Wong Kar Wai

11:24 AM

Liked Moonlight? You might want to hear about one of the film's biggest inspirations, Hong-Kong director Wong Kar Wai. 
Wong Kar Wai. He topped Quentin Tarantino's recommendations, was creative director for the annual Met exhibit (China: Through the Looking Glass), and pioneered the Second Wave of Hong Kong cinema. His name and praises peppered my media feed for months, but it wasn't until I watched Oscar-winning picture Moonlight that I delved into his work. I really enjoyed Moonlight, and hearing director Barry Jenkins cite Wong Kar Wai as one of his inspirations was the last push I needed to finally watch one of his films. So, I watched Chungking Express; and loved it. Then I watched Fallen Angels, then In the Mood for Love, then Happy Together. I adored them all. Kar Wai's films, especially the ones taking place in the contemporary world, hold threads of similarity that are delicately pursued through his stunning cinematography, pool of actors he constantly works with, setting, characters, and more. His formula is not sluggish, but meticulously beautiful.
Tony Leung, Kar Wai's constant leading man, in (clockwise from upper left) Chungking Express, Happy Together, Ashes of Time, and In the Mood for Love


WKW's work emerged around the 1990s. The Hong Kong movie industry at the time was aiming to excite, with directors like Jackie Chan and John Woo producing action-packed films and period epics. WKW, while bringing that same energy, is influenced primarily by the Jean Luc Godard films of the French New Wave. The French New Wave was a movement emerging in the 1950s and 60s that rebelled against what the filmmakers considered "bourgeois" cinema. They experimented with new shooting techniques, poked fun at traditional cinema, and tended to work very organically. Similarly, WKW employs these aspects into his own movies- his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, was shot over the course of 15 months, with him and the actors writing scenes as they filmed them! He and his counterparts did not adhere to the rising exposition/ climax/ resolution formula in storytelling, but used little to no plot to convey an idea. That, and his use of a city as fast-paced Hong Kong as a constant "character" throughout his stories gives him a unique momentum that is both simple and exciting. WKW brings these elements together to implement his signature themes: loneliness, love, and fantasies. 

In almost every of his films, there is an aura of solitude in leading characters. Juxtaposed against Hong Kong's vastness and hustle, protagonists often live mundane lives as marginal workers with few family or friends. These characters' activities are interrupted by falling in love, but there is always something preventing them from acting on their feelings- themselves. Thus, they are stuck in this circular life. WKW shows this by filming within the same locations constantly, isolating the characters in their emotions. The only way we can ever know their true feelings is through monologues, a technique WKW uses constantly. But, instead of breaking free from the loneliness they have held onto for so long, characters often create fantasies for themselves and live in them. In the Mood for Love is a prime example of this. The story follows two neighbors whose spouse committed adultery with the other's. The cheated-on duo attempt to understand the motives of their husband and wife by acting like them: that is, trying to seduce one another as each spouse would have done. Eventually, the pair falls in love- but they refuse to ever act on it, as they don't want to stoop as low as their spouses. Instead, they continue to play into the seduction fantasy, by which the lines blur for the watcher: in this scene, are they themselves or are they still playing pretend? Fantasies are seen as some kind of wish fulfillment for the desires of the characters.

Image result for in the mood for love framing

All these themes are implemented fascinatingly through many mediums. Along with repeating locations, WKW also repeats soundtracks. The same 2 or 3 songs are purposely played over and over again. In Chungking Express, the song "California Dreamin' " by the Mamas and Papas is essentially the title song to the narratives of not-quite lovers Cop 663 and Faye. This not only creates the sort of sludge WKW wants to portray, but gives the songs connotations to certain moods. When "California Dreamin' " plays you can't help but think of Faye bopping her head to it, daydreaming of Cop 663. Also, it is notable to point out WKW's choice in music; almost always American or European. Using familiar tracks over foreign backgrounds is another factor of WKW's lasting impact on cinema on an international level. The stories and songs feel familiar, but still far way- just like the characters. Another quintessential signature of his is constant collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle creates stunning visuals that also express the film's messages. Color stands out in his work. The sultry red in In the Mood For Love, the daylight and yellows in the lighthearted Chungking Express, the neon in Fallen Angels all lend each film its unique tone. Something incredibly distinct in Doyle is his "frames within frames" visual style. In addition to the typical widescreen framing, characters are framed with something else, be it a door, window, or mirror. This is done purposefully to show each character's fantasies within darker backgrounds, and a form of confinement. All these elements go to make films that can be watched multiple times without getting boring. There are always immaculate details to uncover in the tales spun about quiet heartbreak. 


Looking at the video above, the influence Wong Kar Wai has had on Moonlight's Barry Jenkins is evident. Story content, as with visuals, have been of influence. WKW's Happy Together, the story of a gay Chinese immigrant couple in Argentina, go through similar experiences as the protagonists in Moonlight. Personally, I find Happy Together one of WKW's more socially impacting works. His commentary and portrayal of a gay couple seems not alien, but comforting and domestic. 

My Wong Kar Wai Picks

Image result for fallen angels wong kar wai
Fallen Angels
Chungking Express/ Fallen Angels: These are grouped together, because it is often said that the two films are, spiritually, part of the same storyline. Chungking Express was a quickie process for Kar Wai in between filming his epic, Ashes of Time. The film lends itself to be simple and sweet modern anthology of two cops dealing with love in Hong Kong. The beautiful cinematography that captured Hong Kong, the youth actors Takeshi Kaneshiro and Faye Wong bring, and music (Faye Wong's Chinese cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams" is, well, dreamy!) make the movie refreshing and uplifting. Fallen Angels, is Chungking Express' gritty counterpart. WKW originally aimed to include three stories in Chungking Express, but ended up not. That story, with another, ended up being Fallen Angels. The film uses some of the same locations and characters (we have Kaneshiro back) as its lighter ancestor, but that is the extent of it. With more gangster plot infused, Fallen Angels is anthology of two literal partners in crime assessing their emotions towards each other, along with Kaneshiro in Chungking's continued life story. The film shows a more nocturnal, dangerous version of Hong Kong, emphasized by the haunting music. It shows a more rebellious youth; and Kaneshiro and other protagonist, played by Michelle Reis, both look godly beautiful in it. 

In the Mood for Love: THE Wong Kar Wai film. The plot has been explained previously, but one cannot truly describe the fragile emotions portrayed in the film without having the reader actually watching it. Lead actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung do an excellent job of capturing Kar Wai's vision. Subtle and dooming. The colors and fashion of 1960s Hong Kong appeal to the eye, as well. And that ending? Absolutely tragic.

Any other directors you have in mind for assessment? Let me know!

You Might Also Like