Is the Spirit of Change in ‘World of Wong Kar-Wai’ for the Better?

Is there freedom for the filmmaker and for viewers in the director-revised films that comprise ‘World of Wong Kar-Wai’, or just a forced regression?

World of Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai
The Criterion Collection
23 March 2021 (US)

The Criterion Collection’s World of Wong Kar-Wai box set presents a cinema in flux. 

Like the legendary Hong Kong director’s films, the World of Wong Kar-Wai physical product is a beautiful whirlwind of color, style, and interlinked mysteries. The box unwraps like origami, housing a glamorous book whose French-fold pages carry secret images of intimate moments from the seven included films: As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004). The discs themselves unfold outward from their cradle, artfully designed to express a movement and transformation recognizable to those who know Wong’s mischievously dynamic cinema. It’s a faithful tribute to the director even on its own. But then there are the films.

Teased early last year, Criterion’s Wong Kar-wai box set marks the long-awaited return of the filmmaker to the label’s catalog after their beloved special edition releases of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love went out of print years ago. Wong emerged from the same wave of Hong Kong filmmakers that birthed the epic action and crime sagas of John Woo and Jackie Chan, whose visionary takes on visceral cinematic excitement made them quick and easy transplants to Hollywood in the ’90s.

The connection is immediately clear in Wong’s debut, As Tears Go By, which is more a conventional (for the period) Hong Kong gang movie than the stylized romances that he would later make his name from. By the time his most popularly appreciated films received the vaunted Criterion treatment in America, he was already long recognized as an international phenomenon, one who represented the sparkling energy of the new wave of Hong Kong cinema but with a character all his own.

The intervening years, though, have been quiet. After the release of 2046, his deeply unconventional sci-fi-tinged sequel to In the Mood for Love, Wong tried his hand at a Hollywood romance with the poorly received My Blueberry Nights (2007), which only further distanced the elusive director from his roots and made the hiatus feel even more bittersweet. It’s no wonder that now, eight years since the release of his most recent film, The Grandmaster (2013), Wong’s global base of admirers feels starved for new creative dispatches from the auteur. World of Wong Kar-Wai, somewhat unpredictably, proves to be his boldest artistic statement we’ve seen in a long time, and not everyone is pleased with the results.

The reason for this is the brand new 4K restorations of Wong’s most beloved film ares supervised by the director himself. These are updated versions of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love that could be described not only as remasters but also, controversially, as director’s cuts. In Criterion’s box set, these films are presented with clarity we’ve never seen before on home video, but they’ve also been edited with a heavy hand: color timing has been shifted, aspect ratios have been narrowed, and dialogue has been cut. Some fans—and even Wong himself—see this as an opportunity to watch old favorites in a fresh light; others see it as a sacrilegious act of artistic butchery.

The cinema world is no stranger to film revisions of this scale. Many have unfavorably compared Wong’s sudden changes to those made in George Lucas’ notorious special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, but there’s no shortage of high-profile examples to cull from. We can go as far back as Charles Chaplin’s re-released The Gold Rush (1925) with added narration for the sound era, Francis Ford Coppola’s extended Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), no less than five different versions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and even up to this year, with Coppola’s 2020 revision of The Godfather: Part III (1990) as The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone and Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Wong himself has previously participated in the legacy of cinematic reworks with his Ashes of Time Redux (2008), a drastically color adjusted and re-edited version of his unconventional wuxia film from 1994 and, under threat of destructive editing under the eye of Harvey Weinstein, the American release of The Grandmaster.

But as precedential as the practice may be, the key worrying point for World of Wong Kar-Wai skeptics is the accessibility of the classic versions of the films that they recognize. In the home video market, director’s cuts are often presented and released alongside their theatrical counterparts, with the many multi-disc home video releases of Blade Runner being a prominent example. To have these new versions without adequate access to the originals, even through a separate legitimate venue, is an upsetting prospect, especially considering the growing ephemerality of media in the digital space and the dwindling home video market.

As physical media is being phased out and film catalogs are being put online (where they can be added and removed at any time), it’s becoming more difficult to find some films that streaming platforms and digital video companies deem not worth preserving. If it turns out that World of Wong Kar-Wai is the last time we see some of Wong’s films in a physical home video package, are these the versions we want?

Wong’s steadfast supporters would say nothing is being replaced by the new, modified restorations and that you can still easily find the original versions, but that isn’t necessarily true even in a material sense, as Criterion’s original Blu-ray editions of both Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love—the only American Blu-ray releases of the films, long listed as out-of-print by the label—have now been supplanted by the versions included in the World of Wong Kar-Wai set. It would be sensible to allow audiences to access legacy versions of the films and make their own judgments, but contractual obligations and rights issues can often complicate that. (Criterion, of course, has little say in how the restorations are provided to them.)

For some, the opportunity of new restorations seems wasted on heavily altered versions; these films likely won’t see new restorations for years, and when they do, who’s to say whether they’ll use the original versions as their source, rebuild using the World of Wong Kar-Wai changes as a basis, or make even further edits? There is a fear that, as with Lucas’ Star Wars special editions, Wong has effectively banished the beloved original cuts of his films to the dubious realm of pirate copies, illegal fan edits, and secondhand, out-of-print Blu-rays. (It’s worth noting that Ashes of Time is virtually impossible to find in its original Chinese theatrical version. It’s available only as the redux version.)

The films as they’re presented in the World of Wong Kar-Wai set feature many edits that are arguably non-transformative, but others can only be described as drastic alterations.