March Filmmaker of the Month: Wong Kar-wai

Wong Kar-wai Wong Kar-wai

In anticipation of his upcoming Criterion set, we look back at the Hong Kong filmmaker’s poetic visuals and beating romantic heart.

To watch a Wong Kar-wai film is to be immersed in the fragility and airiness of love, time, and memory. In Happy Together, we watch a gay couple grow paradoxically closer to, and further away from, each other over the course of their relationship. In the Mood for Love traps us in the aching, unrequited-but-not-really companionship between two neighbors whose partners are cheating on them with each other, lamenting the timing and anxieties that keep them apart. Chungking Express floats among the streets of Hong Kong to chronicle the brittle connection between a lovesick cop and a quirky snack food cashier.

But Wong’s films aren’t just doomed love stories; they’re a shared narrative about Hong Kong’s history, culture, and the rhythms of its citizens’ everyday lives. When he’s not relishing in the spectacle and action of wuxia epics like Ashes of Time and The Grandmaster, his characters float in and around a Hong Kong hovering on one side or the other of its handover to China from its former British colonization. They’re filled with anguish about the future, clinging to the past, uncertain of what new frontiers may lay ahead for them. They may flirt with different genres — romance, comedy, crime drama, even sci-fi in 2046 — but they’re all works of tremendous anxiety about people struggling with nostalgia.

And yet, there’s joy and calm in many of his works. Wong’s films are mood pieces by and large, but suffused with a powerful sense of playfulness, both with their structures and thematic concerns. Chungking dabbles in a Godardian mode of wistful, pop-culture fueled amore, with its Anna Karina-like Faye Wong swaying to “California Dreamin'”. In the Mood for Love, meanwhile, throbs with unrequited lust, frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle soaking the world of its frustrated protagonists with randy reds and lingering glances. Even when there are grander things to say about the liminal state of a mid-handover Kong Kong, Wong couched it all in deeply poetic, elemental tales of human desire and connection.

Wong’s one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, with deep influence in international film conversations since the mid-1990s introduced Western audiences to his highly acclaimed works. What’s more, his works have been recently restored and remastered by the filmmaker himself — the editorial changes and color grading of which have admittedly raised some conversations about the value of perpetual authorship — with a robust Criterion box set on the way later this month. This gives us the lovely occasion to revisit his works, in all their color and texture and deep well of feeling, and by God, we’re going to seize that opportunity.

Look out for pieces at The Spool all throughout March offering retrospective on Wong’s filmography to date, as we yearn to better understand one of Hong Kong cinema’s most influential creators.

Read the rest of our Wong Kar-wai coverage below:

Wong Kar-wai cut his teeth on the bold “As Tears Go By”
The moving “Days of Being Wild” is all too timely
In “Chungking Express”, we are known by the things we own
With “Fallen Angels,” less words are more
You’ll be elated with the richly detailed filmmaking of “Happy Together”

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