The 100 Essential Directors Part 10

Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

by PopMatters Staff

5 September 2011


Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai
(1958 - present)

Three Key Films: Fallen Angels (1995), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004)

Underrated: Days of Being Wild (1990)—Despite its thematic and stylistic ties to later smash hits In the Mood For Love and 2046, and the acclaim it won on its initial release during the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards, this early artistic success has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in favor of the director’s later works. It is truly a shame, because it actually is one of the director’s more beautiful, nostalgic works. Although the theme of memory is obviously a prevalent one in all of Kar-Wai’s films, in this particular one it manifests itself in one of the most effective appearances in the director’s career in the repeated use of Xavier Cugat’s “Perfida”.

Unforgettable: Faye Wong, despite somewhat lacking acting experience, gained great acclaim for her singular performance in Chungking Express as a restaurant worker in love with Cop 633 (Tony Leung). In one incredible sequence, she hands him a letter written to him by his ex-lover. Rather than read it, he decides to sip his coffee just recently served to him. Time seems to stand still, as people rush by in fast-motion while he ever-so-slowly raises his cup to his mouth. Faye leans over the counter, looking the epitomized face of expectation. And we as an audience are thunderstruck by the sheer combination of form and content, the emotions being deepened and furthered by the stylistic techniques.

The Legend: Wong Kar-Wai paid his dues for the first ten years of his career, for the most part restricting his work to writing scripts for television and the films of other directors working for the Hong Kong film industry. His 1988 directorial debut, As Tears Go By, was a perfectly serviceable gangland epic where the beginnings of his nostalgic cinematic style could be glimpsed. But it wasn’t until his follow-up work Days of Being Wild that his true voice was heard. His later films Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and In the Mood for Love indeed led to something resembling international success.

So why is he an “Essential Director?” Only because his films exist as the perfect realization of a directorial vision. Musical montages and poetic voice-over sequences makes it clear that what we are watching is in fact a manipulated version of reality, put through the filter of memory. However, rather than being misleading and manipulative in themselves, they push audiences to understand the true pathos and romance of the various misfits, cops, night-owls, and spouses that populate the world of Wong Kar-Wai. The unrequited love of a restaurant worker; the troubled romance of a gay couple in South America; the unimportant, ignored people—the lonely housewives, the cops working the quiet beat.

Wong Kar-Wai also has partially made a name for himself due to the sterling talents he has surrounded himself with his entire career. The best of Hong Kong and China’s acting pools, including such names as Tony Leung, Gong Li, and Maggie Cheung; along with long-time collaborating cinematographer Christopher Doyle—who has also worked with such stalwarts as Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant—all acquit themselves more than adequately. Every one of his Hong Kong-based films are beautifully acted and shot (the less said about American production My Blueberry Nights the better). But at the core is an idea. Something about memory. Something sprung purely from the mind of Wong Kar-Wai, the master of the cinematic lonely streets of Hong Kong. Mark Schiffer


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