I have watched only three films by Wong Kar Wai and I loved them all. I don’t know what I will feel about the rest of them, but the fact that the movies I have seen spoke to me I am sure will have an impact on my appreciation of the rest of his filmography. So, yes, I believe that when you are trying to discover a filmmaker’s work for the very first time, it’s important where you start. It can be a daunting task. I was sometimes inclined to think that it may be a good thing to discover them gradually, ease into them by watching their debut film and see their vision evolve from there. But unless it’s a new-comer and you get to watch his films along the way, I don’t believe this is the best approach.
That said, I don’t plan too long what film to watch next. If there is something that appeals to you about it, if only the title, or if it was a recommendation from a friend whose suggestions you trust, just go for it. I try to be very open minded towards anything that comes my way. You’ll be surprised how varied your cinematic taste can be and how it can change in time. In the same regard, I don’t read too many reviews before watching something (it wasn’t just once that I read a “reliable” review about something I wanted to view to realise how differently I felt about it afterwards) and instead, my husband and I usually go with our instinct – which, after more than three thousand movies watched, is something I can sincerely say that we can rely on. So I believe it’s more a matter of circumstance, which, in the case of Wong Kar Wai’s films, was a lucky one for me. So here is what I loved so much about them – and the first thing would be that they are not for everyone.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The first Kar Wai film that I watched and watching it felt like something had been missing from cinema forever. Had it been the only one by the director that I liked, it would have been enough. In the Mood for Love is a visual splendour, a ravishing cinematic exploration of unrequited love and quiet, barely suppressed passion, depicting sensuality through music, light, colour and space alone. There is this melancholic, dream-like beauty hovering over – the way it evokes the essence of romantic love, while keeping everything wonderfully ambiguous makes this film one of its kind. The kind of film that lingers in your memory, just like Maggie Cheung walking up the stairs has been imprinted in our cinematic memory. A big part in the cinematic beauty of this film (those radiant cheongsams, the hidden glances, the gliding camera moves) played Christophe Doyle, the cinematographer, and the multivalent William Chang, credited with the set design, costumes (I wrote about them here), and editing – both of them are close, long-time collaborators of Kar Wai.
Chungking Express (1994)
While I am glad I started with In the Mood for Love, watching Chungking Express (years apart, sadly) I was just as glad to find out that Wong Kar Wai knows how to make you laugh, too. It is a nice change of pace. It is a story about love and heartache, navigating the loneliness of modern big city life, as characters brush against one another throughout their busy days but struggle to connect. It does it with playful exuberance, which makes it electrifying to watch, especially in this trendsetting vision of the city in motion created by Wong Kar Wai. Furthermore, it is his most accessible film, from what I have seen, which could be a good starting point. In fact, as John Powers writes in the book WKW : The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai, when it was released, film schools urged their students to go see it, and filmmakers, young and not-so-young, copied its style. But I don’t think success is what Wong is after. He is a unique filmmaker, he follows his own instincts and trusts his own taste. If the audience finds it in themselves to relate to it and appreciate it, then it’s all for the better.
2046, Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung, Kar Wai’s muse) tells us, is a place that no one has ever left. It is a futuristic world he has written a novel about, where memories stand still, where people can travel by train to find lost lovers. As he seeks the lover that he lost in In the Mood for Love (the film is a self-reflexive sequel to the 2000 film – he mentions her name, but there are other many ties to it, too), Chow is a womaniser who stays at the Oriental Hotel in room 2047, right next to room 2046, a room where an important part of his past was written – his heart remained there.
Loneliness is a recurrent theme in Kar Wai’s films. But the director finds new ways to depict it in 2046 – through setting (in a hotel), the main male character (he has a tortured soul, and despite his many interactions with women, his past refuses to stay in the past), and especially the main female character (Ziyi Zhang in the role of Bai Ling, an escort who falls for Chow). It is her who owns 2046. Her superb performance, her shifts of emotions (especially in the scene in the restaurant where she is about to say goodbye to Tony), that kind of vulnerability, and heartache, and loneliness so expressively portrayed on screen, in pretty much one shot, does something to you. Wong Kar Wai’s movies do something to you. They have an aftertaste – that’s what a good movie is about, in the director’s own words.
photos: movie stills from 1,2-In the Mood for Love (Block 2 Pictures/Jet Tone Production/Paradis Films) / 2-Chungking Express (Jet Tone Production) / 4-2046 (Shanghai Film Group/Jet Tone Production/Orly Film)