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A Valentine To The Rapturous Romanticism Of Wong Kar-Wai

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My idea of a good date movie 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. So as much as I hate Cupid's silly holiday, here's a Valentine to Wong Kar-Wai.

Show transcript

Welcome back to another edition of listener supported PBS and I'm a junkie podcast I'm Beth Accomondo.

Back in 2008. PBS asked me to come up with a list of contemporary films appropriate for Valentine's Day. Really. They asked me. I mean my idea of a good date movie is Shaun Of The Dead. I felt perhaps I was not the best person for the job but then I thought about it for a bit and realized there was really only one filmmaker I could turn to. Wong Kar Wei since Valentine's Day with all its cringeworthy saccharin sweetness is once again upon us. I decided to dig back into my archives for my heartfelt Valentine to Wong. He's perhaps the only contemporary filmmaker who consistently makes romantic films that I swoon over for this podcast. I draw on interviews I did with Wong between 1995 and 2008 as well as interviews with his frequent stars Tony Long and Maggie Chang. I also speak with a couple of cinephiles deeply affected by Wang's films. This piece originally aired on Valentine's Day 2008 as Wang's first American film My Blueberry Nights was about to open.

In person. Wong cuts a romantic figure with his spiky haircut cherished cigarettes smoldering between his fingers and ever present shades and he's very mysterious on the side.

I don't know what happened behind those sunglasses so maybe he's sleeping.

That's actor Tony lung.

He's worked with Wang for more than a decade working with him is very challenging especially without a script and we develop everything. I mean the character in the story is in the set and it's fun to do that because not much directed to movies that way. And he's so unique and the most interesting thing is even you know very well about your character after you finish all the shootings but you will never have an idea of what the story is about because he would do that in the editing room whipping up heady romantic cocktails in the editing room is something Wong does exceptionally well.

Although each of Wang's films has a distinctly different flavor they all expand on a similar pool of ideas Love Lost desire and a fascination with tangled romantic relationships. Wang says that in a sense he's just making a single epic work with each film an added chapter.

I always said I'm making a very long film and each film I make is just like a sequence in that film and I'm not sure what I will. Long film is intended to be. But anyway I just love them all.

The latest chapter in his cinematic opus is my Blueberry Nights. It debuted in May of 2007 at the 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. So I think about a man like.

You can never hear from you again. Goodbye.

Doesn't always be. Sometimes that means a new beginning. To show whether or not it really happened or it was just another dream.

This sounds like a classic setup for one of wanks films says San Diego filmmaker Aaron Crabtree.

He defines a long Kabwe film as it's a dream of watching the person you love through a doorway. It's watching someone you love and care about through a doorway almost dreaming of them and 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 we can't attain we can't. The unattainable.

Wongs 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 Wang's world a single moment can change a life forever and a missed opportunity can haunt a character for the rest of his or her life. For Shane Flores curator of Secret Cinema Wong is a master at capturing how timeless love can be.

Film is about time it's its currency but love doesn't exist in time. It's like something that permeates an entire life and sort of way and it in his films because they're are sort of tragic in the way those few moments of love. That you have in your life. Can fill up. All the space and all the time time figures prominently in Wang's multi character romance Chungking Express.

Takeshi Kenshiro plays a cop trying to recover from being dumped by his girlfriend. She left him on April Fool's Day. And everyday for a month he's been buying a can of her favorite pineapple which will expire on May 1st the deadline he's given 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. With. A.

Gun. Dudack.

In Chungking Express Wang adds an unexpected charm and humor that his earlier films didn't have here.

Characters wallow in love lorn agony in a sly variation on the long suffering lovers of his earlier films. WANG Even allows for the possibility of happiness at least for one couple.

But happiness proves elusive. In his 2000 film in the mood for love. The film stars Maggie Chang and Tony Luhn two actors who work regularly with Wong Chungs Li Zan and lung's Marwan 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 Chung explains her relationship in the film is very romantic but painful.

You feel that the love is so strong but then there's no love. The love doesn't exist at the same time. It's kind of like in their own imaginations it's real and surreal at the same time.

For me the film is all about romantic longing says Erin Crabtree.

It is this ache you know you're reaching it's almost you're reaching for something you're reaching for that warm body idea some affection some yurta is just the yearning is just so tangible that it's you can feel it you know and it's a part of the Texture texture as it's the images themselves. It's as much a texture as the wall that Christopher drill shoots for the costly meat that alleyway where Maggie and Tony meet. And you know that wonderful use of soft light and rain and yeah the texture of longing is is is as important to the film as any of the production design and even texture that was the world itself. Oh yes.

Wong's attention to detail whether it's the wall paper 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 also seem like dense exquisitely clever music videos where image and music blend seamlessly to create a mood and music is always crucial to a Whang film.

For in the mood for love he turns to Nat King Cole to set the tone and placate tapering. We've known David these days.

His songs and songs the songs.

The fact that the song is in Spanish yet somehow familiar reflects the way Wong depicts romantic relationships. He can seem familiar yet at the same time distant and removed combining music and image is an essential part of Wang's work. Finding the perfect match is crucial to setting the right mood says Maggie Chung. When they were shooting in the mood for love Wong paired up cujus slowmotion images with music just for the actors to watch the dailies from each day's filming. I remember we used to be in the office looking at the babies and would put on the music.

That he's chosen for the film. Now I will be looking at those images and those were the first exciting images that we saw. It's like this is it. This is it.

But you know it's not a film. It's slow motion. It's like a montage. It's beautiful to look at but it's not a film. But this week. We held on to that mood all the way through the film.

But Hmongs music for Chungking Express struck a much lighter note because the lovesick character played by Faye Wong brims with dreamy romanticism. I start thinking suppressed for ideas that I will use. California dreaming because.

To me it is very much the same spirit of Chongqing's first which is very 70s and very simple minded. So I told Faye Wong. Listen to this song and something like. What it is to me is after I have decided that the girlfriend of 2 million should be an air hostess because what a difference a day made this very very popular in the 60s because in Hong Kong because it is a song for commercial of. Pan. Am. So it always reminds me of. You know. Air Hostess like Les. What difference a day maybe two 24 hour drunk water the sun. In the film Happy together the music that defines the central gay relationship is the tango.

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 horizontal desire as the one most fitting to his film.

I hear the music of Peirsol and I think well this is the music of the film. I choose the music because it is tango music and it's smaller than in tango music. It is just like the human heart. And I think this is the rhythm of the city.

But Long also chose to use the song Happy Together in the film of the same name.

Some people would say this is very cynical for you too happy to get is the title of the film. I it in a film does two characters to split and cannot live happily together. But to me I think happy happy together getting applied to to a person who live happily together with himself that is at peace with himself. This is the character of totally lonely and I think this is the starting point for full for person. If he can at peace with himself then he can set up a thing and he's more flexible and he can face his problem and futures more openly.

If the titles of Wang's films I'm happy together to in the mood for love sound more like the titles of songs.

Maybe that's because he likes to think of himself as a jazz musician and his hip improvisational films like jam sessions and we'd just like a group of musicians just band you know and I'm the band leader whenever I have a session I just call up everybody and they just come over and we have a jamming.

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 Wang's visual signature cinematographer Christopher Doyle experimented with this style.

On his first collaboration with Wang Ashes of Time I think that this particular visual that which has become the kind of trademark which is a very visual thing. I think it's just you know the great thing about these is the visual equivalent of of of a dreamer you know it's it's what an adrenaline rush feels like. I think that's what I always you know this kind of thing.

Stylistically Wong 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 she 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 she woo hoo behind her back pantomimes a violent death complete with ketchup bloodstains. She was melodramatics are both comical and heartbreaking as he fails once again to connect with the woman he once loved and that means it was. Nová sentimental ill Sacco's his. Fallen Angels typifies Wang's delirious drunken style approach to filmmaking. When he began shooting with just a story outline and then improvised scenes as the shot he also employed voiceovers to convey the isolation and loneliness of characters that sometimes only have themselves to talk to.

At first it provides different NGOs for the characters becomes the stories consists of different point of view. Later in kinking press I realize the voiceover become an expression because it's just like guys keep talking to himself and I think this is very effective to to express something about loneliness. You know people are when people get lonely he starts talking to himself actually. VOICEOVER give me more space so I can round up my stories.

If I have different happenings you know to make it more flexible in making the film voiceovers allow Wang to make last minute changes long after shooting's completed this allows Wong to tweak the romantic relationships in post-production after he's grown to know his characters better. Wong spontaneous approach has resulted in a cinematic style that's earned high praise that 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.

We are working intuitively in a have what we have all the elements of what we need in our head. I think you know I think we do have intuitively or otherwise that we do have an idea of what we want. And of course it's a very much a gut feeling is much a gut reaction to get a response to to the spaces that working in the rights that we see the conditions under which the characters in the film are voting or living those cramped quarters can also be used to convey the relationships of characters.

Shane Flores points to a single scene in in the mood for love. They live next door to each other and their apartments are of course separated by a thin wall and then shot is one where the wall bisects the frame and they are on either side of it each alone together but clearly thinking about each other and they're both listening to the same radio program which is playing a very.

And classic Chinese love song on the radio. And these two lovers were seen together while being a universe apart through a thread wall is everything that went haywire as films and his romantic films are about. Died.

WANG followed in the mood for love with 2046 the kind of sequel 2046 ends with the same sense of sad regret that closed in the mood for love. My Blueberry Nights Wang's latest chapter will be his first film in English. It stars Jude Law and Norah Jones. And although the language may be foreign Tawang the ideas and emotions aren't here. Jude Law uses Pye's as an example. Well from my observations.

Sometimes it's better off not knowing. And other times there's no reason to be found. Everything has a reason. So. These pies and cakes. At the end of every night.

Cheesecake and the apple pie are always completely gone. The peach cobbler. And the chocolate mousse cake are nearly finished. But there's always a whole blueberry pie left untouched.

So what's wrong with the blueberry pie. There's nothing wrong with the blue reply to people make other choices. You can't blame the blueberry pies.

No one wants those blueberry pies or like so many of Wang's characters left alone every night wondering why no one chooses them. The more Whang films you see 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're coming to Wang's films 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 Aeros Wong directed one of three segments on love. His story focused on a young tailor who makes gorgeous dresses for a rich woman. Shane Floras sees that story as perfectly encapsulating Wang's work hitting on all the familiar elements and themes. It ends with a kind of transcendence we've come to expect from Huang. His ability to overcome the sometimes blunt sex of a relationship to find some kind of emotional high ground.

The end is just incredibly.

It should be this really sad sleazy softcore HBO should be sad in a pathetic way but it's not at all like that you don't feel that way about it at all. You are incredibly touched by this most sincere and beautiful beautiful moments of genuine love between two people that transcends anything that's going on like that they're doing with their own selves and that's really the genius of Wong Kar wai.

He can leave the he's able to reveal that here and amazing human emotional thing in the middle of just what can be sometimes very very sad.

WANG tries to do something different with each film yet his body of work reveals a fascination for similar themes he's 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. So this Valentine's Day sample something from Wong Kar wai an experience filmmaking that will make you swoon.

Thanks for listening to another edition of the PBS cinema junkie podcast. Coming up next will be a trio of acclaimed editors talking about their Oscar nominated films and about misconceptions they'd like to address about what an editor does.

Yeah I mean I think a lot of people think that editing is sometimes as simple as cutting out the bad parts or or just doing what the director wants. The editor has a tremendous amount of influence on on what the movie is. There are times where I can take a line reading from one take and put it with the visual of another take.

Sometimes I only use a word from another take and put it in I can manipulate time by expanding or contracting giving more pause between dialogue to give something gravity or speeding something up to give something tension.

Cinema junkie podcast normally comes out every other Friday but this week I released the episode early in order to offer some Valentine's Day viewing suggestions. Check back on March 2nd for the next episode. If you enjoyed this episode please leave a review on iTunes. Your reviews help other people discover the podcast and if you're feeling particularly generous you can donate to support the pod cast. At PBS dot org slash feed the junkie till our next film fix I'm Beth Accomondo your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place