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The BFI Wong Kar-wai Season: Far Out's interview with curator Ann Lee

This month marks the start of the BFI’s retrospective on the cinema of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, a director described by Quentin Tarantino as “one of the most exciting contemporary filmmakers” and one who has helped shape and influence the identity of Eastern filmmaking. 

The creative mind behind the beautiful In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels among many others, Wong Kar-wai’s filmography is typified by a focus on the subtle intricacies of fleeting romance and the enduring pain of past regret.

With his latest TV series and film project, Blossoms Shanghai recently releasing its first trailer, Far Out announced ac collaboration with the British Film Institute (BFI) to act as the official media partner for the season focusing on the work of Wong Kar-wai.

Following an online retrospective created by the BFI in February, fans of the iconic Hong Kong film director will now be able to enjoy the world of Wong Kar-wai on the big screen at BFI Southbank and the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (ICA).

In what is a complete retrospective of Wong’s work, the season officially began on July 7th and runs until the 31st. The season includes seven brand-new 4K restorations, five of which have been overseen by the director himself.

In celebration, we caught up with the BFI programme curator of the imminent Wong Kar-wai season, Ann Lee, to discuss the immutable legacy of the filmmaker. 

Far Out: So what can we look forward to in the upcoming Wong Kar-wai season?

Ann Lee: “So it’s basically a retrospective of all of his films, and if you don’t really know who he is, he’s basically the master of melancholy romance. He has made some of the most exquisitely romantic films in cinema history. He takes things like the pain of a broken heart and the rejection from a failed love affair, along with the loneliness that someone can feel from not being with the person that they love, and he turns that experience into something incredibly romantic.

“He films it in such a seductive way that it makes you feel everything that the characters are feeling, so basically, the season is one for the hopeless romantic in you.”

A scene from Wong Kar-wai film Chungking Express. (Credit: Jet Tone Production)

I like that line, I really felt that with In the Mood for Love, I absolutely loved it.

Ann: “That’s one of his best films. I mean, all of these films are great, to be honest.”

What do you think it is about the director’s filmography that makes them so influential?

“I think it’s because he takes the darkest parts of relationships, the loneliness and the sense of rejection, and the devastation you can feel when someone doesn’t want you, he turns it into something very poetic. Almost like he gives a nobleness to suffering in his films, he makes it into something very beautiful, like loneliness and pain that you feel is a beautiful experience.

“He finds meaning in that, he somehow manages to make it all very romantic as well. Most of his films are about failed relationships of people, you know, lost love and people’s memories of their first love or that big love in their life.”

Which directors do you think have been influenced by his style across the years?

“The main influence that people know over here, probably Sofia Coppola. So if you watch Lost in Translation, you can see a lot of his influence. She actually mentioned him in her speech at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. Barry Jenkins too, who did Moonlight, he’s spoken at length about how Moonlight was influenced by his films. There’s also another smaller film called Waves, which came out like a few years ago, by Trey Edward Shults. 

“So yes, over here, I’d say though, those are the main ones, but at the time, he was part of the Hong Kong second new wave. So the original new wave was this collective of filmmakers who basically wanted to make films that would kind of disrupt conventional Hong Kong cinema. It was very conventional at the time, a lot of stuff was like, you know, generic martial arts films. So they wanted to do stuff beyond that. Films that were more experimental. So he’s part of the second wave, and he’s probably the main one of the new wave directors that has found international success. I think he’s probably one of the few.”

Yeah, nice. How important do you think music is in amplifying these themes in his films?

“Oh, it’s very important. Yes, all of his films have amazing soundtracks, and also a lot of the time songs are repeated to emphasise certain themes in the movies. Like one big theme in his films is routine, and time passing, so in Chunking Express there’s a character called Faye who works in a snack shop, and she’s always playing ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mamas and the Papas. 

“So she plays that all the time because it emphasises the routine that she’s going through and the day is blurred into one kind of thing because another theme of his is the passage of time how it just moves on relentlessly.”

So, for a newcomer of Wong Kar-wai, where do you think is the best place to start?

“The best place is probably Chungking Express, that’s probably his most accessible film, and it’s also his most lighthearted and fun. It’s a very kind of breezy and quirky love story that is very much in a signature style. So it has this very kind of kinetic energy to it, it’s very funny and the performances are very charming.”

I would agree, I think it’s his most accessible film definitely. There’s that famous interview with Tarantino where he talks about how much he loves it too

“Exactly, yes. But that’s the good thing about this season, is quite hard to see his films on the big screen.

“Even though I’ve basically seen all of his films many many times I’m very excited to be watching them in the cinema.”

In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai. (Credit: Janus Films)

In terms of the film’s themes, I wanted to ask about love and loneliness and how the two interact through Wong Kar-wai’s filmography because you kind of see that throughout, Chungking Express, how these lonely characters find love in the strangest places. 

“I think maybe that’s why his films resonate so much, especially with an international audience because it is very much the stories of these lost lonely souls in big cities and they’re struggling to make a connection. Obviously, in cities with millions of people, it’s really difficult, but they somehow managed to or sometimes they don’t, sometimes they kind of miss out on the opportunity because they brush past someone and they don’t connect. 

“I think that’s why his films are so meaningful because it is all about how things like love are so random. Relationships and love are full of missed opportunities and it doesn’t always work out. Most of the time in his films, they don’t work out, but you know it’s still a very beautiful experience to have.”

Yeah, I’ll definitely be taking time out this month to go through his filmography. So for people who are big fans of Wong Kar-wai who else would you recommend? What filmmakers, Hong Kong filmmakers particularly, do you think of?

“Interesting, OK, there’s one guy. Let me just get his name up. Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He’s this Taiwanese director, and he did a film called Millenium Mambo, he is great as well. So his films are very atmospheric, he did The Assassin, as well as Three Times

“Also, so Christopher Doyle is obviously the famous cinematographer who works with Wong Kar-wai and makes, the film’s look extremely beautiful and dreamy. He’s also directed a few films, so he’s worth checking out. There’s another guy called Fruit Chan who is another Hong Kong second wave director, he did a film called Made in Hong Kong, he does quite experimental stuff. 

“The thing with him [Wong Kar-wai] is that his films are really one of a kind. I think there are some people that have been influenced by him, but really his films are the original ones.”

It’s the best part of the season, being able to see his films in all their glory.

“Yeah, I can’t wait. I’m gonna be going see most of them. It’s starting next week, So I think the first film is his first film, As Tears Go By on the seventh of July, but yeah, running for the rest of the month. I can’t believe it’s actually happening!”

Far Out is currently the media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.