Director Preview: Wong Kar-wai | red brick film

Talk to any movie buff and they’ll almost certainly have heard of Wong Kar-wai. One of the most acclaimed and prolific directors in Hong Kong cinema, Kar-wai’s idiosyncratic style has had a huge influence on filmmakers around the world. From their keen sense of atmosphere and signature noir aesthetic to their erratic cinematography and improvised storyboarding, Kar-wai’s films feature some of the most daring and innovative techniques of any living director. Simultaneously experimental but accessible, intellectual but relaxed, the director’s style places him as one of the few remaining authors of world cinema.

Born in Shanghai in 1958, at the age of five Kar-wai emigrated to Hong Kong with his parents. Surrounded by new surroundings and an unfamiliar language (Cantonese), Kar-wai found it difficult to integrate into Hong Kong life, leading to feelings of loneliness and alienation. This troubled biography strongly influenced much of his work later in life. After earning a degree in graphic design from Hong Kong Polytechnic, Kar-wai began a career as a screenwriter, before making his directorial debut with 1988’s As the tears fall. The film laid the foundation for his more successful later ventures.

Chung King Express presents Kar-wai at its most artistic and stylized

Two years later, Kar-wai comes out days of being wild, in which he further refines his brooding and evocative style. The director’s second effort also marked his first collaboration with Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who would go on to help craft Kar-wai’s singular approach to filming and editing. After a brief hiatus, the director finally makes his international breakthrough with Chung King Express (1994).

Containing a bifurcated narrative that follows the intersecting lives of two police officers searching for love and meaning on the streets of Hong Kong, Chung King Express presents Kar-wai at its most artistic and stylized. The saturated color palette, frenetic camerawork and melancholy air that pervades the film from start to finish come together to form a compelling meditation on love, loneliness and life in the thriving inner city. Chung King Express also features some of the best uses of music in movie history, communicating its central themes through songs such as “California Dreamin'” by Moms and Dads and ‘Dreams’ of Cranberries. It’s definitely a movie that stays with you long after you’ve finished watching it.

fallen angelsreleased the following year, saw Kar-wai engage in many of the same techniques as Chung King Express, including its binary narrative and feverish energy. In my opinion, the director hones these tropes in Fallen Angels, developing a more fluid and intertwined narrative structure, evoking an even more vivid sense of place and atmosphere, and incorporating utterly brilliant moments of dark humor and not sequential. From start to finish, we’re completely immersed in the grimy, stuffy worlds of our two protagonists: Wong Chi-ming, a jaded hitman played by Leon Lai, and Ho Chi-mo, a temperamental mute played by the dashing Takeshi. Kaneshiro. We follow their various antics and tragedies as they move through the hazy night world of downtown Hong Kong.

An imposing masterpiece of 20th century cinema and new queer cinema

1997 marked the release of what in my opinion remains Kar-wai’s finest work and one of my favorite films of all time. Happy together stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai (a frequent Kar-wai collaborator and one of Hong Kong cinema’s most recognizable actors) and Leslie Cheung as a couple from Hong Kong who travel to Argentina to try to save their strained and unstable relationship. At first the two separate, and over the course of the film we see them reunite and then separate in agonizing cycles. Happy together is stunningly beautiful: not just in its visual style, but in the way Kar-wai so hauntingly and eeriely portrays the human experience of love and the feelings of remorse, regret, anguish and of boredom that accompanies it.

First-class performances from the two lead actors bring those emotions to the fore, exposing a strained and crumbling relationship neither of which can let go for fear of isolation and the unknown. It’s a towering masterpiece of the 20th century and new queer cinema, and a film that leaves me on the verge of tears every time I revisit it.

The last film of the “great” period of Wong Kar-wai”, love mood (2000), remains the director’s most critically acclaimed and best known to international audiences. While not a personal favorite, it’s still an impressive feat. Tony Leung stars again in the lead role, this time as Chow Mo-wan, a journalist from Shanghai who, having recently emigrated to British Hong Kong in 1962, slowly falls in love with Su Li-zhen (played by Maggie Cheung) after the two realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other.

The principle is completely original. Although stylistically more refined and mature than Chung King Express, fallen angels and Happy together, love mood still displays the acute attention to detail, bold color palette and striking atmosphere that defines the serene and intimate world of Wong Kar-wai.

Since 2000, Kar-wai has directed several other films which, while successful, do not quite stand up to the skill and power of his 90s output. Nonetheless, he is one of cinema’s few remaining auteur worldwide, with a filmography that is both experimental and accessible, intellectual and relaxed, and which, above all, tackles universal themes with astonishing dexterity and dynamism.


For more director previews, check out these articles from Redbrick Film:

Director’s Recap: Paul Thomas Anderson

Director Preview: Edgar Wright

Director Preview: Baz Luhrmann

About Monty S. Maynard

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