Wong Kar-Why Do People Love Wong Kar-Wai?9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
I have been working at Sinema for a while now and I have a huge confession to make. It’s been a secret I have been hiding for a while but after months of pretending around my colleagues, I can’t hold it in any longer.
I have never seen a Wong Kar-Wai film before.
After seeing the cultural phenomenon that is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and having had the pleasure of staring at Tony Leung for two hours, I figured why not stare at him some more? It was also about high time I sat down to find out what makes Wong Kar-Wai so legendary.
While I have definitely heard of Wong Kar-Wai and his films before, I simply never had a chance to watch his films. After all, it’s been a long time since they were shown in cinemas (Editor’s note: they were screened earlier this year as part of Asian Film Archive’s Retrospective: Wong Kar Wai but tickets were sold out really quickly), I knew the classics by name — In the Mood For Love, Chungking Express, and Happy Together just to name a few. This is a director who has managed to gain international recognition and is respected by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. So I went on a Wong Kar-Wai marathon to finally answer the big question: are his films really as amazing as everyone touts them to be?
I will admit I had a bit of scepticism and apprehension. Does the appeal come from the nostalgia factor? Will I still gravitate towards his films all these years after their release? And what if they were geared towards a niche audience that I did not fall into? I tried to cast my doubts aside and dived in with as open of a mind as I could consciously muster to find out what makes Wong Kar-Wai so great.
Right away, I was more than happy to be gazing at Tony Leung. But my focus wasn’t on how he has aged like fine wine, my focus was on how his performance in these films slingshotted him into international stardom. Leung has been dubbed “the man who can speak with his eyes”, and there is no better case study of this than his performances in Wong’s films.
Leung first worked with Wong in 1990 on the film Days of Being Wild but is on screen for all of three minutes. He next appears in Chungking Express as a cop, the first of Leung’s many lead roles in Wong’s films. His most critically acclaimed performance came in 2000’s In The Mood For Love, where he plays a journalist whose wife is unfaithful to him. He clinched Best Actor at Cannes and the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Leung can feel like the complete opposite of what we picture conventional actors to be. While most actors want to express themselves and wear their emotions on their sleeves for audiences to see, Leung seems to do the opposite. At times he feels like an enigma but with a level of realism to the mystery. It leaves me with a feeling that I can only describe as akin to the mystery when you see a stranger and wonder what their life is like but walk away knowing that you may never find out.
To me, Leung’s acting aligns with Wong’s filmmaking style where he leaves gaps for you to fill in. Instead of spoon-feeding the audience, he creates open-ended questions and a multitude of possibilities with no “right” answer. This is what I believe characterises not just Wong’s films but the genre of arthouse films as a whole.
Alright enough fawning over Tony Leung. Let’s talk filmmaking.
Wong Kar-Wai has dabbled in a number of genres, from action and crime to romance and even comedy. He is not defined by a specific genre, but the fingerprints on his works are easy to see. I can definitely now see how others have tried to recreate a similar style but Wong is a master of the craft.
The colours of Wong’s films pop like the neon cityscape of Hong Kong. Hues of oversaturated reds, oranges, and yellows dominate many of the scenes that caught my eye. This is cinematography that, dare I say, I have never seen before. This is also the handiwork of cinematographer Christopher Doyle who is a frequent collaborator with Wong. Similar effects have been used in older films I can recall from the 2000s era, but there is something about the way that it is executed in Wong’s films that gives them an exquisite feel. Each frame is like a painting. From framing to contrast, Wong and Doyle’s vision here was clearly thought through and carried out with a considerable amount of detail.
Another charming detail that stood out to me was Wong’s use of music. Music in his films is used repetitively but effectively. Whether the music is diegetic or non-diegetic varies from film to film, be it a song that has significance to the characters or simply a motif that symbolises a recurring theme, The unifying characteristic of the way music is used in his films is the way it is used with intention. When I hear music, I know there is something being emphasised on screen.
As I noted earlier, the stories that Wong tells in his films are loose and abstract. Plotlines are often presented in a non-linear manner and unravelling the story is a constant process not just throughout the film but even after the film ends. Wong’s films are not the mindless de-stress sort of watch that you would put on after a long day at work or on a slow weekend with family.
Well, I mean you technically can if you want to, don’t let me stop you if that’s your kind of thing.
The feeling of perplexity during and after watching one of Wong’s films has to be intentional. But even so, Wong tells the stories of nobodies, of the people who live next door or the passers-by on the street. And through his camera lens, he takes the stories and almost seems to romanticise them. He typically focuses on just a few characters and shows us how remarkable life can look from a different perspective. I think everyone wishes their simple lives could look as pretty as a Wong Kar-Wai film.
While I cannot feel the nostalgia of what it was like to have caught some of these classic films when they were released, I did grow up watching some of the best films from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong cinema was and still largely is characterised by action-packed blockbusters like martial arts films and crime dramas. Wong Kar-Wai stands out to me not just for his style and filmmaking prowess, but for just how unique he feels in the scene. To be an arthouse filmmaker in an industry dominated by quick-paced and flashy blockbusters, Wong Kar-Wai was and still is a bold and revolutionary artist.
After finishing my Wong Kar-Wai marathon, I suppose I finally get it. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with Wong Kar-Wai but I most certainly had a damn good time. Perhaps if I grew up watching these films, they would have had an even greater impact on me, as I know they have on others. Despite being an arthouse director, I don’t feel intimidated watching a Wong Kar-Wai film. If you have not had the pleasure of perusing Wong Kar-Wai’s filmography, don’t fret. Take a dip and, if you too enjoy the wonders of his films, then dive right in.
If you too are interested in exploring Wong Kar-Wai’s films, here is my recommended watch list:
- In The Mood For Love
A romantic drama about two neighbours who find out their respective spouses are cheating on them. They confide in each other and begin to fall in love, but neither want to stoop to the level of the unfaithful spouses. This is Wong’s most critically acclaimed film and a great jumping off point if you are watching Wong’s films for the first time.
The sequel to In The Mood For Love, this futuristic sci-fi film takes place within a train where lonely souls come to find love in room 2046. The film has four arcs, exploring the various characters who move into room 2046 and some familiar faces from previous films make a reappearance here.
- Chungking Express
This film contains two stories that seem unrelated but draw several parallels between one another. The first story is about a cop who is dumped by his girlfriend and meets a drug-smuggling woman in a blonde wig. The second story is about another police officer also recovering from a breakup and his complicated relationship with a snack store girl who is secretly in love with him.
- Happy Together
This romantic drama is widely considered to be one of the most important LGBT films of the 1990s. The plot revolves around the tumultuous relationship and subsequent breakup of a gay couple from Hong Kong.
- The Grandmaster
This is Wong Kar-Wai’s most recent and revives the story of Ip Man with Tony Leung as the legendary wing-chun master (not to be confused with the original Ip Man film series starring Donnie Yen). In this film, we see the rivalry between northern and southern martial arts, as well as Ip Man’s journey through World War II and subsequently his move to Hong Kong.