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)

Chungking Express, a light but lonely slice-of-life romance about two heartbroken Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who, in separate vignettes, fall for an icy, drug-smuggling femme fatale in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) and a quirky and unreadable fast food cashier who dreams of moving to California (Faye Wong), is among the films least disturbed by the new changes. Alterations to color grading have given it a warmer and higher contrast look than Criterion’s 2008 Blu-ray, but the higher resolution transfer is in many ways a great improvement. Other minor changes include a gaudy new end credits sequence, modified sound effects, translation revisions, and edits to audio mixing that are more qualitatively subjective.

In contrast, the film most profoundly harmed in these new restorations is Fallen Angels, about the separate complicated romantic encounters of a contract killer (Leon Lai) and an unhinged, mute vagabond (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Fallen Angels closely resembles Chungking Express in some key ways (and was originally conceived to be part of the same project), but is a much darker—but no less emotionally vibrant—variation on its themes.

The new restoration damages the look of the film by trading the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio for a squashed 2.35:1, which has the effect of cropping a significant amount of the image from all previously released versions. Beyond the appalling loss of visual information, it also simply doesn’t look right. Wong has additionally played with the film’s iconic black-and-white and color sequences, colorizing some scenes that were once black-and-white and vice versa. Wong has explained that these changes reflect his original intent while making the film, but by eliminating so much of the frame, he has, unfortunately, only created an inferior version of it.

Happy Together, about an emotionally and sexually tumultuous relationship between two men (Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) stuck in Buenos Aires, is another iconic Wong film, but one that is much fiercer and more caustic than his other well-known films. Wong claims that the loss of some of the original negative of the film required that they cut parts of the monologues of Tony Leung’s character, and while such changes may not irrevocably alter the meaning of the film, it’s hard to argue it isn’t a detrimental loss.

Wong’s most critically and commercially adored film, In the Mood for Love, brings together two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, as neighbors in ’50s Hong Kong (brought to life with vibrant set design and classic period costumes) who discover that their spouses are engaged in a secret affair with each other. Their longing for connection draws them toward the budding of a passionate romance that their unspoken guilt tragically won’t let materialize. Egregiously, In the Mood for Love‘s new 4K restoration sports an overwhelming green color cast not present in previous versions, turning the film’s legendarily sensual reds and warm lighting into sickly versions of themselves. Of course, while immersed in the film, the off colors may not always be noticeable for everyone, but others may find it a disturbing distraction.

It’s well worth noting that the new 4K restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, and 2046 found in World of Wong Kar-Wai have seemingly left the films essentially untouched, and each of them is unpopular enough among Wong’s oeuvre that any chance to see them released on Blu-ray is an exciting enough prospect, let alone with such improved quality.

Wong’s first film, As Tears Go By, is also his most divergent in terms of storytelling and filmmaking. It’s about the esteemed gangster Wah (Andy Lau) who, in the midst of political power games between warring criminal syndicates, struggles to keep his hot-headed friend Fly (Jacky Cheung) out of trouble. The situation is further complicated by the appearance of his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), with whom he begins a romantic affair and dreams of escape. In keeping with Hong Kong trends of the time, As Tears Go By is far more focused on gritty action and crime than Wong’s other films, but Wah’s lonesome ache for love and tranquility would prove a formative theme for him to draw from, and as Hong Kong thrillers go, it’s a solidly entertaining and atypical one.

Days of Being Wild, a sprawling romance about naive and immature Hong Kong loners drifting in place and finding intimacy in their loose connections, is the first of Wong’s films to feature his signature style in a way that deeply resonates with the rest of his career. Featuring formidable performances from Hong Kong legends Leslie Cheung as Yuddy, a wayward womanizer whose acts of love and resentment are hard to distinguish, and Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen, a lovelorn cashier caught in his spell, as well as the cool-toned cinematography of Christopher Doyle, who would go on to contribute to all of the most iconic images of six other Wong films, Days of Being Wild is a sensitive, ambling primer to the director’s unique sensibilities.

2046 in particular is the least appreciated masterpiece of Wong’s career, perhaps in part because it’s been harder to find in good quality in recent years. A loosely sketched follow-up to In the Mood for Love that, like Fallen Angels, is more bleak and bizarre than its predecessor, the film follows the mysterious romances of Chow (a returning Tony Leung) as he lodges in a hotel and writes a science-fiction epic. Wong revisits and reappraises past characters in the film, but he creates new ones and reconstructs them as the story unfolds, as well. It’s Wong’s most unabashedly perplexing work and it’s a constructive exercise in legacy subversion, making it the most fitting close to World of Wong Kar-Wai one might imagine.

Ultimately, World of Wong Kar-Wai is a fascinating thing to have. It’s a legacy-transforming piece of cinematic renovation that asks its audience to dream with the spirit of change, to challenge nostalgia, to build a new relationship with its films and their filmmaker. But despite those compelling and even healthy impulses, it’s hard not to feel that it’s also hiding a subtly destructive thing in this environment of digitization and insufficient media preservation.

Is it reactionary nostalgia or a genuine fear of loss that makes us wonder how accessible the preferred versions of In the Mood for Love or Fallen Angels will be from this point forward? Wong has always been an artist refreshingly liberated from canonizing his characters or worlds, and in that spirit, these new restorations are definitely a unique curiosity. But is there real freedom in World of Wong Kar-Wai, or just a forced regression?

Wong is a sensuous director whose unique eye for oblique aesthetics and appetite for precarious but intimate character relationships supersedes all considerations of standard plot construction; he is a filmmaker of feeling above all else. As such, modifications to the shapes and colors of his worlds are as transformative as anything possibly could be. To think of Fallen Angels is to bring to mind the color green and the ultrawide lens; to think of In the Mood for Love is to bring to mind the warmth of the color red and the elegant, dignified fashion of ’60s Hong Kong.

I would love to say that, no matter how they are transformed, the flesh of these films remains intact, and that an artistic razing to this level cannot destroy their essential beauty. But who can imagine how that legacy—or any legacy—will evolve? History is always in flux and, as Wong is keen to remind us, cinema, like everything else, has an expiration date. We should enjoy their comforts while they last.

Headlining the list of special features included in Criterion’s World of Wong Kar-Wai release is an extended version of Wong’s short film The Hand—originally a segment in the 2004 film Eros—made available in the US for the first time, Wong’s 2000 short Hua yang de nian hua, and an alternate version of Days of Being Wild

In a new interview program, Wong answers questions from filmmakers and artists including Chloé Zhao, Sofia Coppola, and Rian Johnson. Most of the questions are about his particular working methods or his personal life, with some being about more specific themes or aspects of his films like the costumes in In the Mood for Love or the concept of time in his work as a whole. It isn’t the most substantial interview featurette one might expect from a major retrospective release, especially as the single major new program—Wong repeats a lot of information easily found elsewhere, including within the box set itself—but it’s fun to see him look back while on the set of a new project, at the very least.

Of course, there’s a massive slate of archival material to pour through, including old interviews and programs featuring cinematographer Christopher Doyle, actors Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Faye Wong, and Wong Kar-Wai himself. This bonus content is enough to keep fans busy for some time, even if it’s not entirely comprehensive. Still, the fact that it’s bundled in one place makes the package as a whole a more attractive investment.