One of the most visually entrancing filmmakers working today, Wong Kar-Wai is a man who creates films filled with dazzling images and characters with a sense of romanticism. Known for his broad ideas and unconventional techniques in the realm of filmmaking, he is an individual that refuses to play by the rules. He brings both Asian sensibility and French New Wave cinematic techniques to each of his stories. After finally making his return in 2013, with his Ip Man bio-pic The Grandmaster, it is clear that there is no other filmmaker like Wong Kar-Wai working today.
Born in Shanghai, China on July 17, 1958, Wong Kar-Wai moved to Hong Kong when he was five years-old. His mother introduced him to many different aspects of cinema ranging from the films of Hong Kong to 1960s French New Wave. After spending two years studying graphic design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic College in 1980, he enrolled in the Hong Kong Television Broadcast Limited course for production training and he learned the art of screenwriting. Kar-Wai took part in in an apprenticeship during this period which brought him to the attention of renowned Hong Kong producer Alan Tang.
Tang hired Kar-Wai to write scripts for various movies ranging from romantic-comedies to action films. Though they scripts were successful, and helped him to get a lot of work, it was clear that Kar-Wai wanted something more. Fortunately, it was Tang who ultimately gave Kar-Wai the chance to helm his first feature film.
As Tears Go By (review)
Tang’s connections and support allowed Kar-Wai the chance to create a film that was in tune with what was popular in Asian cinema at the time. Yet Kar-Wai wanted to stick out from the other filmmakers in the genre. He wanted to add romantic elements and dimensions to the characters that he would create. To help with the script for As Tears Go By, Kar-Wai brought in filmmaker Jeffrey Lau to come up with ideas that played into Kar-Wai’s fascination with romance and existentialism.
Drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets, the film follows a small-time hood, Wah (Andy Lau), trying to go straight while dealing with his crazy friend, Fly (Jacky Cheun), who keeps getting into trouble. Adding to this conflict is Wah’s sudden interest towards his second-cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung). The film not only launched Kar-Wai’s career but also gave his actors a chance to branch out. At the time Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung where revered Cantopop singers and Maggie Cheung was known for her damsel-in-distress roles.
Shot in Hong Kong in 1987, Kar-Wai hired cinematographer Wai-keung Lau, music composers Danny Chung and Teddy Robin Kwan, and editor Bei-Dak Cheong to help him make the film. Established set designer, and jack-of-all-trades, William Chang created dazzling color palettes and aided with the editing of the film. One thing that also helped Kar-Wai stand out amongst his contemporaries was his approach to music. He found ways to use pop music, such as a cover of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away from the 1986 Tony Scott film Top Gun, to as the centerpiece of the romance between Wah and Ngor.
As Tears Go By was released in June of 1988 in Hong Kong and was both well-received by critics and audiences. The film also played the International Critics Week at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and introduced international audiences to Wong Kar-Wai talents.
Days of Being Wild (review)
Kar-Wai decided to do something far more ambitious than his first film. The first film of an informal trilogy, and set in 1960s Hong Kong, Days of Being Wild played into the themes of loneliness, longing, and heartbreak. In the film a cruel and wandering playboy, York (Leslie Cheung), seduces two different women who both become victims of his cruelty and indifference. Each of the three main characters’ embark on different emotional journeys over the course of the film, including the playboy’s quest to find his biological mother in the Philippines.
To explore the ideas of melancholy in the film, Kar-Wai incorporated voice-over narration techniques featured both in French New Wave cinema and in films of American filmmaker Terrence Malick. Kar-Wai also gained a new collaborator in Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who was already revered for his unique approach to photography. Their friendship would turn into one of the best director-cinematographer collaborations in modern cinema. Despite the addition of Doyle, and the support from executive producer Alan Tang, the production was not an easy one for Kar-Wai. The brief kidnapping of actress Carina Lau nearly halted the production. Further delays occurred due to Kar-Wai’s desire to have multiple takes of a love scene and his frequent deviations from the script in search of something more loose and natural.
The film premiered in December of 1990 in Hong Kong where expectations were high, especially considering the wealth of talent involved in the film. However, it fared poorly at the box office and plans for the subsequent films in the trilogy were scrapped. Days of Being Wild ‘s notorious reception at the box office was surprising as the film was well-received by critics. The film even won five major Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Actor for Leslie Cheung. The film, despite being a hit in Europe, marked the end Kar-Wai’s tenure with Alan Tang.
Chungking Express (review)
Wanting to have more control creatively, Kar-Wai decided to form his own production company with Jeffrey Lau called Jet Tone Production. This allowed him to work at his own pace while also developing projects for other filmmakers. Though his next film was to be Ashes of Time, the troubled production experienced so many delays that Kar-Wai decided to do Chungking Express as a distraction.
The plot of Chungking Express involved two different cops (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro) meeting two different women (Valerie Chow and Faye Wong) in two unique stories that take place both the Chungking Mansions and a snack bar called the Midnight Express in Hong Kong. Kar-Wai explored themes of melancholia by telling the two stories with an off-beat structure. The first story was told as a crime drama while the second tale took the form of a romantic comedy.
Taking a quick and improvisational approach to the production, Kar-Wai used cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s apartment to serve as the home of Leung’s character. He incorporated some voice-over narration and a flurry of shots that all became part of his trademark style. The film’s score was a mixture of hypnotic electronic sounds and ambient jazz. Kar-Wai even handpicked popular songs such as the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ and the Cranberries’ Dreams , the latter of which was covered twice in the film by actress Faye Wong.
Chungking Express made its premiere in June of 1994 in Hong Kong and was well-received both critically and commercially. The film won four awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards a year later for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and for Best Actor for Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Among those who had discovered the film during its run in Asia was American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino who used his star-power in 1996 to get the film a limited release in the U.S. This paved the way for further praises from American critics and provided Wong Kar-Wai his first taste of visibility in the States.
Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux (review)
Despite the success of Chungking Express, Kar-Wai still had to deal with the issues surrounding Ashes of Time, his ambitious Wuxia film version of Jin Yong’s novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes. The plot revolved around a heartbroken swordsman (Ouyang Feng), haunted by his past, who becomes the middleman between bounty hunters and those in need of help. The film featured a multi-layered storyline that played into the swordsman’s internal conflict regarding love and his desire to fight for something nobler than money.
Though Kar-Wai created notes and a general outline, he made the film without an actual script. This was his way of allowing the actors to explore the motivations of their characters in a more natural way. Kar-Wai also brought in famed Hong Kong actor Sammo Hung to help choreograph many of the film’s fight sequences. Unfortunately the lack of script, and filming in the deserts of mainland China, made for a rather troubling shoot. Due to its numerous production problems, including going over its budget and schedule, Ashes of Time notoriously became a hot topic in the press. Even after completing the shoot, the film still required a more than a year of post-production.
The film featured a very star-studded cast that included Kar-Wai’s company of regular actors, Leslie Cheung, Jackie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as well Brigitte Lin, one of Asian cinema’s great actresses, prior to her retirement from the industry. The stellar cast could not save the film from mixed reviews that came with the film’s 1996 release. A box office flop, Kar-Wai decided to revisit the film in 2003 and create a newly re-assembled version re-titled Ashes of Time Redux. It was a difficult process as the original negatives were in bad shape and the sound needed to be reworked. Though many of the actors who had participated in the film re-recorded their lines, with the exception of Leslie Cheung who had committed suicide in 2003, it took five years of before Ashes of Time Redux unveiled out of competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Fallen Angels (review)
After the turmoil over Ashes of Time, and the creative spark he got over the making of Chungking Express, Kar-Wai decided to revisit a story that was originally going to be part of Chungking Express‘s third act. Fallen Angels is a multi-layered tale that explores themes of melancholy, love, and self-discovery. One story revolved around a hitman (Leon Lai) and his relationship with his contact (Michelle Reis). Though they rarely meet, the contact has affections for the hitman. Unfortunately things become complicated when the hitman tries to escape his criminal life to be with a kooky blonde-hair woman (Karen Mok). The other story involves a mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who ventures from various odd jobs only to end up meeting his first real love (Charlie Yeung). Kar-Wai had the two narratives collide in rather unexpected ways.
Set in the same world where Chungking Express, and using many of the same collaborators behind the scenes, Fallen Angels featured intoxicating imagery. Christopher Doyle used hand-held cameras to emphasize the vibrant look of Hong Kong. Kar-Wai’s approach to the music was more exotic than in his previous films. He mixed Asian pop music with avant-garde sounds created by performance artist Speak My Language. The romantic tone of the film was eloquently conveyed through various songs including a cover of Yazoo’s Only You by the Flying Pickets.
Fallen Angels premiered in Hong Kong in September of 1995 to excellent reviews and modest success at the box office. The film got a limited release in the U.S. three years later where it was championed by critics like Amy Taubin and J. Hoberman who placed the film on their list of the best films of the 1990s.
In a collaboration with Japanese fashion designer Takeo Kikuchi, Kar-Wai shot a commercial short film that featured Karen Mok and Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. The short is considered one of the rare treasures for Kar-War fans, especially considering how difficult it is to track down any of the multiple versions that Kar-Wai made. Shot by Christopher Doyle, the short plays into many of the visual style that Kar-Wai is known for. The simple plot involves a couple, wearing Kikuchi’s clothes, trying to kill each other. It is a very quirky short that proves that, even in a medium like an eight-minute commercial, Kar-Wai can be innovative in any form he works in.
Happy Together (review)
After a period of making films in Hong Kong and China, Kar-Wai felt it was time reinvent himself. Having made films based on heterosexual relationships, Kar-Wai decided to take a spin at a gay-lesbian love story. The film centered on a gay couple (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung) traveling to Buenos Aires in hopes of fixing their troubled relationship. Instead, things become complicated when the two men separately venture around the city and find themselves.
Kar-Wai employed his improvisational approach of using notes rather than a scrip to guide his actors. Since Buenos Aires was a different world from Hong Kong, Kar-Wai asked Christopher Doyle and William Chang to help enhance the city’s unique look. Doyle would use many different film stocks to play into the dream-like look of the region. Images of the Igazu waterfalls became a recurring motif for the film and a symbol of the characters journey. Kar-Wai also used a range of music from tango music to Latin ballads to experimental rock music to help add further resonance to the visuals.
Happy Together made its premiere at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and won Kar-Wai the festival’s Best Director prize. The success at Cannes increased the growing cult of Kar-Wai fans in the U.S. and Europe. The film received a limited U.S. theatrical release and got a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.
In the Mood for Love (review)
The international visibility that was gained with Happy Together prompted Kar-Wai to create a sequel of sorts to 1990’s Days of Being Wild. After conceptualizing the project for several months, Wong Kar-Wai came up with a tale set in 1960s Hong Kong that focused on two people (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung) who learn that their spouses are having an affair with each other. While plotting how to confront their cheating spouse, the pair ultimately begin forming a unique bond themselves.
Shooting began in late 1998 and, due to his improvisational approach, spanned 15 months. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle only had a limited shooting schedule, as he has commitments to other productions, so Mark Lee Ping Bin was brought in to take over for Doyle. The production was also difficult for Maggie Cheung, who hadn’t worked with Kar-Wai since Ashes of Time. Cheung not only had trouble figuring out what Kar-Wai wanted from her in certain scenes but also had issues with the uncomfortable clothes and hair styles she had to wear. Regardless of her discomfort, Cheung has noted that she considered the film as the highlight of her career.
While the film was set to premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival that May, it was still under the working title Secrets. Just a week before the film was to premiere at Cannes, Kar-Wai and Doyle traveled to Cambodia to do some last-minute shooting for the film’s ending. It was there that Kar-Wai found his title through a cover of the standard I’m In the Mood for Love by Bryan Ferry. In the Mood for Love made its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on time to a great reception. The film won the festival’s technical prize as well as a Best Actor Prize for Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. The film was giving limited U.S. release in early 2001 through the fledging specialty studio USA Films (which later became Focus Features) and was an art-house hit. The film gave Kar-Wai his biggest success to date.
Hua Yang De Nian Hua/ The Hire: The Follow (review)
While retrieving some prints of his films in the late 1990s during a trip to California, Kar-Wai discovered some old nitrate prints of films from early 20th Century China that were considered lost. With the help of William Chang, Kar-Wai used all of the footage to create the short Hua Yang De Nian Hua, named after a song by Zhou Xuan. Premiering at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, Kar-Wai crafted a two-and-a-half minute montage of the old Chinese films that prominently featured women from that period.
With the success of In the Mood for Love, Kar-Wai was asked by BMW to participate in a short film project highlighting a driver (Clive Owen) and his adventures in his BMW car. The short Kar-Wai directed involved the driver as he follows the wife (Adriana Lima) of a paranoid actor (Mickey Rouke) to see if she is cheating on him. Forest Whitaker makes a cameo in the short as the man who hires the driver. Many considered The Follow to be the best of the short films from that series.
After a break from projects, Kar-Wai decided to make a follow-up to In the Mood for Love. This time around the story followed Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) through his various romantic affairs and the sci-fi story he creates with a woman who is pining for her Japanese lover. As Chow starts to become more withdrawn from his relationships with women he finds solace in the futuristic world of the story, a 2046 version of Hong Kong where people on a train try to recapture lost memories. The significance of the year 2046 was a comment on the end of self-regulated status which would see Hong Kong become part of China all over again. With its links to Days of Being Wild, 2046 completed his 1960s trilogy.
Many of Kar-Wai’s regular actors (e.g. Chang Chen, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong) returned to the fold while talented actors like Gong Li, Dong Jie, Takuya Kimura, and Zhang Ziyi all took their first stab at working with the renowned director. William Chang and Christopher Doyle were also back on board when production began in 2001. Relying on notes rather than a script, the film was another arduous shoot. The constant re-shoots and various artistic differences ultimately lead to the disintegration of Doyle and Kar-Wai’s relationship.
An unfinished version of 2046 arrived at to its 2004 Cannes Film Festival premiere three hours late. While its unfinished form got mixed reviews at Cannes, the final version of the film received a better response upon its 2005 release in the U.S.
The Hand (review)/I Travelled 9000 km to Give It To You (review)/There’s Only One Sun (watch)
During the filming of 2046, Kar-Wai was asked to take part in an anthology film called Eros that into his sensibilities regarding romance. The film also featured contributions from American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and the renowned Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni in one of his final works. Kar-Wai’s segment, entitled The Hand, revolved around a unique relationship between a high-class prostitute (Gong Li) and her tailor (Chang Chen). Though the short had elements of eroticism, Kar-Wai chose to go for a more subtle approach than the other directors. The film received limited release in late 2004 with many praising Kar-Wai’s segment as being the best of the three.
To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, Kar-Wai was among the many who was asked to make a three-minute short to explain their love for cinema. In his short I Travelled 9000 km to Give It to You, which starred Fan Chih Wei and Farini Chang Yui Ling, the story followed two people who meet and bond during a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. The short screened as part of anthology film called To Each His Own Cinema which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
When Philips asked Kar-Wai to make a commercial for their new LCD television, Kar-Wai decided to make a nine-minute short about a blind spy (Amelie Dauare) who is ordered to target a mysterious figure whom she had feelings for a year ago. As with all his work, the short featured Kar-Wai visual flare and exotic choice in music.
My Blueberry Nights (review)
Kar-Wai decided to shoot his next feature, My Blueberry Nights in America and even secured a distribution deal with Harvey Weinstein’s newly formed The Weinstein Company. Kar-Wai teamed with renowned crime writer Lawrence Block to help create a screenplay that centered around a woman taking a road trip across America after a recent a break-up. On her journey she encounters and falls for a British émigré in New York City. Since Kar-Wai had only been to a few major cities in the U.S., the film gave him a chance to explore a country that he knew very little about.
Indian-American jazz chanteuse Norah Jones was cast in the lead role, despite the fact that she had no prior experience acting. The rest of the cast included British actors Jude Law and Rachel Weisz as well as Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman and American actor David Strathairn. The production began in late 2005 in various locations such as New York City, Memphis, and Las Vegas. Kar-Wai travelled to many of the locations in advances to take notes for his improvisation shooting methods. To give a true sense of American culture, Kar-Wai hired Ry Cooder to do the film’s score. The soundtrack included an array of songs from Norah Jones, Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, and several others. Indie artist Cat Power not only contributed to the soundtrack but also made a cameo as a former girlfriend of Jude Law’s character.
My Blueberry Nights premiered as the opening night gala at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival that May. The reaction from audiences and critics was mixed. Many enjoyed the visual splendor and romance but others felt the film was way too derivative of Kar-Wai’s past works. The film got a very limited release in a year later but only made a modest $21 million against its $10 million budget.
The Grandmaster (review)
After making My Blueberry Nights and several commercials (some of which can be viewed here, here, and here), Kar-Wai announced that his next film, The Grandmaster, would be based on the life of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man. Not wanting to play into the typical conventions of a bio-pic, his goal was to explore both the philosophies and the years that shaped Ip Man. As a result, the film focused on Ip Man’s life from the late 1920s, where he first gain his martial arts reputation, to the 1950s where, as an exile in Hong Kong, he taught kung fu to those that wanted to learn.
The plot centered on Ip Man’s (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) friendship with the grandmaster Gong Yutan (Wang Qingxiang) and Yutan’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), whom Ip Man believed was his equal. Kar-Wai’s film was intrigued by not only the relationship between Gong Er and Ip Man, but also the tension between Er and Yutan’s successor Ma San (Zhang Jin). Kar-Wai brought in the famed martial arts choreographer Woo-pin Yeung, who also made a cameo in the film, to help with the fight choreography. After several delays in production, a 130 minute cut of the film emerged in Hong Kong and China in early January.
The Grandmaster made its European premiere at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival in a slightly-altered cut at 123 minutes. Both versions received excellent reviews from critics and became Kar-Wai’s biggest commercial success in Hong Kong and China. For the film’s American release, under his deal with Harvey Weinstein, Kar-Wai submitted a 108-minute cut of the film that received mixed reviews. The shorter cut angered many of Kar-Wai’s American fans who felt much of the film’s emotional guts had been taken out. Still, the American cut managed to do modestly well in the U.S. despite the reaction it received.
It’s been 25 years since Wong Kar-Wai released As Tears Go By and there is no question that he has been an influential voice in the world of cinema. Sofia Coppola acknowledged his influence on her 2003’s film Lost in Translation. Several other directors, including Martin Scorsese, have listed Wong Kar-Wai as one their favorite directors working today. Though he has often been known for style over substance, there is no question that the images he created in his films are intoxicating and vibrant. The way he tackles themes of love are exhilarating to watch and cement Wong Kar-Wai as one of cinema’s great figures.
© thevoid99 2013
I have only seen The Grandmaster, but if it’s any indication, you are completely correct. The dude knows how to put together some slick visuals.
Which version of The Grandmaster did you see? I’ve seen 2 different versions as I recommend the 130-minute full-length Chinese cut as the American cut is a travesty. I recommend seeking out more of Kar-Wai’s films because he’s definitely one of the best filmmakers working today.
I saw the US release in the theater. Wouldn’t quite call it a travesty, but the story is certainly lacking. I always figured the Chinese cut would insert some more character and plot connected stuff. Was that assumption right?
You’re absolutely correct.
Fantastic article! Wong Kar Wai creates such beautiful films. The Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love are my favourites.
Thank you. Chungking Express is my favorite WKW film so far.
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