Culture 24/01/2021

The buried passions of Wong Kar Wai

Hypnotic, evocative, and tragically romantic, the Hong Kong director celebrates twenty years of 'In the mood for love' with a revival of his most iconic films, restored

9 min
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Like a student handing in an exam when the bell is about to ring, in 2000 Wong Kar Wai waited until the last moment to present In the mood for love to the Festival de Cannes. His was not a case of neglect, but of extreme obsession with a well done job. The Hong Kong director, whom critic John Powers calls "the Usain Bolt of delay", had shot 30 times more footage than the film finally had, and was cutting and editing almost up to the final deadline for the festival. The effort was not in vain: the film catapulted him internationally; Tony Leung, its protagonist, took the award for best male performance, and the film won the technical Grand Prize. Wong Kar Wai went from being a filmmaker with a festival pedigree - he won the award for best director at Cannes in 1997 with Happy together - to being admired by spectators from all over the world.

Twenty years after its premiere (it arrived in Spain in 2001), the story of the neighbours who want to love each other but don't dare to do it comes back to life with a 4K restoration, which has been strictly supervised by the director and will be on the billboard at least until the end of January. In the mood for love is not the only one of his films that can be seen these days in the cinemas of Catalonia. Avalon, the distribution company that holds the rights to the films in Spain, has re-released six more titles, a true retrospective that allows for a total immersion in a unique universe of suggestive colors, love suspended in time, and passions that never materialize.

'Chungking express'

Despite being born in Shanghai, Wong Kar Wai is considered one of the leading exponents of Hong Kong cinema, where he moved with his family when he was five years old, fleeing the Chinese Cultural Revolution. His filmography is the result of the collision of Western and Asian influences that took place in Hong Kong during all the years it was under English control and with distant relations with China. The political and economic freedoms enjoyed by the territory were a breeding ground for a film industry that became the third world power after Bollywood and Hollywood. Wong Kar Wai, who trained as a graphic designer, is one of the most alternative members of a generation known as the Second Wave of Hong Kong cinema, a group of directors trained in television and advertising.

The man who hates scripts

Wong Kar Wai began his career as a screenwriter for soap operas and series but has an allergy to scripts. Most of his films are shot when the script is not yet finished and he builds them in the editing room. "I was a screenwriter before I made my own films and I hate writing. Making a screenplay and then shooting it is really boring, because you have to imagine all the details in your head and then write them, I hate it", the director confessed on more than one occasion, always protected by his characteristic dark sunglasses, an accessory he considers his "work clothes". In his opinion, stories are built scene by scene in an organic way, that is, one leads to another and often there is no point in going in with preconceived ideas. He is also a devourer of cultural references that in one way or another always end up forming part of his complex microcosms: from martial arts literature, through the Latin American literary boom and Manuel Puig, to the music of Nat King Cole that his mother listened to when he was little, or pop songs like Take my breath away from Berlin, or Dreams, from The Cranberries.

'Happy together'

His erratic work system can drive anyone crazy. His actors, some of whom are inseparable from his filmography, such as Tony Leung or Maggie Cheung, stars of In the mood for love

"If they have the script, which would be normal, the actors can prepare, but this doesn't mean it's good for some of them. At certain times, arriving without any preparation can have wonderful results. They are all good actors and actresses and sometimes a little surprise can be good for them", he argues. According to Enric Galcerán, head of CineAsia, an organisation dedicated to the dissemination of Asian filmmaking that has been in charge of activities related to the revival of Wonk Kar Wai's filmography, the director works with "treatments of twenty pages or less". "When it's shooting day, he arrives on the set hours before and starts changing things and giving the pages to the actors. Many times they know the dialogues but not how their characters evolve", Galcerán explains, who assures that in the director's head a single film has infinite possibilities and that many times it has been festivals, such as Cannes, that have forced him to finish a film. "I could have been shooting In the mood for love all my life, that's why I needed the Cannes deadline", the director confessed at the film's presentation. Wong Kar Wai spent 15 months filming scenes from the film and defends the theory of constructing stories in the moment, even if this means breaking the nerves of his technicians or making the actors feel totally disoriented. Maggie Cheung has explained on more than one occasion that the first six months of shooting In the mood for love were a real torture because most of the time she didn't know what she was doing or what was happening to her character.

'Chungking express'

This slightly ethereal way of working, which he compares to travelling on a train, is reflected in his films, which hardly follow any linearity, and in the evolution of the initial idea towards the final result. In the mood for love is the result of an earlier project entitled Summer in Beijing, that had to explain the story of two lovers and expatriates from Hong Kong who met in Tiananmen Square. With much of the localisation work already done and some commercial posters already printed, the Chinese authorities refused the permission to shoot precisely because the film did not have a script (and also because it involved shooting in one of China's symbols). The director had to rethink his initial idea and began to develop Three stories about food, a film that wanted to show three different historical periods in Hong Kong and how the roles of men and women had changed through food. In the mood for love is, in fact, the only one of the three stories in that project that survived and went from a 30-minute segment to a feature film. This is not the first time Wong Kar Wai has reused ideas: the story of My blueberry nights, his first and only American foray, starring Jude Law and Norah Jones, stems from a plot discarded from the film starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, while he made 2046 in parallel to In the mood for love (a totally unbalancing experience, as he has confessed). Kar Wai's filmography is a game of matryoshkas in which the films "talk to each other".

Love, food and... watches

In the mood for love is remembered as the unconsummated love story of two neighbors united by the infidelity of their respective spouses, but its starting point was more earthly. The film was originally a declaration of love for the food and utensils used in Hong Kong kitchens when the director was a child. "I wanted to explain something about the rice cooker. Some inventions from the 1960s changed the way we live, and the rice cooker is one of them. In the film, the hero's wife was a very talented writer and wanted to work, but at that time you had to be at home, take care of the family and cook, which was very time consuming. In the beginning he finds out that the neighbor is a merchant who sells rice cookers, so he tries to get one for his wife and she starts working", the director recalled in a talk at the MoMA in New York about the initial approach to the film. At In the mood for love sensuality soaks into all the protagonists' actions, even if they are as trivial as going to buy instant noodles, which was the second element that Wonk Kar Wai thought of when he began to shape the story. It is a waltz -the rhythm that marks his main musical piece, the theme of Yumeji- that is danced with the continuous comings and goings of the protagonist to buy noodles, a walk during which he meets his neighbor - which is an image that is already part of the history of cinema, as Ivan Pintor, professor of communication at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, points out.

In the mood for love

The years In the mood for love portrays are those corresponding to Wong Kar Wai's childhood in Hong Kong after his arrival from Shanghai in 1963. The director's childhood was closely related to the Shanghai community in the colony, people who lived very much in groups with the intention of maintaining their identity in a land where they spoke a different language (in Shanghai Mandarin is spoken, while in Hong Kong Cantonese is spoken). The members of this middle class community got used to living together very closely, with several families living under the same roof, in very small rooms and with many neighbours gossiping about each other. An environment in which appearance is essential to survive the attentive gaze of the neighbours and where the relationship with the inhabitants of Hong Kong was not usual. "It's a film about rumours", the director explained.

"It's a film that is linked to the classic melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Leo McCarey and has really beautiful sensorial elements, like the food, the gestures they make, the constant struggle of not touching or meeting each other", Ivan Pintor explained. "In all of Wong Kar Wai's filmography there is a strange conjugality in which couples' relationships never really come together", the professor explains, who points out that, in essence, it is the story of a love triangle in which one of the vertices - the respective couples - has been left out of the picture.

The original title of the film, Fa yeung nin wa, means "the time of flowers" and refers to a very specific time of the year. Time, which fixes memories, is another of the leitmotifs of Wong Kar Wai's filmography. Clocks, a graphic symbol of the passage of time, multiply in his films - they are present in In the mood for love but also in Chungking Express or Days of being wild - and in many cases they are the same from one film to the next: art director William Chang, who works with the director from the beginning, keeps them all and makes them reappear at the most unexpected moments.

A fan named Quentin Tarantino

If In the mood for love frames his childhood's Hong Kong, Chungking Express (1994) shows his pulse during the 90s with two stories that show both sides of the city. Wong Kar Wai conceived and shot the film during a break from his previous project, the epic Ashes of time, a film which took a deep plunge into the classic martial arts genre and to which he dedicated two years, but he was exhausted. Chungking Express, which involves both thriller and romantic comedy, is the shortest film in Wong Kar Wai's career: six weeks and two locations. The result is a pop story.

The vivacity and spontaneity of Chungking Express places it at the antipodes of In the mood for love, where everything seems to be calculated to the millimetre. Both, however, share the pride of being the two films that have got more people interested in Wong Kar Wai's cinema. If Chungking Express has achieved cult film status is in part thanks to Quentin Tarantino, a self-confessed admirer of the Hong Kong director and one of the people responsible for the film's release in the United States. "I love romantic films and this one has a taste of romantic comedy that is combined with a crazy and frenetic portrait of Hong Kong", the director of Pulp fiction explained. Tarantino confessed that the first time he saw the film he began to cry: "Only because of happiness that I could like a film so much".

'Days of being wild'

The director of Inglorious bastards is not the only one who's adored Wong Kar Wai for years. Sofia Coppola included him in her thanks when she picked up an Oscar for best screenplay for Lost in translation -she also mentioned Michelangelo Antonioni, who is also one of Wong Kar Wai's referents - and Ang Lee has admitted he is slightly envious of him. "I want to do these cool things he does. Why can't I do them? To shoot with big stars and without a script, or to shoot for weeks, months and years and decide I don't want to use anything and start all over again", Lee joked at a presentation at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The Taiwanese director discovered Wong Kar Wai with Days of being wild, another story of unhappy love that he defines as an almost opiate experience. "I think it traps us because it brings us into a mystical, romantic state that stimulates our feelings and our imagination", he explained.

The feelings Ang Lee experienced when he first saw a Wong Kar Wai film are now being felt by many viewers who are taking advantage of the retrospective to discover the director. "One thing that is surprising us is the average age of the viewer, which is getting quite young considering the age of the viewers who went to the cinemas before the pandemic. With the universe of Wong Kar Wai, audiences are being rejuvenated", Enrique Costa, head of Avalon, says, and notes that viewers who have been encouraged to see these films are around 30 years old. A new generation of fans who will be ready to welcome the director with open arms; a director who, since 2013 -when he released The Grandmaster-, is retired from the front line. The appointment will be with Blossoms Shanghai, his first series, of which we already have an official poster - although with Wong Kar Wai, one never knows.

Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar Wai's eyes

One of the most outstanding elements of Wong Kar Wai's filmography is the atmospheres that he manages to create through image, a merit in which Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer of seven of his films, has played a role. Born in Australia but living in Hong Kong for years, Doyle has explained on more than one occasion that he chooses the projects he works on according to the people who are involved in them. "For better or for worse, the people I work with are friends in the first place. The priority for Wong Kar Wai and me is always 'Can we do better?'", he explains. "My introduction to Wong Kar Wai was not through scripts, it was always through images. The first person who contacted me was the production director, William Chang, he is always observing, creating images, costumes and textures", Doyle says. "I think our films are not concepts, I hope they are organic and that is why they will last".