative music weave a potent atmosphere that leaves you completely hypnotised.
As a director obsessed with the heart-pounding thrill of seduction, he knows exactly how to beguile his audience just as mesmerisingly. His haunting mood pieces enchant the senses – it’s the closest you’ll get to experiencing the exhilarating rush of falling in love while at the cinema.
As a young boy, who moved with his family from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1962, Wong spent most of his time with his mother, an avid film buff, in the cinema. “We spent almost every day watching films – French films, Hollywood films, Italian films, films from Taiwan and local productions,” he said at 2017’s Lumière Festival. “This was sort of my film school, my education.”
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His wide-ranging influences became apparent once he started directing. His moody feature debut, As Tears Go By (1988), earned comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), while Chungking Express (1994) channelled the unconventional spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Wong’s mentor Patrick Tam had an impact too on his neon-drenched visual palette.
Wong, a former TV scriptwriter, was also inspired by literature, particularly the works of Haruki Murakami, Liu Yichang and Gabriel García Márquez. But the novelist who had the biggest impact on him was Manuel Puig. The Argentinian author’s writing style – stories told in fragments using multiple points of view – shaped Wong’s own narrative technique.
The director took these interests and turned them into something completely unique with his deeply profound and soul-stirring stories of love, alienation and heartbreak. Wong found international acclaim, winning the best director prize at 1997’s Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together, because he was a pioneer who created his own cinematic language for romance, one that was swooningly lyrical and visually stunning. He made the torment of our inner thoughts seem sexy, poetic and glamorous.
Wong’s films have always prioritised feelings above everything else. To mark the BFI and the ICA’s joint career-spanning retrospective of the groundbreaking director, we explore the main ones that have dominated the emotional landscape of his films.
While Wong is nothing but affectionate in his portrayal of Hong Kong, the director recognises the urban alienation that comes with bustling city life and its throngs of people jostling for space. Loneliness is something that he conveys movingly in his films, using innovative techniques to highlight the dreaminess of our solitude.
Together with cinematographer and long-term collaborator Christopher Doyle, Wong created a special process combining undercranking and step-printing to play around with the sense of time passing. Characters sometimes appear in slow motion as everyone around them is sped up into an indistinguishable blur, a chaotic jumble of bodies that disappear quickly into the night.
In Chungking Express, an offbeat romance about 2 heartbroken policemen, Wong finds light-hearted humour in his characters’ struggles for real connection. Faye (Faye Wong), a vivacious shop worker, has a crush on Cop 663 (Tony Leung). Her way of getting closer to him is by breaking into his flat to clean it and rearrange or replace his belongings, while he has started speaking to household objects after he gets dumped. He encourages a bar of soap to be more confident, cajoles a giant teddy bear and lavishes a shirt with affection. All the while, he’s pining for his ex-girlfriend and oblivious to the possibility of a new love, even one that has already been inhabiting his life.
Wong uses voiceovers to compound this feeling of solitude as introspection spills out in quirky monologues and philosophical musings. People might brush past each other in the street – just 0.01cm apart – but they’re so wrapped up in their own thoughts, they don’t realise there are opportunities around them to break out of their loneliness.
Outside of the mayhem of the city, his characters seek isolation far from home. It’s only here that they can finally unburden themselves of their tortured memories and their past. In Wong’s romantic masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) whispers his secret anguish into a hole in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Emotional release only comes with total seclusion, the vast landscape swallowing up their romantic woes.
Wong is cinema’s ultimate hopeless romantic, who has dedicated his career to portraying the mysteries of love, digging deep to explore its many contradictions. Emotions may be fleeting but in his films they’re life-changing and their effects linger on for years – one brief moment has the power to change someone irrevocably.
When it comes to romance, Wong is fascinated with that electrifying limbo that exists between desire and fulfilment. Not that fulfilment is ever guaranteed – most of his characters become stuck, yearning for people they cannot have. Even then, their romantic anguish has a bittersweet quality to it, their suffering intensifying their feelings.
“There are some people you can never get close to. Get too close, and you’ll find him boring,” sighs the killer’s agent (Michelle Reis) in Fallen Angels (1995), who aches for the ruthless assassin she is partnered up with. Wong’s characters are more comfortable keeping love at a distance. Even when feelings are reciprocated, relationships are never easy. His romances are blighted by missed opportunities, where the timing is never quite right and life ends up getting in the way. Love is not always enough.
While lovers disappear, one thing that remains after a relationship ends is their memories of the affair. Their imagination keeps them bound forever to their lost love. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) muses in Chungking Express: “If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.”
But it’s not just longing for a person that consumes Wong’s films; there’s also a sense of yearning for a time gone by. The director lovingly recreates the Hong Kong of his childhood with the help of production designer William Chang, transporting us back to the 1960s in Days of Being Wild (1990), In the Mood for Love, 2046 (2004) and The Hand (2004). Like his characters, he remains deeply nostalgic for a past that has shaped him into becoming the person he is today.
A profound sadness sweeps through Wong’s films as people are left unmoored by romantic grief, forever ruminating on past hurts and betrayals, unable to move forward with their lives. But its oppressive weight is changed into something beautiful. Wong’s hazy air of melancholy is daubed in lush colours, wistful glances and poetic voiceovers. Despair has never looked as ravishing as it does in his eyes.
His characters are often struggling with the burden of regret. In Ashes of Time (1994), Wong’s magnificent homage to the wuxia genre, the director turns the brutal action of martial arts films into a graceful ballet of anguish, heartbreak and loneliness. The film’s most powerful scene comes in a heartbreaking monologue from Maggie Cheung as The Woman, who laments the mistakes she has made and the wasted years. It shows how sadness can become toxic if left to stew into bitterness.
Even when Wong looks to the future, it’s one that’s dominated by the past. In 2046, he envisages a dystopian world where lonely souls travel to a mysterious destination in an attempt to regain their lost memories. There no one ever feels sadness. “In 2046, nothing ever changes,” says Chow Mo-wan (Leung). “But no one really knows if that’s true or not. Because nobody has ever come back.”
While in The Grandmaster (2013), a biopic based on the life of Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher, Ip Man’s (Leung) anguish comes from being exiled from both his wife and home. The wing chun master moves to Hong Kong in 1950 with dreams of becoming a martial arts teacher. A year later, China closes the border with the city, so he can no longer return.
The film teases a forbidden romance between Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the strong-willed daughter of another grandmaster. As they talk about what could have been, she tells him: “How boring it would be to have no regrets.” No doubt Wong would agree.
Wong’s films explore the seductive pull of desire and how its erotic power becomes more intense precisely because it’s unfulfilled. He’s not so much interested in sex as he is in how imagination and intimacy fuel desire.
In The Hand, a short film he made as part of the anthology feature Eros (2004), Wong shows how it can become a life-long obsession, sparked by the briefest of encounters. The sexiest scene comes when Zhang (Chang Chen), a young tailor who is hopelessly infatuated with an older courtesan (Gong Li), caresses the dress he’s making for her as if he’s touching her body.
The exquisite cinematography in each of Wong’s films is an act of seduction, a visual expression of desire. Doyle is a frequent collaborator but Wong’s also worked with Andrew Lau, Mark Lee Ping-bing, Philippe Le Sourd, Lai Yiu-fai, Kwan Pung-leung and Darius Khondji. The camera focuses on the tiniest of details while the same images are often repeated – a curtain fluttering haphazardly in the wind, a woman slinking down some stairs dressed in a cheongsam, the thunderous swirl of a waterfall. Every frame exudes a dreamy sensuality.
In the Mood for Love is Wong’s ultimate rhapsody to desire, an intoxicating romance about 2 neighbours (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) who fall in love with each other after they discover their spouses are cheating. Despite their growing attraction, they’re determined not to stoop to the same level as their partners, so they try to resist their feelings. Their illicit affair is depicted in the most passionate of colours – shades of red seeping through the screen.
When desire is fulfilled, Wong brings his own luscious romanticism to each moment. Wah (Andy Lau) and Ngor (Cheung) embrace passionately in a phone booth in As Tears Go By, while Jeremy (Jude Law) tenderly kisses the pie crumbs off Elizabeth’s (Norah Jones) lips in My Blueberry Nights (2007). Yet desire can become corrupted – Happy Together (1997), an intense portrayal of love and lust between a gay couple, shows how easily it transforms into jealousy, possessiveness and rage.
Boredom is another feeling that feeds into Wong’s world; the restlessness experienced by his characters speaks to a deeper sense of existential ennui. It’s a feeling that grips Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) in Days of Being Wild, an apathetic playboy in 1960s Hong Kong who spends his days callously seducing women. It’s the reason he starts talking to Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a shy shop assistant. They start out by becoming “friends for one minute”.
Time has always fascinated the director – his films are crammed with images of clocks, watches and calendars. The boredom his characters sometimes feel is Wong’s way of making you acutely aware of the passing of time. “I used to think a minute could pass so quickly,” Su reflects later. “But actually, it can take forever.”
Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) spend their time together chain smoking in Happy Together, shut off from Buenos Aires, the exciting new city they’ve arrived in. Recounting one of their breakups, Fai says: “He only said being with me was boring and that we should take a break.” Like many of Wong’s characters, Po-wing is scared to commit because he’s worried about being ground down by monotony.
In Chungking Express, Wong shows how Faye is struggling with the routine of city life by using the same song over and over again. Working at a fast food shop so she can save money to go travelling, she dances around the kiosk listening to The Mama and the Papas’ ‘California Dreamin’’ on repeat, the days blurring into one. The only way she can escape is through music and dreams of a better life in a faraway place. Maybe there she’ll make some new memories, ones that will last for centuries.
World of Wong Kar Wai, including 7 brand-new 4K restorations, is available via the ICA’s digital programme platform Cinema 3 (from 1 February) and BFI Player (from 8 February).