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Rants and Raves: Wong Kar Wai

"Chungking Express"
"Chungking Express"

A Valentine To Hong Kong's Rapturously Romantic Filmmaker

Rants and Raves: Wong Kar Wai

Okay my idea of a good date movie for Valentine's Day is "Shaun of the Dead." So maybe I'm not the best person to be making Valentine's Day recommendations. But there's one contemporary filmmaker who consistently tackles love with such lush romanticism that even I swoon at his movies. That filmmaker is Wong Kar-Wai. In person, Wong himself cuts a romantic figure with his spiky haircut, ever-present shades and a cherished cigarette smoldering between his fingers.

TONY LEUNG: "He is very mysterious on the set. I don't know what happens behind those sunglasses. Maybe he's sleeping, I don't know."

That's actor Tony Leung. He's worked with Wong for more than a decade.


TONY LEUNG: "The most interesting thing is that even though you know you character very well after you finish all the shooting, you will never have an idea what the story is about because he will do that in the editing room."

Whipping up heady romantic cocktails in the editing room is something Wong does exceptionally well. His films offer mood rather than story, and sweep you up with their intoxicating and expressionistic images. Although each of Wong's films has a distinctly different flavor, they all expand on a similar pool of ideas -- love, loss, desire and a fascination with tangled romantic relationships. Wong says that in a sense he's just making a single epic work, with each film an added chapter.

Filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai on the set of "In the Mood for Love."
USA Films
Filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai on the set of "In the Mood for Love."

WONG KAR WAI: "I always say that I am making a very long film, each film I make is just like a sequence in that long film and I'm not sure what that long film is intended to be and I just love them all."

The latest chapter in his cinematic opus is "My Blueberry Nights." It debuted at last May's Cannes Film Festival and is set for a limited release in the U.S. this month. The trailer hints at the layered romances to be found in the film.

TRAILER: "As I looked up at the window I realized I was on the wrong side... A few years ago I had a dream...


This sounds like a classic set up for a Wong Kar Wai movie says San Diego filmmaker Aaron Crabtree. He defines a Wong Kar Wai film as:

AARON CRABTREE: "It's a dream of watching the person you love through a doorway, it's watching someone you love through a doorway almost dreaming of them. Watching them through windows, at a distance. You're trying to connect with something that isn't there. We've all had that experience trying to reach a person that we can't attain."

Wong's films are not romantic in the Hollywood sense of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. His films are about an aching romantic longing. In "Days of Being Wild," a man is condemned to aimless wandering in search of the woman he will love best. In "Ashes of Time," more than one character is haunted by his love for a woman he cannot have and whom he cannot forget. In "Chungking Express," two young men try to forget, with great difficulty, the women who have dumped them. In Wong's world, a single moment can change a life forever and a missed opportunity can haunt his characters for the rest of their lives. For Shane Flores, curator of Secret Cinema, Wong is a master at capturing how timeless love can be.

SHANE FLORES: "Film is about time, it's its currency. But love doesn't exist in time, it's something that permeates an entire life and in his films -- because they are sort of tragic in a way -- those few moments of love that you have in your life  can fill up all the space and all the time in your life. A few moments early in your life can shape the entire course of your life."

Faye Wong as one of the lovers in Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express."
Faye Wong as one of the lovers in Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express."

Time figures prominently in Wong's multi-character romance "Chungking Express." Take a cop trying to recover from being dumped by his girlfriend. She left him on April Fool's Day and every day for a month he's been buying a can of her favorite pineapple which will expire on May 1, the deadline he's given for her to return. When she misses her deadline, the lovesick lad consumes all the fruit and then gets plastered at a bar where he decides to pick up a mysterious woman. In "Chungking Express," Wong adds an unexpected charm that his earlier films did not have. Here the characters wallow in their lovelorn agony in a sly variation on the long suffering lovers of Wong's earlier films. Wong even allows for the possibility of happiness, at least for one of the couples.

But happiness proves elusive in the 2000 film "In the Mood for Love." The film stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, two actors who work regularly with Wong. Cheung's Lizhen and Leung's Mo-wan move into the same apartment building on the same day and find 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. Cheung explains her relationship in the film as very romantic but painful.

MAGGIE CHEUNG: "You feel their love is so strong but then there is no love, their love doesn't exist at the same time, the love exists in their own imaginations. And it's real and surreal at the same time for me."

The film's all about romantic longing says Aaron Crabtree.

AARON CRABTREE: "The film is so painfully full of longing. It is this ache. You're reaching for something -- a warm body, an idea, some affection. The yearning is so tangible that you can feel it, it's a part of the texture as are the images themselves. It's as much a texture as the wall Christopher Doyle shoots, that wall in the alley way where Maggie and Tony meet, and the wonderful use of soft light and rain, the texture of longing is as important to the film as any of the production design."

Wong's attention to detail -- whether it's the wallpaper or the rain or the space the characters live in - contributes to the romanticism of his film. His films can easily be enjoyed as visual and audio sensations in which sound and image break free from conventional storytelling. They often seem like dense, exquisitely clever music videos where image and music blend seamlessly to create a mood. And music is always crucial to a Wong film. Nat King Cole sets the tone for "In the Mood for Love."

MUSIC Nat King Cole

The fact that the song is in Spanish yet somehow familiar reflects the way Wong depicts romantic relationships; they can seem familiar yet at the same time distant and removed. Combining music and images is an essential part of Wong's work. Finding the perfect match is crucial to setting the right mood says Maggie Cheung. When they were shooting "In the Mood for Love," Wong paired up gorgeous slow motion images with music just for the dailies.

MAGGIE CHEUNG: "I remember we used to be in the office looking at the dailies and he would put on the music he has chosen for the film now and we'd be looking at those images and those were the first exciting images that we saw when we thought this is it. We held on to that mood all the way through the film."

But Wong's music for "Chungking Express" struck a much lighter note because the lovesick character played by Faye Wong brims dreamy romanticism.

WONG KAR WAI: "I start 'Chungking Express' with idea that I will use 'California Dreaming' because to me it has very much the same spirit of 'Chungking Express,' which is very 70's and very simple minded.

MUSIC California Dreaming

In "Happy Together" the music that defines the central gay relationship is the tango. That South American music defines the sensual mood of the film as the lovers separate, come together and part again. Wong cites the description of the tango as "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire" as the one most fitting to his film.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung star as gay lovers in Wong Kar-Wai's 1997 film "Happy Together."
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung star as gay lovers in Wong Kar-Wai's 1997 film "Happy Together."

WONG KAR WAI: "I choose the music because it is the tango music and I choose the music because it is more than tango music it is just like a human heartbeat."

CLIP Tango music

But Wong also chose to use the song "Happy Together" in his film of the same name.

WONG KAR WAI: "Well some people will say that this is very cynical to have 'Happy Together' as the title of the film because at the end of the film these two characters split and they cannot live happily together. But to me I think happy together can apply to a person who can live happily together with himself, that is at peace with himself. I think this is the starting point for a person if he can be at peace with himself he can accept a lot of things, more flexible and he can face his problems in the future more openly."

MUSIC Happy Together song

If the titles of Wong's films - from "Happy Together" to "In the Mood for Love"

-- sound more like titles of songs maybe that's because director Wong Kar Wai likes to think of himself as a jazz musician and his hip, improvisational films like jam sessions.

WONG KAR-WAI: "We are just like a group of musicians, jazz band and I'm like the band leader, I have a session and I just call up every body and they just come over and we have a jam session."

The resulting films approximate jazz improvisations in their rhythms and visual riffs. Their style is characterized by hand held camera work, quick cuts, odd angles and a distinctive blurred slow motion that's become Wong's visual signature. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle experimented with this style on his first collaboration with Wong, "Ashes of Time."

CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: "This style, blurred slow motion, this visual style is the equivalent of adrenaline, it's what an adrenaline rush feels like."

Stylistically, Wong also uses the blurred slow motion to isolate characters. In the case of "Fallen Angels," he uses it to isolate a young man's goofy obsessions. In one scene, He Zhiwu meets an old lover at a fast food shop. Wong lets the scene play out in a long, slow motion wide shot in which we see the young woman oblivious to the shenanigans of Zhiwu who, behind her back, pantomimes a violent death scene, complete with ketchup blood stains. Zhiwu's melodramatics are both comical and heartbreaking as he fails once again to connect with the woman he once loved.

"Fallen Angels" typifies Wong's delirious, drunk on style approach to filmmaking. He began shooting with just a story outline and then improvised scenes as he shot. He also employed voice-overs to convey the isolation and loneliness of characters that sometimes have only themselves to talk to.

WONG KAR WAI: "I think this is very effective to express something about loneliness. When people get lonely they start talking to themself and actually VO gives me more space so I can round up my stories if I have different happenings to make it more flexible in making the film."

Voice-overs allow Wong to make last minute changes long after shooting's completed. This allows Wong to change the romantic relationships in post-production, after he has grown to know his characters better. Wong's spontaneous approach has resulted in a cinematic style that's earned high praise. But cinematographer Christopher Doyle says it's simply a style built on necessity. In the case of "In the Mood for Love," the conditions that dictated the style were the cramped quarters they chose to film in.

CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: "It's very much a gut response to the spaces we're working in the light we see, the conditions under which the characters in the film are evolving or living...

Those cramped quarters can also be used to convey the relationships of the characters. Shane Flores points to a single scene in "In the Mood for Love."

SHANE FLORES: "They live next door to each other and separated by thin wall and wall bisects the frame and each alone and yet together and both listening to saccharine, Chinese love song it is everything Wong Kar Wai and his romantic films are all about."

Wong followed "In the Mood for Love" with "2046," a kind of sequel. 2046 ends with the same sense of sad regret that closed "In the Mood for Love." "My Blueberry Nights," Wong's latest chapter, will be his first film in English. It stars Jude Law and Norah Jones, and although the language may be foreign to Wong, the ideas and emotions aren't.

Norah Jones stars in Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film, "My Blueberry Nights" in 2008.
The Weinstein Company
Norah Jones stars in Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film, "My Blueberry Nights" in 2008.

JEREMY: "It's like these pies and cakes. At the end of every night the cheesecakes and the apple pies are always gone. The peach cobbler and the chocolate mousse cake are nearly finished but there's always a whole blueberry pie."

ELIZABETH: "So what's wrong with the blueberry pie?"

JEREMY: "There's nothing wrong with the blueberry pie, people just make other choices. You can't blame the blueberry pie, it's just no one wants it."

Wong's lovers are often like those blueberry pies, left alone every night wondering why no one chooses them. The more Wong films you have seen, the more connections you will make between them. One character picks up where another left off, and people are destined to repeat themselves on into the future. If you are coming to Wong for the first time, then I suggest not worrying about plot or narrative but rather just letting the films wash over you, basking in their delirious seductiveness.

In the recent film "Eros," Wong directed one of three segments on love. His story focused on a young tailor who makes gorgeous dresses for a rich woman with a lot of lover. Shane Flores sees that film as perfectly encapsulating Wong's work, hitting on all the familiar elements and themes. It ends with the kind of transcendence we have come to expect from Wong, his ability to overcome the sometime brutal sex of a relationship to find some kind of emotional high ground.

SHANE FLORES: "The end should be this really sad, sleazy, soft core HBO "Red Shoes Diary" kind of thing, but it's not at all. You don't feel that way about it at all, you are incredibly touched by this most sincere and beautiful moment of genuine love between two people that transcends anything that's going on with themselves. That's his genius he can reveal that pure and amazing human emotional thing in the middle of what can be very sad or ridiculous situations."

Wong tries to do something different with each film, yet his body of work reveals a fascination for similar themes. His expressionistic visual style -- whether it's the blurred slow motion of "Chungking Express," the slow, steady, voyeuristic shots of "In the Mood for Love," or the richly textured cinemascope of "2046" -- conveys the emotions of his characters and dictates the atmosphere of his film. His films ask you to surrender to their breathtaking romantic spirit. Nobody is as rapturously romantic as Wong, and yet his films avoid the maudlin sentimentality of most Hollywood romantic fare. His films are beautiful yet tinged with sadness and an aching sense of desire. And only the hardest of hearts will be able to resist his glorious romanticism.