To mark the UK release of Criterion's beautiful new boxset, Iana Murray looks back on the Hong Kong filmmaker's dreamy canon...
Love stories are everywhere, but no one tells them quite like Wong Kar-Wai. Across 10 features, the Hong Kong filmmaker has accumulated a dense and singular body of work that explores romance in all forms: innocent, temperamental or unrequited.
Wong’s films are about those who want to love and be loved. Depicted through his trademark style of dream-like imagery and kaleidoscopic colour palettes, his work also evokes the feeling of memory – as if you are reliving past loves yourself. This nostalgic quality is only compounded by the familiar signatures that make Wong’s films instantly recognisable, like his rotating cast of frequent collaborators, or the themes of longing and connection he revisits with every film.
But no two Wong films are the same, as the director transplants his style to new settings, time periods and even genres, illustrating that the never ending quest for love can be experienced anywhere, by anyone.
It feels slightly wrong to rank Wong’s films from worst to best. Truthfully, he’s never made a bad film and a number of these are all-time greats so remarkable that it feels like picking a favourite child. Still, only one can reign supreme…
10. Ashes of Time (1994)
A prequel to the classic novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Wong’s take on the wuxia genre places the director’s reliable themes on a grander scale. Starring a plethora of Wong regulars including Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung, it’s a melodramatic epic about longing and love drenched in bright yellows and reds that feel like you’re under the desert sun yourself. But with its branching storylines and actors playing multiple characters, Ashes of Time can be a confusing watch. You’re never going to look to a Wong film for an expository plot, but I applaud anyone who can watch this without having the Wikipedia page on standby to hold their hand.
9. My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Wong’s English-language debut is a hit or miss depending on how much you’re willing to let him get away with anything (in my opinion, he could film grass growing and I’d still call it perfection). The filmmaker takes his trademarks from Hong Kong to the United States, as a young woman (Norah Jones, in her film debut) travels across the country and falls in love with a pie shop owner, played by Jude Law. Elements of Wong’s style don’t necessarily translate well stateside – namely, the detached and poetic internal monologues – but you can’t help but appreciate what a beautiful mess the film is anyway.
8. As Tears Go By (1988)
First films are a tricky exercise for anyone, and As Tears Go By is exemplary of that. It’s filled with the youthful, kinetic energy of a director still trying to find his footing (it’s not until Days of Being Wild that Wong would find Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer that helped establish his style). Regardless, As Tears Go By is a slick and gritty crime thriller that dabbles in the heady romanticism that has come to define Wong’s filmography (though perhaps it’s less successful here – let’s just say some eye-raising choices were made). Still, it’s a thrilling introduction to one of our greatest filmmakers.
7. The Grandmaster (2013)
Compared to Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster is more successful as an epic, if only because it’s easier to decipher. But by no means is it conventional. Wong sacrifices none of his signature flourishes for this Ip Man biopic, which stars frequent collaborator Tony Leung. Take the opening fight sequence, for example, which is more concerned with falling raindrops than any of the impressive action happening in the background. Unfortunately, the film suffered from a recut (which is frustratingly much easier to find than the original cut) that rearranges the non-linear timeline, doing a complete disservice to Wong’s intricate storytelling. Nevertheless, The Grandmaster is not a bad film, but in a career replete with modern masterpieces, it just can’t compete.
6. Days of Being Wild (1990)
As mentioned previously, Days of Being Wild brings cinematographer Christopher Doyle into Wong’s team of frequent collaborators, and sees the director’s signature style arrive in full bloom. Leslie Cheung stars as a capricious womaniser who attempts to remedy his inability to connect by finding his mother who abandoned him. It’s here where we get acquainted with Wong’s trademarks from the fragmented storylines to the dizzying aesthetic and themes of love and longing. Despite performing poorly on release in 1990, Days of Being Wild marked the true beginning of the filmmaker we’ve come to know and love.
5. 2046 (2004)
You can never expect Wong to stick within the traditional parameters of genre. 2046 represents the director’s first foray into sci-fi, albeit a warped and singular version of the genre. A loose sequel to In the Mood for Love, it follows Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-Wan as he embarks on a unsuccessful search for love in a fast evolving world. It’s a sprawling and layered film, not in the least because 2046 has so many meanings: a train, a hotel room number, and the year before China’s “one country, two systems” governance of Hong Kong expires. Based on its title alone, 2046 promises so much that it can be overwhelming, but that’s what makes each viewing so enriching and rewarding.
4. Fallen Angels (1995)
Originally planned to be a story within Chungking Express, Fallen Angels is the darker side to its more hopeful other half. Visually, the film sees Wong at perhaps his most dream-like and eccentric: the camera is intrusive, often distorting actors’ faces in close-up with a fisheye lens quality. Perhaps in reflection of this unsettling style, the film is one that enters uncharacteristic territory, as its bifurcated story explores the violent underbelly of Hong Kong. That isn’t to say it’s devoid of Wong’s favourite theme of love. Fallen Angels is still a deliciously intoxicating film about people longing for connection – they just might be looking for it in the wrong places.
3. Happy Together (1997)
In each of Wong’s films, there’s a certain image that most will associate with that film. In My Blueberry Nights, it’s the ouroboros embrace; in Fallen Angels, a motorcycle ride through a fluorescent tunnel. Happy Together’s iconic frame is the slow dance between Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) in a dingy kitchen. It’s the rare moment of calm within a volatile relationship that is inescapable – not just because of its inherent toxicity, but because its lovers are unable to return home from Buenos Aires. Happy Together is a turbulent love story, but Wong also effectively uses this feeling of displacement as a larger observation of the uncertainty shared by residents of Hong Kong in the 1997 handover.
2. Chungking Express (1994)
Chungking Express opens with a frenetic chase through the streets of Hong Kong, filmed with a choppy frame rate that feels akin to memory. The film maintains this energy throughout, telling two disparate but linked stories about the lingering effects of break-ups and unrequited relationships. Both stories are so strong that they’re incomparable: the first is, frankly, iconic, with Brigitte Lin’s blonde wig and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s growing collection of pineapple tins, but the film’s latter half is just as moving. Faye Wong is magnetic as a waitress yearning for Tony Leung’s cop, so much so that you will never hear “California Dreamin'” the same way again.
1. In the Mood for Love (2000)
It’s an astounding feat how much In the Mood for Love says with so little. It’s not the lines that stick with you forever, but the images: a man and a woman passing each other on a narrow stairway, a hand on a shoulder, the subtle exchange of glances. Tales of unrequited love have proliferated the director’s work, but this story of a love reciprocated but unfulfilled is so much more tragic and potent. It’s not just Wong’s best work, but Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s too, as they portray married neighbours unable to act on their slowly blossoming feelings for each other. Despite the lack of physical contact, few films have ever sparked as much romantic tension and longing. There’s a reason In the Mood for Love is considered one of the greatest films of the 21st century.
Criterion's World of Wong Kar-Wai boxset is released in the UK on 31 May.