[FILM] Hong Kong's poet of regret
- WORLD CINEMA
Hong Kong's poet of regret
Witness to relentless change, director Wong Kar-Wai contemplates
memory and missed opportunities.
By Scott Timberg, LA Times Staff Writer
The impassive Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, blinking behind
sunglasses that almost never come off and shrouded in his own
cigarette smoke, tends to pause before speaking. He offers slow,
thoughtful answers about film and filmmaking in accented English.
When asked, though, what he might do if he weren't making movies, he
doesn't waste time. "I'd like to be a bartender," he said. "It would
be very specific: It would have to be happy hour, or else very late
at night. People go to bars to speak up to tell you their stories."
Happy-hour patrons would be full of boasting, flirting and good
cheer. "And by the time it was late, they would be quite drunk,"
perhaps overcome by loneliness and despair. "They would tell you
something quite deep or else nonsense."
Wong's career the last few years of which have been consumed with
an odd, exquisite movie called "2046," which opens in Los Angeles on
Aug. 5 has been shaped a bit like a night at the tavern. While much
of his work is of a piece, marked by a strikingly un-ironic
romanticism, his early films were about fleeting moments the
restless, reckless spirit of being young. And he seems, since 2000's
aching "In the Mood for Love," to be increasingly concerned with
memory, regret and missed opportunities.
He's become a kind of Hong Kong Proust, combining the kinetic
movement and hallucinatory night life of his home city with a
ruminative style and a growing concern with our inability to capture
Wong's films are closer to Italian and French art cinema, crossed
with American film noir, than the action movies associated with his
hometown: His stories are told through gesture and indirection, and
what's outside the frame can be more important than what's in it.
Village Voice critic J. Hoberman writes that he is "the most avant-
garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa)" and that his movies work "by
Much of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," especially its soulful
but unconsummated relationship and the woozy, gently psychedelic cab
rides through dim streets, was Wong Lite. Coppola, who thanked him as
she collected the 2004 Oscar for best original screenplay, is not his
only celebrity fan: Quentin Tarantino's company distributed
1994's "Chungking Express" Wong's stylishly fleeting, Godard-
inspired love story, over which Tarantino says he wept with joy on
first viewing. Nicole Kidman agreed to work with Wong after likening
him to the Creator.
For all his well-placed admirers, Wong also operates in a way
combining spontaneity and perfectionism that drives his colleagues
crazy. He works right up to the wire, sometimes shooting days before
his movies are due at festivals, films without permits, and
experiences creative "breakups" with key cast and crew. He plans so
vaguely that entire characters, subplots and endings drop out of his
films by the time they're screened.
While ensconced in a sleek midtown hotel room, the lanky director
talks about writing scripts in coffee shops "I hate the idea of
writing," he says, "so I try to make it less official, less formal."
But he's also likely dodging his colleagues while making last-minute
changes. (Given his films' painterly surfaces and brooding affect,
the fact that Wong jokes around, wears baggy jeans, and speaks
reasonably openly about his work seems almost shocking.)
"I feel that the films we have done together are jam sessions," says
Christopher Doyle, Wong's longtime cinematographer, often credited
with the films' distinctive underwater look and sense of pace. "We
riff off a theme and we solo from time to time, but mostly we start
together and try to end together, and where we lose ourselves in the
meantime is what each film celebrates."
Wong's new film, six years in the making, involved getting slightly
more lost than usual.
Discoveries in Hong Kong
Wong, 47, tends to set his films in an early-'60s, colonial-era Hong
Kong he can barely remember.
"So it's a preoccupation with the world of his parents and their
generation," says Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan
Rosenbaum, "which he probably feels so romantic toward because he
feels so cut off from it."
Wong moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1963, at age 5. His Mandarin-
speaking parents were outsiders in the British-Cantonese city, and
his sailor father, who told great stories of his travels, always
assumed the family would return to China.
"We didn't have friends and relatives in Hong Kong at that time, and
we lived in an area full of cinemas," Wong says. "So we watched a
movie every day." His mother would take him to Errol Flynn and John
Wayne features, as well as locally produced Shaw brothers musicals
and films of Cantonese operas. "It was like a dream in the afternoon."
He also, soon after arriving in Hong Kong, where he still lives today
with his wife and child, discovered music. "In China there was only
one radio station," he recalls. "So one of the first things that
struck me was that when I got to Hong Kong there was radio
everywhere, with different sounds: Mandarin music, Cantonese music,
Western music" this all in a city also full of itinerant Filipino
musicians playing Latin styles.
This collision of sounds led to a fascination with music and an
eclectic, remarkably effective use of it in his films
since "Chungking Express": Several of his movies use Anglo-American
songs for their titles though with characteristic Wong
elusiveness, "In the Mood for Love" is not heard in the film to which
it lends its name and he makes powerful use of sources as disparate
as Argentine tango, Nat King Cole and Bellini opera.
Mostly, he says, "Music gives a sense of rhythm to a film."
Old music also helps Wong recover lost time. "We're trying to create
a history for Hong Kong," he says. "Because this city has changed so
fast, it's eating its own history. It's impossible to shoot any
exteriors for Hong Kong in the '60s anymore because the city has
totally changed." Much of "Mood" and "2046" was shot in Bangkok and
Wong's fascination with 1960s Hong Kong led to the journalist
character played by Tony Leung in both "Mood" and "2046" a
repressed married man in the first who becomes a jaded Lothario by
"Everybody says, 'There's no literature in Hong Kong, no writers,' "
Wong says. "But it's not true. They were a very colorful, interesting
group of artists," serious writers who ended up penning popular
martial arts stories, women's melodramas, and horse-racing stories to
"Almost all of the great Chinese directors are dealing with history,"
says Rosenbaum, "which becomes all the more precious because it
almost doesn't exist in Chinese culture where history is built on
quicksand. And film is an art that involves time and the passage of
Wong's interest in time and history, though, goes beyond his
obsession with a specific time and place. "All of his films could be
described as period pieces," the critic says. "Even those that are
set in the present."
The same, in fact, could be said of his new film, some of which takes
place in the future.
Even by Wong's standards, the process of making "2046" was
The movie, the director's eighth, continues the story of Leung's
character, Chow, as the aspiring novelist breaks the hearts of a
series of lovely women. Though the title refers to a speculative
novel that Chow sets in 2046, and the movie was originally imagined
as a "futuristic opera," the finished film is more an oblique love
story than sci-fi film.
Conceived about the same time as "Mood," the movie was intended to be
shot at the same time because of its busy cast. "It was very
difficult to work on both projects at the same time," says
Wong. "Like falling in love with two women."
But the Asian financial crisis repeatedly undercut funding for both
films, the "Mood" shoot took seven months instead of the few weeks
allotted, and the SARS crisis slowed things further. As the 2004
Cannes film festival approached, Wong was still shooting and cutting.
He delivered "2046" a few hours before its screening, with an escort
of French police. (It went on to be nominated for the festival's
Golden Palm.) Then, in the following months, Wong cut it
significantly before its theatrical run. It's only now, six years
after its opening shoot, getting a U.S. release.
"I have never met someone who had such a strong willpower and
persistence to devote himself to making the films he wants," says
filmmaker Kwan Pun Leung, who helped shoot "2046" and made a
documentary about Wong. "I think either he loves movies so much, or
Wong thinks too much has been made of what's often described as his
ragged, improvisatory shooting style. (Similarly, he doesn't see his
unabashed romanticism and glamour to be as unusual as the English-
language press does.) It's the way independent films are made all
over the world, he says, and entirely typical of movies in Hong Kong.
There, he says, films often have release dates even before they're
shot, and they have to be made quickly and for small budgets. He
doesn't always have the patience to get permits when he shoots, and
his actors have busy schedules, which lead to both rushing and
delays. Because the script is always changing, cast and crew get only
small sections at a time.
"I always start working on his film without much idea about the
character I play or the story line," says Tony Leung, who has worked
with Wong on six films. "Because I trust Kar-Wai, we never start out
with a full script." Leung notes that "I know little of Wong Kar-Wai
the person" but working on his films is like going home.
When one of the actors in 1997's "Happy Together" a doomy, Manuel
Puig-inspired gay love story shot in Buenos Aires had to return to
Hong Kong for military service, Wong's crew came to the base
pretending to be family and taped a voice-over. As last-minute script
changes led to actors' being cut from the film after flying halfway
across the world, the cast was jokingly dubbed the "casualty list."
The film, for all its angst, won Wong best director at Cannes.
"More or less, most of the independent filmmakers in the world work
like this," Wong contends. "If you look at the story of Cassavetes,
it's the same thing: It's always been like this.
"Unless you're working in Hollywood, in the industry. But if you want
to be independent, you have to be flexible."
Luis Buñuel, he points out, shot two actresses as the same character
in the legendary "That Obscure Object of Desire" only because one was
not originally available: The gesture has since been taken as an
inspired Freudian or surrealist leap.
"And why does Godard come up with jump cut?" Wong asks of the New
Wave signature. "He made the films too long, so he had to take out
some of the shots randomly. So you have to be flexible. And sometimes
those restrictions become the source of your inspiration."
Doyle, who has had several legendary fallouts with Wong, isn't so
sure the process is quite so typical: "Thank God there is no one else
in this world who works this way."
A reunion of sorts
In some ways, "2046" marks the end of a chapter for Wong. The movie
draws from characters and situations from "Mood" and 1991's "Days of
Being Wild," though it frustrates a strictly literal connection.
(Wong says his fragmented and dreamlike narrative style, which
sometimes uses several point-of-view characters, comes from Latin
American novelists like Puig and Gabriel García Márquez.)
Wong compares the film to a reunion party at which you see old
friends, who will mostly disappear at the night's conclusion. While
it's not necessary to know the earlier movies, Doyle describes "2046"
as an attempt to "complete some of the sentences we have started in
It's hard for a director so critically acclaimed, and whose films are
so beautiful thanks in part to production designer/editor William
Chang, who could have worked for Sirk or Fassbinder to fend off
Hollywood forever. Wong says he's already turned down lucrative
offers from major studios.
"If people give you $80 million to make a film, you'd better be
careful," he says. "I always give this advice to young filmmakers:
You will have some success and you will be given a lot of money. If
you make a film for $80 million, you have to cater to a huge
audience. Will you be able to do that?"
To make a film that large, he says, you enter a different
system. "All through the years we've developed our own habits; we're
like a creature of habit. So it's not 'Can we cope with them,'
it's 'Can they cope with us?' "
Still, Wong is not opposed to working with stars. His next project
is "The Lady From Shanghai," in which he'll direct Kidman and write
the script with English-speaking collaborators. (Despite his elastic
relationship to the written word, Wong's first movie job was as a
scriptwriter.) All he'll say about the film is that it will not
resemble the Orson Welles-Rita Hayworth movie of the same name that
is famed for its shattered-mirror conclusion: Wong chose the title
for its evocative power.
"Lady" may be one of three English-language films he'll develop
independently (though not necessarily direct or produce) for release
by Fox Searchlight. The films will be co-financed and co-distributed
by the indie and by Wong's company, Block 2, and probably made in
Claudia Lewis, Fox Searchlight's executive vice president for
production, says the company was drawn to Wong's individual take on
style, mood and storytelling. The director's spontaneous way of
working, Lewis says, "didn't scare us away. We respect and respond to
people's creative processes." The company's deal with him, she says,
is unusually loose.
As to his other ambitions, with Fox or elsewhere, Wong won't say,
though he's spoken of a film in which Leung portrays Bruce Lee's kung
When Wong looks at the state of U.S. cinema, he sees more films but
fewer choices. He enjoys a wide range of movies, including "Batman
Begins" and the "Star Wars" sequels, but says American film has been
narrowing for two decades. "That's why when I look at 'Jackie Brown'
I really, really like that film more than 'Kill Bill' or 'Pulp
Fiction.' Because there's a certain tenderness about those characters
which we haven't seen in American cinema for a long time. Today
everybody has to be so smart and so clever." He misses the work of
his favorite mid-century directors Otto Preminger, John Huston,
Alfred Hitchcock whose characters were "forthright" instead of
He doesn't despair entirely, though. The development of China, where
serious cinemas are now being built outside the big cities, will be
good for all filmmakers, especially Asians.
As for the making of poetic, philosophical movies like his: "I think
it will happen always," he says. "Because don't forget, the first
reason people are attracted to this business is their passion for
expressing themselves through images. Some of them will make it and
some of them won't. But we know those people are always there."