Wong Kar-wai has been enchanting audiences with his beautiful and heart-wrenching dramas for over thirty years. The World of Wong Kar-wai, a new box set from The Criterion Collection, collects many of the Hong Kong director’s most essential movies. While Wong’s movies have been released on home video a few times throughout the years, this set represents a new entry point into the filmography of one of cinema’s great talents.
Wong is synonymous with Hong Kong. When he was only five years old, his family moved from Shanghai to the British Hong Kong. Many of his movies focus on the city he saw in his youth, the Hong Kong of the 1960s, with its bright neon signs and the trappings of Western influence coming into the country. Those streaks of neon light illuminate Wong Kar-wai’s movies. His cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, helped create the technique of using these bright fluorescent lights to bring varied hues to Wong’s movies. Whether it is the light of a fish tank, big convenience store signs or even the bright lights of the subway, to see Hong Kong through Wong’s eyes to experience something otherworldly and, as many have described his work, romantic. To understand this, let’s look at three of his most famous films: Chungking Express, The Grandmaster and In the Mood for Love.
Wong’s movies often appear on lists of the most romantic movies in cinema history, but not because they have happy endings. Romance can take on many different forms and Wong has always been more interested in missed opportunities. Providing a peek into the psyche of someone in love, giving them a glimpse of happiness and then dashing all hope away. If only circumstances were slightly different, perhaps these fated souls would be together. In Chungking Express, Wong explored dual stories of fated encounters.
The first is between Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the character known simply as the Woman in the Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin). Cop 223 has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and become obsessed with her return. His depression leads him to a bar where The Woman in the Blonde Wig is hiding out after a drug deal gone south. Their brief relationship is one of pure happenstance and their clashing occupations make it comical. The film’s other relationship is that of Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who has been dumped by his girlfriend. He frequents a local restaurant where a new girl (Faye Wong) has started to become interested in him. So interested, in fact, that she trespasses into his apartment when he isn’t there. She has become obsessed, cleaning and redecorating unbeknownst to him. When they come to some understanding of what their relationship might entail, it gets derailed.
Both stories have a reliance on dates and time. Cop 223 frequently buys pineapple from the local convenience store that will expire on May 1st (his birthday and one month into his breakup). He hopes his ex-girlfriend will return to him on that date. Cop 663 is told an exact time and place to meet up with his new love interest. She decides to skip the date, but not without giving him a boarding pass to return to the same location one year later. This reliance on dates and expirations has become something that Wong Kar-wai has revisited throughout his filmography, underlining Hong Kong’s own undefined status in the international eye.
Britain had obtained a lease for Hong Kong that lasted from 1898 until July 1st, 1997. Once that date in 1997 had been reached, Hong Kong was to be returned to China as they adopted a “one country, two systems” government. It’s unknown what will happen with Hong Kong once this current agreement ends in 2047. This “undefined” status for Hong Kong has long been reflected in Wong’s works. Filmed in 1994, Chungking Express was made on the cusp of this agreement expiring and this anxiety might have influenced the movie.
The Grandmaster continues Wong’s fascination with the history of Hong Kong. Using a famed martial artist, Wong creates a thru-line for the Second Sino-Japanese War, which saw Japan’s invasion of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Wong was never satisfied with a single version of The Grandmaster. There are actually three different cuts of the movie: A Chinese cut which runs for 130 minutes, a Berlin cut which trims some of the length to 123 minutes and a 108-minute U.S. cut which was created by The Weinstein Company and Wong. I prefer the 130-minute cut for a multitude of reasons, which include added scenes with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), and other scenes that call back to Wong’s past movies.
Leung again stars, this time as Ip Man, a martial artist who popularized the Wing Chun style and is credited as Bruce Lee’s teacher. Wong’s cinema lends itself to action set pieces—especially with this film’s emphasis on martial arts—due to his fascination with manipulating motion. Like his previous films, characters move as if within a dream; combat slows almost to a stop, emphasizing precise hand gestures.
One of the main plot points in The Grandmaster sees Ip Man challenge the old grandmaster in an attempt to unify the schools of the north and south. After her father is defeated by Ip Man, Gong Er challenges him to reclaim her father’s honor. What begins as a contest to prove superiority soon becomes the first glimpse of a simmering romance. Unfortunately, Ip Man is married and has a family he cares for, while Gong Er has already been promised in marriage. But in that moment, a connection between the two of them is made that will linger for years.
The Chinese cut adds more scenes for Gong Er, as she is given a lot more agency in her quest to avenge the death of her father. It makes the relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er stronger, as they have a shared experience of the changes affecting Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Some of that is lost in the U.S. cut, as the flourishes that make it a Wong Kar-wai movie are smoothed out and the film diverged from focusing on its couple, leaning more on Ip Man’s journey. Some of his scenes using slow motion have been shortened, removing some of the artistry expected in his movies. Other scenes have been changed as well. A sacred oath is made as Gong Er whispers a promise into a hole, swearing she will not marry, have children or teach Kung Fu, all for a chance at revenge. The U.S. cut gives us intertitles explaining what she has done, not showing it. This idea of taking an oath repeats throughout Wong’s movies and the absence of that brief scene breaks that connection.
That connection is still present in Wong’s most acclaimed movie, In the Mood for Love, which details the forbidden romance between jilted individuals. In 1962, Chow Mo-wan (Leung) moved into an apartment complex with his wife. Meanwhile, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) has moved into an adjacent apartment with her husband. They spend their nights alone as both have spouses who work late and are often out. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan come to the conclusion that their spouses have been cheating on them.
In the Mood for Love then focuses on the budding friendship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan which began as a perverse game to discover how their spouses began their entanglement. The charade of make-believe entertains the couple for a while, but soon they begin falling for each other. There is an understanding between the two of them from the start, the idea that if they were to fall in love with each other, they would be no better than the spouses that have caused them so much pain and anguish. That sacred oath of marriage ties their hands. Had they met at some other time or with different circumstances, perhaps their love story would’ve been complete. There’s moments of weakness, where our protagonists are ready to follow through with their own desires of infidelity, only to miss each other due to some unfortunate happenstance.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan often passed each other on a set of stairs leading down to their favorite noodle shop. Before their relationship would begin in earnest, they would be like two ships passing in the night. While these moments seem to exist only for a brief second, Wong extends the sequence far beyond reason, perfecting his technique of step printing. Step printing is the process of shooting the movie in fast motion with a slow shutter speed and then slowing it down in post-process. Wong experiments with motion to make everyday life seem extraordinary.
One of the main themes of In the Mood for Love is the idea of societal pressure. Even though Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan enjoy each other’s company, it’s a taboo relationship from the viewpoint of their landlords. The couple would never be able overcome the scandal it would create. Thus, the way Wong uses the composition of many sequences in the movie is that of surveillance. As the audience, we are allowed tantalizing views of these two people, whether it’s the reflection of a mirror or through the frame of a window. The voyeurist viewfinder we are looking through lends itself to something immoral.
While these films help serve as an introduction to the auteur, the Criterion box set represents the ideal way to experience Wong Kar-wai’s filmography. From his first film As Tears Go By to the future anxieties of 2046, it’s clear what fascinates Wong. Whether it’s the unfortunate cops in Chungking Express, the martial artists of The Grandmaster or the forbidden love of In the Mood for Love, Wong revels in the unfulfilled desire of his characters. It’s in this context that his depiction of love is at its most potent. Manipulating time and using the bright lights of Hong Kong, these connections feel slightly eschewed from reality. Time becomes the enemy as it alternates between far too slow or hastily moving towards an ill-defined future. The lighting’s different hues showcase Wong’s own youthful memories. His aesthetic and pet themes place all his movies in a slightly different plane, truly representing the world as envisioned by Wong Kar-wai.
Max Covill has written for Fandom, Polygon, Film School Rejects, Playboy, SYFY and many others since 2011. He is also the co-host of @itsthepicpod. You can find him on Twitter @mhcovill discussing all things movies, videogames and anime.