The auteur who started changing the landscape of world cinema during the second iteration of the Hong Kong New Wave, Wong Kar-wai has established himself as one of the most talented contemporary pioneers of the art form. Although he is the recipient of several prestigious accolades, including a Best Director win at Cannes, Wong’s real merit is the ability of his work to touch the hearts of audiences and leave lasting impressions. As a tribute to the filmmaker’s undeniable talent and his invaluable contributions to cinematic evolution, we revisit the life and career of Wong Kar-wai as part of our new partnership with the BFI.
Born in Shanghai in 1958, Wong’s family eventually decided to move to British-ruled Hong Kong when he was around five years old. It was a time of political volatility, characterised by the emergence of the Chinese Cultural Revolution which was quickly gaining momentum. Unable to communicate with other kids his age due to the language barrier (Hong Kong’s local language is Cantonese), Wong suffered through a lonely childhood and experienced the dizzying effects of modernity. Drawing inspiration from this period of his life, he would go on to explore these very themes throughout his career.
It was around this time that Wong was properly exposed to cinema for the first time, and he enjoyed the comfort of the theatre along with his mother who would often accompany him. He considered cinema to a universal language that transcended the constructs behind which we have hidden in ourselves forever. “The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies,” Wong once admitted. He tried to pursue his interests by studying graphic design at Hong Kong Polytechnic, eventually getting the opportunity to start his career in television.
Wong began his journey by writing screenplays for soap operas and action comedies like Rosa which have been labelled as “disposable” by critics. The filmmaker later claimed that he had been involved in over 50 projects as a screenwriter but most of them remain uncredited. His trajectory changed course, however, in 1987 when Patrick Tam’s Final Victory came out. Wong had worked on the film’s screenplay for two years and he finally received some recognition for his talents in the form of a nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
“Most of the time, directors are crazy about images or the story,” Wong once recalled in an interview. “I think [working with Patrick] was the first time I worked with a filmmaker [who introduced] the concept and value of the form of the cinema. To tell a story in a certain way, you need to have a form, and form should go with the story; it’s like putting the right jacket on the right body. This is something I learned from him.”
The year 1987 also boasted overwhelming artistic output from the Second New Wave. Masterpieces like Stanley Kwan’s Rouge and Mabel Cheung’s An Autumn’s Tale came out that year, announcing to the world that the movement started by the likes of Tsui Hark and Ann Hui was still in full force. Inspired by the cinematic experiments that were being conducted by his contemporaries, Wong made his film debut in 1988 after being offered the opportunity to make a gangster film.
As Tears Go By was Wong’s impressive debut which featured his own interpretation of the genre, choosing to explore the social malaise of youth who turn to a life of crime in the quest for subjectivity. His penchant for constructing atmospheric experiences through visual narratives was visible right from the start and critics did not hesitate to count him among the other filmmakers of the Second New Wave. It received several nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards for its masterful execution, including bids for Best Film and Best Director.
“I could have continued making films like As Tears Go By for the rest of eternity but I wanted to do something more personal after that. I wanted to break the structure of the average Hong Kong film,” the filmmaker confessed, and that’s exactly what he ended up doing. For his next project, Wong deviated from conventional approaches and created Days of Being Wild – a film that is often credited as one of the first works in Hong Kong cinema to use a postmodern narrative structure and voice-overs from different characters. It also marked the beginning of Wong’s partnership with the outrageously talented cinematographer Christopher Doyle who played a major role in bringing the director’s artistic visions to life.
Although Days of Being Wild is now seen as a true cult classic, it was a commercial failure at the time of the release which created unexpected obstacles for Wong. Frustrated by the lack of funding, the filmmaker partnered with Jeff Lau and formed his own production company. Based on the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Wong made a period piece called Ashes of Time which was set in the Song dynasty. Doyle’s brilliant cinematography earned him an award at the Venice Film Festival but the commercial reception of the film was less than desirable.
While making Ashes of Time, Wong and his team had to take a two-month break because of the lack of equipment. It was during this break that he made his most well-known masterpiece – Chungking Express. Shot in just six weeks, Wong engineered a truly postmodern story about the existence of life in the labyrinths of modernity which perfectly captured the atmospheric melancholy of Hong Kong. With the use of unconventional editing (inspired by the French New Wave) and a mesmerising visual narrative, Chungking Express became Wong Kar-wai’s most accessible work to international audiences.
He continued to produce critically acclaimed gems like Fallen Angels, which Wong felt was a continuation of Chungking Express and Happy Together. The latter featured a more conventional narrative structure but its subject was immensely important, exploring the relationship of a gay couple who try their best to navigate the tumultuous waters of love. For his uncompromising artistic endeavour, Wong became the first Hong Kong filmmaker to win the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. When he was asked about his achievement, Wong replied: “It makes no difference, it’s just something you can put on an ad.”
Wong’s 2000 masterpiece, In The Mood For Love, is undoubtedly his magnum opus. It is the apotheosis of the manifestation of his artistic talents, successfully engineering a world that haunts the audience with its lamentations about our fundamental isolation. “In the Mood For Love is the most difficult film in my career so far, and one of the most important. I am very proud of it,” the filmmaker claimed and he has every right to be proud of it. In The Mood For Love is now considered to be an indispensable part of the canon of truly great world cinema which represents the specific sensibilities of Hong Kong as well as the universal poetic force of the avant-garde.
His filmography contains other works of art like the romantic drama 2046 which interestingly incorporates sci-fi elements and imagines a world where returning to the past is possible. Wong has even collaborated with top Hollywood actors like Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz in his 2007 project My Blueberry Nights. The latest feature by Wong Kar-wai was the 2013 action drama, The Grandmaster, which combined the techniques of populist entertainment as well as arthouse characteristics. This combination made The Grandmaster his most profitable undertaking, grossing over $64 million at the global box office. Ironically, Wong’s references to commercial filmmaking in The Grandmaster made the Academy finally take notice of his work. It is his only film that was considered by the committee for the Best Foreign Film Award.
Wong Kar-wai draws inspiration from an eclectic mixture of sources, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to MTV! The frenetic energy of the latter’s fragmented broadcasting in the ’90s heavily influenced Wong who applied similar techniques to his own films. His seemingly effortless translation of a city’s atmosphere to the cinematic medium is conducted with the spirit of improvisation. Wong believes in the spontaneity of the universe and often starts working on a project without a proper screenplay in place. The auteur also prohibits his actors from following acting guidelines in order for them to completely immerse themselves in his worlds. His films have inspired newer generations of filmmakers like Sofia Coppola and Barry Jenkins who said: “I like how much freedom there is in how [Wong] juxtaposes images.”
His next project is a film adaptation of a 2013 novel by Jin Yucheng which appears to be a promising investigation of the hardships of surviving in an unforgiving Shanghai. The film is titled Blossoms Shanghai and the filmmaker said that he considers it to be the final part of the Shanghai Trilogy, along with In the Mood For Love and 2046. Wong is turning 63 this year but he shows no signs of slowing down, still fuelled by the revolutionary dreams of his youth. As for retirement, the auteur has categorically stated: “To be honest with you, I feel I’m only halfway done.”
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.