Maestro: Wong Kar Wai
Known For: beautiful films about people who love each other, and don't. And occasionally an action movie.
Influences: The inherent coolness of Godard. The luscious romanticism of Visconti. The stylish noirness of Huston.
Masterpieces: Hard to narrow it down. But the one-two punch of In the Mood for Love and 2046 do it for me.
Disasters: I suppose no one really feels passionate enough about My Blueberry Nights for it to really be a disaster.
Better than you remember: Ashes of Time is somewhat undervalued. And 2046 has more dissenters than I'd expect. Obviously, since I think it's a masterpiece, I disagree with those in dissent.
Box Office: In the Mood For Love is the champ with nearly 3 million dollars.
Favorite Actor: the wonderful Tony Leung
Wong Kar Wai's characters are in love. Their world is sweeter than ours. Colors are more vibrant, music more meaningful, and time often speeds up or slows down for emphatic emphasis. It's a sumptuous dreamlike reality. And juxtaposed against this reality is the inescapable fact that there is a problem. For Wong Kar Wai, love is the most universal element of the human experience. But not the sunshine, lollipops and rainbows Hollywood happy ending kind of love. Heck, almost no one experiences that. The part we all know is the sadness. "Love is all a matter of timing," says Tony Leung's character in 2046. It's a telling quote in that it suggests the presence of factors well beyond our control that conspire to control our lives. Love isn't as easy as two attractive characters shrugging of the contrived dramas that separate them as in so many industry films. Sometimes if something as simple as the timing is wrong, then the love hasn't a chance. Wong seems to have an endless fascination with all of the potential factors that can sabotage a person's chances at love, complex as they may be. Consider the neighbors of In the Mood For Love. They connect over the realization that their spouses are carrying on an affair. This connection evolves into deep longing but to submit to it would be to behave no better than their spouses. There can be no happy ending here. A confluence of circumstances including social norms (its the 1960's... in China), personal ethics, and bad timing all compound to keep these characters apart. The lush world they live in isn't a dream. It's a sad prison. But there are more potential saboteurs out there. The one you love may simply not love you back as is evident again and again in 2046. Or the one you love may complicate your life to an unhealthy extreme as in Happy Together.
Christopher Doyle or composer Shigeru Umebayashi (to name just two of many who've worked with the director) who help Wong create some of the most sensuous films being made today. But the aesthetic beauty of Wong Kar Wai movies isn't just superficial. Wong is a visual storyteller. A scene in 2046 finds our protagonist having dinner with a woman he loves, who does not love him in return. Wong shoots the scene through a bent glass window, swaying the camera from person to person, watching their images draw closer and then break apart in the twisted glass; all an illusion. Similarly, shots of the waterfalls that the two lovers in Happy Together hope to eventually visit keep popping up throughout the movie. They are a wonder of nature, both beautiful and violent.
More playing with images
The outliers here are action movies like Ashes of Time that, while not immersed in the wretchedness of love, prove that Wong's style is not bound by any one genre. We'll have yet to see if Wong's next film, The Grand Master (about Bruce Lee's mentor) revisits the action-based reality of Ashes of Time or treads new ground for the director. A remake of The Lady from Shanghai is also slated to be released by Wong Kar Wai in 2010 (though it's still in pre-production) and should give the director an opportunity to marry the romantic and the thrilling into a successful whole. It will be his second English-language feature (his first, My Blueberry Nights is fine if you enjoy looking at beautiful images of Rachael Weisz, Natalie Portman, Norah Jones and pie, but otherwise not noteworthy), and my hope is that (along with The Grand Master) it will rise him back up to the top of the cinematic world where he belongs.