Thursday, April 01, 2010

Modern Maestros: Wong Kar Wai

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors. This week I'm happy to feature a director I've loved for a long time. Yet now, perhaps more than any other time in his career (or at least since I've been following it) it seems like ages since we've heard from him. But that's not true. His last film came out the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson's last. Yet Anderson still seems very of the moment, while Wong Kar Wai has seemingly fallen off the radar. Such is the difference, I suppose, between a critical hit and a flop.

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.

Let's talk about that beautiful prison (since we're sentenced to live there). The melancholy of love isn't that unusual a topic in cinema history. What sets Wong's films apart is his ability to evoke mood and setting. In large part this is thanks to the contributions of artists like director of photography 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.


Anonymous said...

I hope Kidman makes The Lady from Shanghai

Jorge Rodrigues said...

Oh Robert, why did you remind me that one of the most beloved film makers of my time directed My Blueberry Nights? :)

I so wanted to forget that movie... He still has to make up for making it (although repeated viewings of In the Mood For Love do the trick - for now).

Deus Ex Machina said...

I always considered Wong Kar Wai a modern day Kurosawa. in aspects in which he can make epic work as well as intimately psychological love portraits with unique skill. I also think of 2046 as a msterpiece. it's seriously misunderstood.

jbaker475 said...

If there's one thing that can't be denied, it's that he's a masterful stylist. Within moments of "2046" coming to a close, I knew hands down that I had just seen one of the most exquisitely photographed films of this, or any decade. I agree with anon, I really hope The Lady from Shanghai with Kidman goes through (although I haven't heard anything about that film since 2007....:(

Timothy Marshall said...

I'll try to phrase this as delicately as possible...

Why no Chungking Express?

It's his best film.
One of the best films ever made.
Yet everyone seems to think it doesn't exist.
What gives?

That hurts me. As someone with an unhealthy emotional connection to Chungking Express, that just cuts me deep.

In The Mood For Love is also incredible.


Timothy... i'm not sure why Robert ignored that one. It is quite fine. but better than IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE? NO SIR! ;)

Jorge -- i avoided My Blueberry Nights for this very reason. after the reviews i didn't want to tarnish my Wong Kar Wai. but i know i should see it and be a completist.

Jorge Rodrigues said...

Nathaniel, for your health, don't. It's not THAT awful but to see actors of the calibre of Portman, Weisz, Strathairn and Law do so poorly... It's not advised.

Timothy Marshall said...

In all honesty, it would probably be unjust to rank them against each other, especially since they're like comparing Wong's apples to Wong's oranges. I'd rather just say I love them both and be done with it.

BUT, I love Chungking Express a little more and there is a case to be made for Chungking Express being his masterpiece. It certainly is more eligible for repeat viewing just due to the complexity of the narrative, the quantity of character arcs, the quality of the character arcs, the cotton-candy coated cinematography, and the funny and alluring Faye Wong. In fact, Faye Wong needs to be in more movies. I've decided this. I've decided to write Faye Wong and tell her to be in more movies. Now. Immediately.

Seeing as I've seen this about 6 times now, I feel qualified to make these calls.

Robert said...

@Timothy - I have been trying, during these write ups to keep my references within the past 15 years or so (hence the 'modern' part of modern maestros). But now that you mention it, even I don't think that's a good enough reason for me to have completely ignored Chungking Express.

As my penance I will eat a can of pineapple every day until my fellow Wong Kar Wai lovers decide to forgive me.

As for My Blueberry Nights. I don't think it's terrible, just an unspectacular film meeting up with understandably high expectations. Those impossibly beautiful shots of pie with gooey dripping fruit and melting whipped cream are almost at the level of parody. Think Wong Kar Wai does Food Network.

cave man said...

In looking at the work of Wong Kar Wai I am positive he is a heavyweight in the same league as David Lynch. The train in 2046 alone is mesmerizing. The stop motion photography after the murder and the woman running down the hall in Chunking Express is unprecedented. As for the assaulted and horribly reviewed
My Blueberry Nights. I am going to go out on a limb and argue that it is a fascinating film and visually amazing. I do realize that it is by no means a perfect film. However, the representation of New York was stellar and the green light in the train was classic Wong Kar Wai. The film was unique being his first English feature and I found it to be a unique perception of America looks like to Mr. Kar Wai. The film even reminded me of Paris Texas by Wim Wenders. I no I will get negative comments for this, but the kiss between Jones and Law was
brilliantly shot.

badmotherfucker said...

My Blueberry Nights was nowhere near as bad as some people make it out to be. I wouldn't call it terrible so much as inconsequential, really. It wouldn't hurt to give it a look.

Portman, Strathairn, and Weisz deliver. Jones and Law on the other hand...

Dave said...

there you go...I agree with badmotherfucker...My Blueberry Nights was not terrible. Just not up to par. Strathairn and stuff. I could even tolerate Jones.