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Arts & Culture

Interview: Wong Kar Wai

Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai during Beth Accomando's 1995 interview with him at the Four Seasons Hotel. Dec. 12, 1995.
Beth Accomando
Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai during Beth Accomando's 1995 interview with him at the Four Seasons Hotel. Dec. 12, 1995.

In the Mood for Love

With his spiky haircut, ever-present shades and a cigarette nestled between his fingers, Wong Kar Wai could be a poster boy for Hong Kong cool. So its fitting that he thinks of himself as a jazz musician and his hip, improvisational films like jam sessions. Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who's shot 6 films for Wong, says 'I used to hang out in jazz clubs and I used to think why cant filmmaking be as simple as this, you just walk in with your instrument and you see what happens and as we go along, its become a jam session.'

Wong's sessions result in films that approximate jazz improvisation in their rhythms and visual riffs. He begins each project with a story outline rather than a full script and arrives early each day on the set to determine what will be filmed and how. When he asked actress Maggie Cheung (star of The Chinese Box and Irma Vep ) to star in his latest film In the Mood for Love , all he had to offer was himself, Doyle and actor Tony Leung. According to Cheung, 'he didn't have any idea what the film was going to be. It really grew from zero. We had nothing we just started shooting. The shooting was our rehearsal. Its exciting to be a part of that because if he was working with somebody else, Im sure the character would have developed in a different way.'

'He didn't let me know anything,' actor Leung recalls with a laugh, 'He is very mysterious on the set. I don't know what happens behind those sunglasses, maybe he's sleeping, I don't know.'


Cheung and Leung both starred in Wong's second film Days of Being Wild (1991) and his only period epic Ashes of Time (1994). But Wong says he never made a film with just the two of them and he wanted to exploit the chemistry he saw in them. In some way, he says, In the Mood for Love is the sequel he never got to make to Days of Being Wild. 'There is some linkage between the two films,' Wong admits, 'and I will say that if I was to make Days of Being Wild now, the film would look like In the Mood for Love, and I think to a certain extent In the Mood for Love is like Days, only 10 years older.' But then Wong has always insisted that his movies are simply one long movie with each film a continuation of the previous one, like another chapter in a very long book.

Leung, the sexy, sad-eyed Hong Kong star of Wong's Chungking Express and John Woos Hard-Boiled, says that working with Wong 'is very challenging. We develop everything in the characters and its fun to do because not many directors make movies that way.' And a lot can change from when an actor is first approached and when shooting actually begins. Wong says that this project began as 'a film about food. We wanted to tell the story of two people through eating noodles and using rice cookers. But somehow in the process of making this film, we found out that its about more than just food, its about a period that is lost.'

Wong sets the film in Hong Kong in 1962, the year that he and his family moved to the city from Shanghai, and the film reveals a distinct nostalgia for that era. In the Mood for Love concerns two characters: Cheung's Lizhen and Leung's Mo-wan. By coincidence, the two end up moving into the same apartment building on the same day and meet when the movers get their belongings mixed up. Despite the cramped quarters of the building and the close proximity of other people, we immediately sense the isolation of these two characters. Wong says that his films have always been about isolation but this time 'I wanted to make a film about isolation that had a lot of people in it. I wanted to make a film about neighbors. I wanted to make a film about people living with a bunch of people and how they can react to this environment.'

Living in such close quarters, Lizhen and Mo-wan soon discover that they have something in common their respective spouses are cheating on them. And to complicate matters, it turns out that Mo-wan's wife is having an affair with Lizhen's husband.

Leung explains that 'Im a bad guy. Everything I do is for revenge. Everything is a set up. I want to get close to Lizhen to manipulate her but I don't really love her. But after I abandon her, I notice that subconsciously I have fallen in love with her.'


Cheung, who looks like she walked off a Vogue fashion spread in her dazzling costumes and flawless make up, had trouble warming up to her character: 'It took some time for me to accept her. I mean, she's not my cup of tea because she's so uptight and so perfect and Im a little afraid of people like that. But she's a deeply wounded person and thats why she's developed into this woman who needs all that dressing up and all that perfection in how she looks, its to hide her sadness and pain, its her way of trying to look strong. She's so scared of being hurt again that she's reserving a lot of herself and not expressing it to others.'

Wong films many scenes without dialogue because this allows him greater flexibility in editing. And that suits Leung's talent she has a face that the camera loves and eyes that let us look into his characters soul. 'I came from a broken family,' Leung explains, 'so when I was a kid, I didn't know how to communicate with others because I am scared to talk about my family. So I was very restrained and suppressed, very much like the character in In the Mood for Love. So maybe because I didn't know how to express myself I became able to reveal complex expressions through my eyes without saying a word or moving my body.'

But shooting without dialogue or getting your lines on the set each day can be frustrating for a performer. 'Sometimes its good not to prepare and to go on your instincts, but it can be frustrating because it can take so long and I would start questioning myself and that's painful. Kar Wai can be a bit abstract in what he tells us because in the end he doesn't know himself. I always thought that if I gave him something good he'd find it right away. But since he doesn't find it until 6 months after we've shot, I figured I wasn't giving him what he needed. But I've realized that he has his own insecurities, that while he's looking for what he wants, the whole crew is waiting and his actors are constantly on stand by to shoot and he must really be struggling too and to understand that helped me.'

Wong also has a reputation for restructuring entire stories in the editing room long after shootings been completed. 'The most interesting thing,' says Leung, 'is that even though you come to know your character very well by the time you're done shooting, you never have any idea what the story is about. He creates that in the editing room because he shoots enough footage for 3 or 4 movies. So every time I finish a movie with him, I go to the premiere and I am like the audience, I want to know what happens.'

Cheung echoes these sentiments. When she saw In the Mood for Love for the first time, she was surprised by how much of the film played out with no dialogue: 'Wong is not really trying to explain what's going on with these two people, he just suggests to the audience what's going on and leaves a lot of space for the audience to imagine the rest. I didn't realize that the angles he was shooting from would make the audience feel like such an outsider, like you're peeping into the story of these two people.'

But the hardships of shooting are forgotten when you see the results. Some of the earliest footage shot was gorgeous slow motion, full of unspoken desire, of the two characters passing each other on the stairs in the rain. Those lush, seductive images set the mood for the film. Cheung remembers that 'we used to be in the office looking at the dailies and Kar Wai would put on the music he has chosen for the film and wed be looking at those images and those were the first exciting images that we saw that made us think this is it. Its just a slow motion montage but we held on to that mood all the way through the film.'

Wong's guerrilla filmmaking tactics have resulted in a cinematic style thats earned high praise. In the Mood for Love won the coveted Technical Achievement Prize at Cannes last year but Wong says his style is often built on necessity: 'I think the aesthetics of my film are not in fact preconceived. Sometimes its because of the way we work. Sometimes things happen like there's a guy who just walks into the frame and we have to cut that part away and it becomes a jump cut. And because we don't have a lot of light, because we have a very low budget, we have to adjust the speed of our camera to get the effect that we want. So sometimes this is the way we work and the result of the filming becomes a kind of a style.'

In the case of In the Mood for Love, the conditions that dictated the style were the cramped quarters of the location they choose to film in. 'So sometimes,' the director says, 'we have to turn our camera to a mirror to shoot something and people think oh that's very stylish. Yes it is, but at the same time we did it because we are shooting in a very small space and that was our only option.'

In order to work more efficiently, Wong calls upon crew members who have been with him since the beginning, people like cinematographer Christopher Doyle and editor-production designer William Chang Suk-ping. He says 'this kind of relationship is necessary for the way we work because we need a kind of understanding between us so we can shift from one thing to another and we don t have to explain anything, nobody will panic because they are used to me. I am just the band leader and I just keep everything in tune.'

With Chang, for example, Wong might ask him for something in particular for the look of the film or he might ask to be surprised. But there are other times when 'we don't have to discuss much at all. If we want a certain look for the women then we will say Okay, you remember five years ago we were in that coffee shop and there was this strange lady eating by herself? You still remember the woman? Yes. I want a woman like that. And he just gets it.'

Because of his unique style, Wong now produces his own films and seeks out financial backers who are familiar with his work methods. 'We are not making film in a normal way,' he notes, 'Normally you have a script you can send it to people who will decide if they will finance the film based on the script. But in our case, we have no script. So the only people we can work with are people who have been working with us in the past and they know we are going to do something its kind of a trust.'

Wong's films are meditative, personal and even self-consciously arty. He tries to do something different with each film, yet his body of work reveals a fascination with the themes of time, loss and the possibility and impossibility of love. Some may call his films a triumph of style over substance but in fact his films are examples of style as substance. His fractured and fragmentary narratives go against audience expectations and bring freshness to tired genres like the gangster film or romantic movie. His expressionistic style -- blurred slow motion; long, languorous shots; jerky hand-held camerawork -- conveys the emotions of the characters and dictates the mood of the film. His films are ultimately a delirious collision of pop entertainment and art film.