[FILM] Wong Kar-wai: The Director's Director
- The Director's Director
By JAIME WOLF
New York Times Magazine
Published: September 26, 2004
Late one night in March of last year, in a crumbling area on the
island of Macao off Hong Kong, a film crew milled around in the
street, awaiting the arrival of Wong Kar-wai. In life as in art,
Wong tends to make you acutely aware of time. His films are filled
with clocks and calendars. He is also notorious for keeping people
waiting: waiting for his films to go into production, waiting for
the shooting day to begin and waiting for a recognizable story and
structure to emerge from his long, uncertain process. This
particular night, the crew was setting up to shoot scenes from
Wong's eighth film, ''2046,'' an ambitious, star-studded, futuristic
drama. (Its title refers to the 49th year after the 1997 British
handover of Hong Kong.) There was nothing futuristic about the
location: a dilapidated block bathed in a latticework of shadows and
artificial golden light, it resembled the 1960's Hong Kong the
director conjured for his previous film, the acclaimed ''In the Mood
Shortly after midnight, a minivan pulled up, and Wong stepped out,
clutching a sheaf of pages on which he had written out in longhand
the next scenes to be shot. Copies were quickly distributed by an
assistant director. If it appeared that Wong had arrived straight
from a session of coffee-shop scribbling with a quick stop at
Kinko's, the truth was not far off. Although shooting in Macao had
required giving his company a few days' notice, Wong's standard M.O.
is to tell actors a starting time and location as close to the last
minute as possible. Nor does he tend to give them any dialogue or
the specifics of a scene until it's time to shoot; instead, he rolls
the camera, thrusting them into situations with which they have only
just been presented.
A boarded-up shop off the street served as a dressing room. Wong's
production designer and costumer, William Chang Suk-ping, adjusted
the hair and clothing of the film's leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-
wai, as Leung skimmed the pages. ''I'm the only one that can read
Kar-wai's handwriting,'' Leung told me. ''So I always have to
explain the dialogue to everyone else.'' His character hadn't been
given a name yet, so his lines were simply slugged ''Wai,'' a
diminutive of his Chinese name. In ''Mood for Love,'' Leung had
played Chow Mo-wan, a lovesick writer. In ''2046'' he was also
playing a writer, but this time, Wong had instructed him to behave
like a ''Bukowski character,'' a heartless, careless, down-at-the
heels gambler and Lothario. He read aloud the description of a scene
coming up -- ''Interior, motel, making love'' -- then happily
exclaimed, ''So many sex scenes in this movie!'' Chang chuckled.
When the camera and lighting were set, Wong walked Leung through the
shot with his costar Zhang Ziyi, the actress best known for her
portrayal of an alluringly feisty young swordswoman in ''Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'' and who portrays a fashionable dance-hall
hostess in ''2046.'' Then the camera rolled, Leung and Zhang walked
slowly along the deserted sidewalk, talking and laughing. An
assistant director translated the dialogue for me: Leung was telling
Zhang that he has enjoyed the time he's spent with her, but that it
was time for him to go. A heaviness suddenly settled upon Zhang, and
when they embraced she broke into sobs.
''Where is he going?'' I asked the assistant director.
''Oh, we don't know,'' she said.
''No one knows where he's going or why?''
She shrugged: ''That's the ambiguity of the script.''
The kind of person who might once have proclaimed ''Jules and Jim''
or ''Wings of Desire'' his or her favorite movie now rates Wong Kar-
wai at the top of the list. Flirting with the conventions of genre
(melodrama in ''Days of Being Wild''; Chinese swordsman adventures
in ''Ashes of Time''; Hong Kong action movies in ''Chungking
Express'' and ''Fallen Angels''), his meditative, pop-savvy films
home in on emotional tipping points in the lives of young city-
dwellers -- the moments that forever mark them and from which they
cannot escape. Their witty invention, color-drenched visuals and
romantic longing offer the kind of bittersweet satisfaction found in
the fiction of Haruki Murakami or the photographs of William Gedney,
about whose subjects John Cage once said, ''They seem to be doing
happy things sadly, or maybe they're doing sad things happily.''
Among living directors, Martin Scorsese is the filmmaker Wong Kar-
wai most admires. And just as the artistic innovations of Scorsese,
and before him Godard and Fellini, were systematically plundered by
other makers of films, TV commercials and music videos, Wong's
signature moves have rapidly been assimilated over the past decade.
Even if you have never seen a Wong Kar-wai film, you would recognize
his style. For attentive fans, going to the movies has become a game
of ''spot the Wong Kar-wai tribute'' (or rip-off), with a diverse
list of directors explicitly recreating shots, scenes or musical
cues from his work, including Spike Jonze in ''Adaptation,'' Cameron
Crowe in ''Vanilla Sky'' and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in ''Amelie.''
Scorsese himself modeled the battle scenes in ''Gangs of New York''
after those in Wong's hallucinatory ''Ashes of Time,'' and even Sam
Raimi in ''Spider-Man 2'' sends Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst for
a quick stroll through a Chinatown that manages to look more like
Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong than New York.
The melancholy of loss and separation that pervades Wong's work
would seem to come naturally. Born in Shanghai in 1958, he emigrated
to Hong Kong with his parents at the age of 5, leaving behind an
older brother and sister. The circumstances of the Cultural
Revolution kept Wong from seeing them again for more than a decade.
A lonely child, he didn't speak the local Cantonese dialect until
the age of 13. He spent afternoons accompanying his mother to the
movies, and he sometimes followed his father, a nightclub manager,
on his nocturnal rounds, developing an ongoing fascination for
scruffy urban lowlife, jukeboxes and polyglot pop culture.
Wong enrolled in art school but dropped out to join a screenwriters'
training program in 1980. Supported in part by his wife, Wong then
struggled in the lower echelons of Hong Kong's film industry for
nearly a decade before directing his own work. A chain-smoking
design junkie and bookworm, Wong cultivates a certain elusiveness in
public: the mysterious dreamer, always in sunglasses, given to
laconic or cryptic pronouncements. One on one, however, he is
personable and direct, with a ready streak of goofball humor and
disarming personal charm. That quality is especially important when
he needs to persuade people to finance films without scripts, or
modest Chinese actresses to overcome their inhibitions before a sex
The international success of ''In the Mood for Love'' has given Wong
the chance to put his imprimatur on some high-profile commercial
pursuits. He supervised a worldwide advertising campaign for Lacoste
and directed a short film for the BMW series ''The Hire.'' But
making his own films remains a continuing struggle -- in part
because of his quixotic insistence on working the way he does.
riginally, Wong wanted to try to put his stamp on the science-
fiction genre, so ''2046'' was conceived as a futuristic thriller.
Filming began in 1999 in Bangkok during a break in the lengthy
production of ''In the Mood for Love,'' but ''2046'' was then put
aside. In the intervening years its imminent completion was
announced and postponed so many times that it became a running joke
in the Asian press that the film wouldn't be finished until the year
of its title. Wong completed the film in time for this year's Cannes
Film Festival but then continued to work on it, declining an
invitation to show ''2046'' next week at the New York Film Festival,
where he has long been a favorite. After presenting the American
premiere of each of his films for the past decade, this year's
festival will be marked as much by the absence of ''2046'' as it
would have been by its presence.
Closer to Wong's home, however, on Sept. 28, just before China's
National Day holiday, ''2046'' will finally have its premiere across
mainland China and in Hong Kong; Japanese and European releases will
follow throughout the fall, and when the companies currently vying
for North American rights finish duking it out, audiences in the
United States should get to see it sometime next year.
When they do, it will no longer be a futuristic thriller, but
something more complicated and personal -- a story set only partly
in the future and primarily in 1960's Hong Kong, the milieu of
Wong's childhood. The title ''2046'' originated as shorthand for the
Chinese government's assurances to the people of Hong Kong that the
territory would remain autonomous and unchanged for 50 years. Wong
hoped that the film would be a fresh way for him to approach his
favorite subjects: the passing of time, the possibility of change
and, as he put it, ''broken promises.''
When he returned to the project after completing ''Mood,'' Wong felt
the idea of projecting Hong Kong 50 years into the future seemed too
literal and one-note. He spent 2000 and 2001 reconceiving the film,
signing new cast members and announcing restart dates in locations
as disparate as Bangkok, Shanghai and Pusan, South Korea. But each
time he had to postpone as financing fell out, actors became
unavailable and shooting permits became entangled in red tape. ''I
already forget how many versions of the film have existed,'' Wong
said recently. ''Each time if we are able to shoot the film, we
would 'finish' the film -- but it would be a different film.''
At the same time, ''In the Mood for Love'' proved to be Wong's
breakout movie. He had always seen ''Mood'' and ''2046'' as
companion pieces, past and future. Now he began to think
that ''2046'' might be a continuation of the first film. Rather than
playing a futuristic postman as originally planned, Leung would once
again play a writer in 60's Hong Kong -- but this time his subject
would be science fiction rather than martial arts. The film would
therefore intercut scenes from the many affairs of Leung's
womanizing character with episodes from his stories (using material
from the 1999 shoot and other scenes that would be shot on massive
sets built in Shanghai); the same actors would be used to portray
characters in both the 60's and 2046. Even then, Wong wasn't sure
whether to have Leung reprise the role of Chow Mo-wan. To preserve
the possibility, he began shooting the film without having anyone
refer to the character by name. This sort of extreme indeterminacy
is always in play.
Other directors have employed similar strategies: D.W. Griffith
directed the three-hour historical spectacle ''Intolerance'' without
a script in evidence; since then, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and
Mike Leigh have used various improvisational methods. Wong Kar-wai,
however, approaches filmmaking the way a writer composes a novel,
trying out new things on a daily basis, which he feels free to scrap
or redo later; he shoots contradictory scenes that require his
actors not to hold to any particularly fixed idea of character or
plot; he experiments with different visual approaches. In short, he
keeps his options open, almost insanely so, in order to discover the
movie as it progresses.
When I joined him, nearly a month into the new production last year,
the film was taking place in 1967; Tony Leung, who might or might
not be Chow Mo-wan, was living in Room 2047 of a dingy hot-sheets
motel and serially getting it on with a handful of women passing
through Room 2046 next door. Concentrating first on Leung's
character's relationship with Zhang Ziyi, Wong wanted to see where
it would take him.
Wong and company had taken an abandoned warren of rooms and
transformed them into the decrepit Oriental Hotel, its interiors
decorated in fading layers of deep green, brown and black, with
walls that looked pockmarked and scuffed like a Jackson Pollock
painting. One night, I squeezed into Tony Leung's crowded quarters.
The camera, mounted on a set of ceiling tracks, pointed down at
Leung's cluttered, cigarette-strewn writing desk. The shot would be
from overhead, one of Wong's classically atmospheric moments, with
Leung, bathed in a small pool of light, scribbling in a late-night
frenzy, then pausing, staring at the ceiling and exhaling a cloud of
Wong sat at the video monitor, his own ashtray overflowing,
considering the composition: should the desk be balanced in the
frame or off-axis? Should he start close and pull back, or zoom in?
It was a single shot that would comprise less than a minute of
screen time, but it was precisely what Wong's films are known for,
the perfect distillation of an ineffable emotional moment.
Leung came in and the camera rolled: Wong's cinematographer,
Christopher Doyle, a wiry 50-year-old with bright blue eyes and a
shock of mad-scientist hair, simultaneously zoomed out and moved the
camera for a kind of reverse corkscrew effect, from closer in to a
stopping-point near the ceiling. Leung exhaled and Wong
called ''Cut,'' critiquing the shot in a stream of Mandarin that
concluded with a pronouncement in English: ''Not. Creative.
''I know. . . . '' Doyle shot back. ''It's my first day on the
job.'' Doyle and Wong often trade barbs like a couple. Frequently,
after Doyle has set up and lighted something stunning or laid out a
complicated but efficient move, Wong's deadpan comment will be, ''Is
that the best you can do, Chris?''
The mercurial Doyle, hot to Wong's cool, is one of the world's
foremost cameramen, in large part owing to his complicated and
fruitful relationship with Wong that dates back to 1989, when they
were shooting ''Days of Being Wild.'' Australian by birth, Doyle has
lived in China for nearly 25 years, devoting most of his career to
photographing Asian films. He is constantly in motion, spouting a
running, Heineken-fueled stream-of-consciousness monologue. The
visual hallmarks of Wong Kar-wai's films owe much to the
extraordinary sensitivity of his eye. An exceptional writer, Doyle
has also published books about his collaborations with Wong and
others. ''The way the film looks is its reality,'' he
writes. '''Based on a true story' is such a lie. 'Based on a true
color' or 'based on a strange dream' is what films cry out to be.''
Equally crucial to the development and evolution of Wong's work is
Chang, the soft-spoken, 49-year-old production designer and costumer
on all of his films. The mesmerizing wallpaper, spectacular dresses
and artful ambient erosion are all his doing. Wong Kar-wai will say
no more than ''Zhang Ziyi is a dance-hall hostess'' and leave the
rest to Chang, whose approach is as intuitive and improvisational as
the director's and carries just as much weight. After shooting for
several days in one of the Oriental Hotel's hallways, Chang decided
it should have a red curtain hanging from the ceiling, effectively
forcing everything that had been shot there to be redone. The result
of Chang's exactitude, especially for actresses, is the attainment
of a near iconic level of numinous beauty.
Chang is also the editor of Wong's films, providing much of the
construction and tempo of the final product. On most films, editing
begins in earnest once shooting has stopped; with Wong Kar-wai's
films, shooting, cutting and writing all continue at once --
sometimes overlapping, other times in stop-start alternation. One
afternoon last year, I sat with Chang as he reviewed selected takes
from a high-spirited bed scene between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.
Chang leaned forward on the sofa, elbows on knees, holding his chin,
staring at the screen as an assistant ran the assemblage. He usually
begins working with the footage as soon as it's shot, looking for a
scene that resonates. After identifying it, he builds out, letting
other material follow its lead.
Chang admitted that he had yet to find his way in. ''It's strange
because they're so many actors, actresses,'' he said, referring to
the various relationships in which Leung's character becomes
entangled. ''Usually after two weeks I have a feeling of mastering
the story. But right now I don't have that feeling.'' Confident that
an answer would eventually emerge, Wong didn't pressure him.
Like Miles Davis, whose best groups gathered distinctive soloists
who were also composers in their own right, Wong extends his
collaborators a tremendous amount of freedom and then selects what
suits him. Spontaneity is prized: Doyle would rather have an
unmediated response to the space in which he's filming than know too
much about the story; Chang waits until the last possible minute
before presenting color schemes or costumes to Wong. The payoff of
their interplay is a palpable immediacy -- a sense that you're
seeing things onscreen as they unfold.
Wong also knows the value of withholding. He refrains from giving
his opinion or approval as a way of getting actors and collaborators
to offer more in an attempt to please him. When he finally responds,
it has the effect of redoubling their efforts. On set, he often
assumes a kind of experimental detachment, looking to try every kind
of tonal or technical variation. This can be time-consuming and
maddening; it can also be fun. Frequently, he'll give no explicit
direction to an actor beyond playing him a piece of music and asking
him to enact its mood. Wong simply believes the right thing isn't
something that can be imagined beforehand, but only discovered.
Actors, however, can lose confidence in the process. Five years ago,
Takuya Kimura , a Japanese superstar musician and actor, was tapped
by Wong to play a leading role as a hit man in the original Bangkok
production of ''2046.'' He was a fan of Wong's films but had only
experienced the regimented Japanese system of film production.
Kimura was flummoxed during his weeks on the set. He had expected to
act opposite the Chinese pop diva Faye Wong, but Wong instead asked
him to improvise scenes with a cow, a pig and an elephant. On his
radio show in Japan, Kimura mocked the chaotic production and said
he wasn't sure if he was interested in coming back.
Even stalwarts like Maggie Cheung, whose reputation as a serious
actress was established in Wong's early films, find their patience
tested. After being told on three separate occasions that her part
in ''Mood'' had wrapped, she was summoned back from her home in
Paris for additional reshoots and vowed never to work with Wong
again. She recanted when she saw the film.
''Mood'' also caused a serious rift between Wong and Doyle when the
cinematographer's commitment to a Hollywood film forced him to leave
after more than a year in production. After devoting months to
experimentation before settling on a visual approach, both men were
unhappy when Doyle's work had to be completed by Mark Li Ping-bin.
Because Wong had taken so long to find what he wanted, the majority
of the finished film was shot in a frenzied six-week run-up to its
premiere. Although its look owes nearly everything to Doyle, more
than half of it was photographed by Li. (The two share credit.)
Doyle and Wong barely spoke for a year.
To critics and detractors, Wong is undisciplined, wasteful and
disingenuous. Asked about the tension his habitual brinksmanship
creates, he answers philosophically: ''I can understand why that
happens. But . . . everyone knows: this is how I work.'' It's his
version of the old Popeye creed: I yam what I yam. But from an
artistic standpoint, the question Wong poses is whether his results
can be achieved in any other way. Last year, when Nicole Kidman
sought Wong out to discuss working together, he warned her about how
much time and uncertainty would be involved, and she came away even
more eager to act for him.
In mid-March of last year, the SARS epidemic, which shut down Hong
Kong for several months, interrupted ''2046'' yet another time.
After some days of additional shooting in early summer, Wong could
not begin again until last fall, when the company moved to Shanghai
for the scenes set in the future. Returning to Hong Kong at
Christmas, they wound up shooting through April of this year.
As a result, ''2046'' was the first film in Cannes history to arrive
so late that the schedule of competition films had to be rearranged.
The print, fresh from a lab in Paris, was escorted from the Nice
airport by police motorcade, arriving less than three hours before
its delayed premiere.
The version screened at Cannes was lush and strange, contrasting the
scuffed-up, dark colors of the 60's with the baroque, pulsating,
green and orange interiors of Tony Leung's imaginary future: Room
2046 of the ramshackle Oriental Hotel functions as the portal to a
speeding bullet train called 2046 and a gleaming metropolis of the
same name. Not long after shooting the scenes I'd witnessed, Wong
decided that Tony Leung's character would be Chow Mo-wan, making his
ill-fated affair with Maggie Cheung of ''In the Mood for Love'' part
of his transformation into a cad.
Besides Zhang Ziyi, Leung takes up with a string of other women:
Faye Wong, who plays both the daughter of the Oriental Hotel's
proprietor and a robot in his science-fiction stories; a doomed
lounge singer played by Carina Lau; and Gong Li, as a mysterious
gambler dressed in black. Unable to form lasting connections in the
mid-60's episodes, he writes obsessively; transposing scenes from
his unhappy life into his stories, Tony Leung's character tries to
inscribe himself into a future where things might be different,
making a plaintive declaration: ''I need to change.''
Last fall, Kimura, the Japanese superstar, now four years older,
returned to the film. Assuaged by Wong, he now appears as Tony
Leung's avatar. At the Cannes premiere, Kimura remained puzzled
about how it would all work, but he emerged a typical convert. ''The
film is beautiful,'' he marveled. ''There's a beautiful sadness.''
A different kind of sadness comes with the news that once again Wong
and Doyle have parted ways. Neither man will discuss the split, but
Doyle left the production in January, and the film credits two
additional cinematographers: Doyle's former assistant Lai Yiu-fai
and Kwan Pun-leung. While it's by no means impossible that the two
might reconcile, this may very well mark the end of their
After Cannes, Wong declined further festival invitations, completing
special-effects shots, shooting additional scenes and revising the
film's beginning and end. In mid-August, he emerged to announce its
final completion. The new version has not been screened yet, but
where the Cannes version ended with Leung's character surveying his
past and once again declaring, ''I need to change,'' Wong hints that
he has since found a way to bring his protagonist's impasse to some
It may be a lazy deconstructivist's cliche to read every text as an
allegory of its own making, but on some level, ''2046'' invites it:
one passage from Leung's novel ''2046'' reads: ''2046 is a hard
train to get off. How long have I been on this train?'' Wong himself
allows that the film, like Fellini's ''8 1/2,'' has turned into a
midcareer retrospective. Depicting Leung as a man unable to let go
of his past, Wong has filled ''2046'' with deliberate allusions to
his previous films. Setting out to make a science-fiction film,
looking into the future, Wong discovered that he needed to face
backward as well.
Why does Wong Kar-wai keep circling back to Hong Kong in the 1960's,
first in ''In the Mood for Love'' (which began filming as a
contemporary story), and now in his latest film? If there is
a ''Rosebud'' at the heart of his career, it is his second
film, ''Days of Being Wild,'' a melodramatic memory play featuring a
large ensemble, set in Hong Kong in 1960. Ambitiously conceived in
two parts, its high cost and resounding commercial failure kept the
second half, which was to take place in 1966, from ever being made.
In an ingenious stroke, ''2046'' winds up completing the story begun
in ''Days of Being Wild.'' Like the inhabitants of Garcia Marquez's
Macondo or Balzac's Paris, Wong's characters turn out to inhabit a
dense overlapping universe in a fantastic chain of desire, rejection
and loss. ''In the process of making this film,'' Wong e-mailed me
not long ago from the editing room, ''I never thought I wouldn't
complete it. Sometimes I was tempted to look for an easy way out.''
Now, the burden of the past -- not just Chow Mo-wan's, but Wong Kar-
wai's as well -- has been lifted, and Wong himself can perhaps move
What form that will take remains uncertain. However, in a bold
departure, Wong recently agreed to develop and produce three English-
language films for Fox Searchlight. He's not sure that he'll direct
any of them, but selecting and working with other screenwriters and
directors will be a new experiment. He is not likely to abandon his
improvisational method, but he says he would like to find ways to be
more productive. Perhaps working from a script, (one of the
Searchlight projects) or making a film based on real events (he has
been developing a project for Leung about the Hong Kong man who
trained Bruce Lee) might provide a stronger tether to keep the
director from losing himself amid the infinite possibilities. As
ever, Wong Kar-wai is willing to explore his options.
Jaime Wolf last wrote for the magazine about the design guru Jim