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[FILM] Hong Kong's poet of regret

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  • chiayuan25
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 25, 2005
      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
      lost time.

      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
      the second.

      "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
      stay fed.

      "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
      he's nuts."

      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
      other films."

      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
      fu teacher.

      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."

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