In the Mood for ‘Moonlight:’ The influence of Wong Kar-wai on Barry Jenkins’ Breakthrough

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A pair of videos highlight the aesthetic connections between the directors.

If you’ve seen Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, then you know that the secret to the film’s breakthrough success isn’t just a touching, erudite, and emotional narrative that serves an underserved voice in mainstream media, that of the black gay male, but also the sumptuous, elegant, almost transcendent visual scope of Jenkins’ direction and the cinematography of James Laxton, both of whom have been nominated for scores of awards, including Oscars.

The colors, composition, and camera angles Jenkins and Laxton employ help make Moonlight the wholly original work of art that it is, but even Jenkins – perhaps especially Jenkins – will tell you that the inspiration for the look of his film came from another director known for his work’s visual poetry: Wong Kar-wai. All throughout the former director’s film the influence of the latter can be seen in the soft and graceful atmosphere Moonlight generates, in the vibrant subtlety of its lighting, and the stoic gentility it conjures outside of its narrative.

To help emphasize the impact of Wong Kar-wai on Jenkins, we’ve got a pair of videos for you, one that shows the influence, and one that features Jenkins himself talking about it. The first comes from editor Alessio Marinacci and sets scenes and frames from Moonlight side-by-side with Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and Happy Together to demonstrate their visual kinship, while the second comes from The Criterion Collection and serves as the first video in a new series they’re producing, Under the Influence, in which contemporary directors discuss – you guessed it – their influences. Jenkins spends a few minutes with them sharing the specifics of his Wong appreciation, and it’s a pretty invaluable conversation, not to mention the perfect accompaniment to Marinacci’s thoughtful comparison.

I only recently became the last film writer in the world to see Moonlight, and I can only echo the words of the thousands before me who called it more than just the best film of last year, but the triumphant arrival of a director who is certain to have a major impact on both the industry and the art of film in the years to come. And somehow knowing and seeing his affinity for a director, a poet, like Wong Kar-wai just makes me even more excited to see what Jenkins’ does next, because whatever it is, it’s bound to be beautiful.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist