Archive for January, 2021

The Beautiful Ones: Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at BAM/PFA

Cinematic, The Hand, 2004

A cinematic treat dropped at the end of 2020 as the Lincoln Center in New York launched World of Wong Kar Wai, its retrospective of mostly 4K restorations of Hong Kong New Wave auteur Wong Kar Wai. The bulk of the series has traveled to various venues including the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, where nine films are currently available for online viewing through February 28, 2021. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is also showing seven films from the series through Feb. 25, 2021, including a  screening of In The Mood For Love on Valentine’s Day at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in. Although it’s great that the films are available to view in all of their restored 4K glory, it’s bittersweet that audiences aren’t able to watch them on the big screen where they belong due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the US.

Struggles, As Tears Go By, 1988

I watched the BAM/PFA series in chronological order, and it was interesting to see the development of Wong’s signature style. His debut feature, As Tears Go By (1988), is a gangster film that stars Andy Lau Tak-Wah as Wah, a low-level triad in Mongkok who is constantly vexed by his triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose struggle with toxic masculinity conventions leads to much rash and insecure behavior. 

Although the film loosely follows the trajectory of classic gangland films such as Mean Streets, in which the poor life decisions of one character leads to the downfall of his sworn brother, Wong’s filmmaking style had already begun to establish itself. The audacity of some of the shots, such as the focus on the sharpness of Andy Lau’s jawline or the beauty of a cigarette burning blue in the dark, heralds Wong’s trademark visual characteristics, as does his use of slow motion action, neon lights and silhouettes. The film also includes the breathtaking sexiness of Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in their underwear wrestling on a bed in a hotel room, another element of Wong’s emerging style as he begins to sketch out his aesthetic.

Charisma, Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong’s stylistic elements came into sharper focus with his second feature, Days of Being Wild (1990). It’s a bit overwhelming to have a film populated with so many gorgeous movie stars at their physical peak, led by the sheer charisma and stunning beauty of Leslie Cheung in his prime and it really should be illegal to be that good-looking. Carina Lau holds her own as the feisty bar girl who gets involved with him. Maggie Cheung is mostly mopey and jilted in this one, though by the end of the movie she’s found her peace. Andy Lau is once again shockingly good-looking and photogenic–never has such a bone structure been so lovingly photographed. Jacky Cheung again plays the sad sack best friend, but here he’s much more restrained and nuanced. The movie closes with the famous mystery scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in a very small hotel room preparing to go somewhere where he’ll need two packs of cigarettes and a deck of cards. 

Charming, Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) is still as fresh and exciting as the first time that I saw it more than 25 years ago. Light and airy, quirky and charming, with pitch-perfect performances, it captures Hong Kong’s day-to-day life without malice or darkness. Wong’s film explores the transience of life and the fleeting relationships in a big city where anything can happen and the world is open and free. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle establishes the iconic Wong Kar-Wai look with his lighting design alternating between the moody, neon-lit style of the first story and the bright, natural lighting of the second story. Once again Wong’s cast of topline movie stars, including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigette Lin Ching-Hsia, Faye Wong, and  a 20-year-old Takeshi Kaneshiro, adds glamor and razzle-dazzle to the film. 

Incandescent, Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995) is a much messier and less compact film than Chungking Express, full of neon lights, dutch angles, and rain-slicked streets. If Chungking Express was Wong’s renaissance masterpiece then Fallen Angels  is his baroque turn, where all of his directorial tics are turned up to eleven. Karen Mok is in it too briefly and Leon Lai too much, but as in Chungking Express Takeshi Kaneshiro is quirkily incandescent. His character’s story is good enough to stand alone, with able support from a wacky Charlie Yeung and Chan Man-lei as his stalwart dad. 

Complex, Happy Together (1997)

Although as full of visual bravado as Fallen Angels, Happy Together (1997) is a stronger film because its character development is more complex. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is at his angsty best, conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions with a few flashes of his eyes, while Leslie Cheung is devastatingly effective as his mercurial lover. A gorgeous, moody film full of humanity, compassion, and sadness, this is Wong at his poetic best.

Elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008)

Trippy and elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) holds up better than I recall from my initial viewing when the film was first released. All of the beautiful people are in this one (except for Andy Lau), including Jacky, Brigette, Charlie, Maggie, Carina, both big and little Tony, and Leslie as the lead character and narrator. Side note: why didn’t Heavenly King number four (Aaron Kwok) ever make an appearance in a Wong Kar-Wai movie? Too short and stocky? These things keep me up at night.

The odd narrative works if you let go of any expectation of linearity and it’s now quite amusing to see so many A-listers with their million-dollar faces obscured by matted hair, but there you go. Although when the film was first released martial arts purists were horrified by the blurry camerawork that wasted Sammo Hung’s action choreography, now it seems to all fit together with the tangled hair and blowing sands and Christopher Doyle’s grainy, oddly saturated cinematography. 

Star-crossed, In The Mood For Love (2000)

In The Mood For Love (2000) is perhaps Wong’s most acclaimed film, and justly so. All elements of the movie, from mise en scene to acting to cinematography to direction and editing, are stellar, led by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s performances as star-crossed lovers. As with all of the 4K restorations in the series the digital remaster is sharp and beautiful, with the film’s saturated jewel tones shining through.

Magnetic, 2046 (2004)

2046 (2004) is an example of what happens when a filmmaker is given an unlimited budget and full artistic freedom as the movie is obtuse, too long by at least thirty minutes, and could jettison its entire science fiction framing device. However, the main part of the film, set in the late 1960s and a loose sequel to In The Mood For Love, is great, with Tony Leung now a womanizing cad following his failed relationship in the earlier film. Zhang Ziyi as his call girl lover is dynamic and magnetic, matching Tony’s acting chops beat for beat . Along the way Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong make appearances, though their characters don’t have much arc to speak of. 

Unrequited, The Hand (2004)

The BAM/PFA and the Roxie series both include the little-seen one-hour film The Hand (2004), which was a revelation to me as it was the only film in the program that I hadn’t yet seen. Originally released as part of the three-part omnibus Eros (along with segments by Michelangelo Antonioni and and Stephen Soderbergh), The Hand is a gorgeous meditation on class and gender divisions and unrequited love, and  Wong goes all in with his cheongsam fetish. Gong Li as a courtesan falling on hard times and Chang Chen as her longtime admirer are amazing and the opening scene that the film takes its name from is a stunningly kinky set piece. The film makes a strong argument that Wong Kar-Wai should only make films set in the 1960s as the evocative art direction, from hair to costumes to set design, is on point and breathtaking. 

Although this series emphasizes his auteurship, Wong Kar-Wai didn’t operate in a vacuum. His work was nurtured by the strongest film industry in Asia at the time, one that churned out hundreds of movies every year that were exported all over the region. In some way Wong’s films gave an entre into Hong Kong cinema to snobby cineastes who might have disdained genre directors like John Woo or Tsui Hark. This retrospective brings back memories of that brief shining moment when Hong Kong was the center of the cinematic world. It’s especially melancholy to consider through the lens of 2020/21, when the city has been so drastically changed by China’s brutal repression of free speech there. 

Existence Is Longing: Wong Kar Wai

Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive

December 11, 2020–February 28, 2021

Roxie Virtual Cinema

Available until February 25

World of Wong Kar Wai

Roxie Cinema

San Francisco

Drive-in screening of In The Mood For Love

Sunday, Feb. 14, 7pm

Fort Mason Flix

January 23, 2021 at 7:07 am 2 comments


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