Essays · Movies

The Infinite Reinvention of Wong Kar Wai

With the release of The Criterion Collection’s “World of Wong Kar Wai” set, we look at how Hong Kong’s King of Cool has built an inimitable career on repetition and iteration.
World Of Wong Kar Wai
Katie Rose Gurkin
By  · Published on March 23rd, 2021

To enter the world of Wong Kar Wai is to step foot on another planet — one with an impeccable sense of style, where familiar faces are always passing through, the same songs play on a loop, secrets are whispered through cracks, love is interminably lost, and time serves to disorient. But your other foot is still on Earth, planted firmly in the human experience. To be in Wong’s world is to know a city and its people intimately, to swim in color, to hallucinate violence, to embrace change, to be woven into a neon narrative tapestry, and perhaps most distinctly, to marvel in the mastery of repetition.

A man of perpetual reinvention, the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-bred auteur and fashion icon has made a career out of repetition, be it across films or within them. He revisits themes, techniques, and collaborations relentlessly, from working with the production designer, costumer, editor, and right-hand creative William Chang Suk Ping on every feature, to queuing up “California Dreamin’” nine times in Chungking Express, to creating a breathtaking wardrobe out of a single style of dress in In the Mood for Love, to resurrecting the Days of Being Wild concept of a “one-minute-friend” in 2046, to queering his staple tragic romance framework in Happy Together.

Of course, artistic repetition grows stale quickly, but Wong doesn’t make carbon copies. He iterates on what he knows best in search of new rhythms, and once he finds them, he morphs the mimicry into something fresh.

His most recent reinvention, The Criterion Collection’sWorld of Wong Kar Wai” set, is massive in scale and reflects an artist who is customary to change. Few directors have received the coveted Criterion filmography-scale treatment, and Wong is the only living one among them (historical greats like Varda and Fellini comprise the rest). The sleek, sensual puzzle-box design clues us into the immersive nature of Wong’s work, unfolding like origami to reveal cryptic visuals that will intrigue newcomers, speak volumes to diehards, and leave all parties in awe of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His preternatural sense of light, color, and camera is to Wong’s career what his escalator-adjacent apartment was to Chungking Express — that is to say: unimaginable without it. The release of “World of Wong Kar Wai” ensures that Wong’s films will survive in peak form (4K) and, in true Wong fashion, alternate cuts.

At the back of an accompanying French-fold booklet, with aesthetic secrets breathing through the crack of every double-bound page, a director’s note reads: “As the saying goes, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’” Wong explains in the note that while restoring the films, he was torn between bringing them back as “the audience remembered” and “how [he] had originally envisioned them,” eventually coming to interpret the project as “an opportunity to present new works, from a different vantage point in [his] career.”

The writer-director-producer chose only seven of his ten features, along with an extended hour-long cut of his Eros short, “The Hand,” to be included, leaving Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster, and his English-foray My Blueberry Nights on the bench. Of the seven, he supervised re-cutting and re-coloring on all but his first two, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, which are also the only two of his films he didn’t produce. The unconventional decision to edit in the process of restoring means the original versions the world fell in love with have effectively been retired, a conspicuous side-effect of the restoration that is already drawing controversy.

Runtimes made it out relatively unscathed, but the differences between versions aren’t negligible. With one exception, they’re also not terribly noticeable unless one is examining them side-by-side. Fallen Angels, the subterranean 1995 Chungking Express counterpart, was squished into a 2.39:1 aspect ratio from the original 1.85:1, leaving good portions of the top and bottom of the screen cropped out. It was also given a color makeover that renders the palette several shades darker and accentuates reds and greens at the expense of blues. Regardless of how one feels, the changes are significant.

The evolution of the works in the collection encapsulates Wong’s unprecedented artistry. He is as addicted to change as he is to the past, allergic to a static understanding of anything cinematic. The intersection of those passions yields an infamously improvisational filmmaking process and a nebula of interwoven films, such that any Wong Kar Wai movie announces itself in essence alone, a la Malick, Akerman, or Wes Anderson. However, Wong sets himself apart in the way he exercises repetition, refashioning techniques, characters, settings, and more across titles.

In the gunslinging criminal underworld of As Tears Go By, Wong introduced us to his signature style of hazy action — which Doyle achieves by shooting at half-speed and double-printing the image (a technique Scorsese, Wong’s favorite filmmaker, would later employ in Gangs of New York) — only to repurpose it in the context of feral, face-smashing romance by film’s end. Wong iterated on the technique in all his films. The same is true for several of Wong’s directorial stamps, like: neon lighting; obstructed vision; hyper-sensitive zooms that dance around a subject; and still frames. The last of these he first used to capture cars in motion (like tears going by, if you will) in As Tears Go By, later repeating it to capture speculative allure in Chungking Express and the temporality of swinging doors in Happy Together.

His triumph in the realm of repetition is largely due to his insistence on discovering his projects in real-time, a luxury afforded him through the blood, sweat, and tears of producing his own work. After issues with producers on his first two films made it nearly impossible to secure funding for his third, he and co-writer Jeffrey Lau founded their own production outfit in Jet Tone Films in 1992. Of course, producing his own films would not save him from future feuds with cast and crew: Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and Doyle have all written him off at least once in their career after a shoot.

Wong shares pieces of his deadline-shattering approach and accompanying disdain with Malick, who has ostracized the A-list likes of Sean Penn and the late Christopher Plummer. But where the ethereal filmmaker-philosopher Malick has an abstract in mind to guide his story once filming begins, Wong arrives on set with open-ended questions, hoping to find out what will happen in his. “Storytelling begins with a series of questions, and you stop when you run out of them,” Wong says with a sage mysticism in one of the many new Criterion programs.

Buenos Aires, 1996: leads Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung arrive to shoot Happy Together — Wong’s first queer film, first in the Western hemisphere, and third collaboration with both actors — only to discover filming hadn’t begun. Wong had sketched two characters in his head and found a city for them, but he was eager to get to know the city and his characters better before a narrative took shape. This elliptical exploration would go on for weeks. On other films, it would go on for months. That might sound like an egregious amount of time to fish for a story, but Wong isn’t just exploring narrative potential.

“I don’t have patience, so I want everything to be done at the same time,” Wong mentions casually in a special feature interview as if he isn’t torpedoing a century’s worth of vetted production wisdom. And when he says everything, he means it. Wong hammers out dialogue on the fly in overnight writing sessions with lead actors, experiments with Doyle on new lenses and color palettes between takes, and talks design with Chang while editing footage on set to find the mood and rhythm of the film, which eventually leads him to the story. He keeps up a breakneck pace of creative experimentation even once he finds the story, with days or weeks of hard-earned footage at risk of being scrapped at any point in the production if Wong feels the narrative, tone, palette, or something else seismically changing course. As “World of Wong Kar Wai” now makes abundantly clear, he is never done working on his films.

In a 2001 “cinema lesson” on one of the discs, Wong is uncharacteristically candid: “The actual process [of filmmaking] is a vacation to me. […] You fall in love with the films, and you don’t want to let go, like In the Mood for Love,” now famous for its ever-changing fifteen-month shoot, the likes of whose multiple “final” wraps and reshoots typically premeditate a dumpster fire. As it turned out, In the Mood for Love was the polar opposite of garbage (it ranks second behind Mulholland Drive in the largest international critics poll of the best films of the century). Just as Wong’s reasons for reshoots were on the other end of the spectrum from risk-averse studio executives, who would drop dead before signing off on a reshoot of every scene in a hallway solely because the production designer conceived of a new flare piece in the form of a giant red curtain that resonates far beyond aesthetics.

Wong gets frustrated when there is not enough risk being taken — when shots are simply not creative enough to warrant witness. And he isn’t afraid to charge his fellow creatives with the crime of mediocrity mid-take, though that’s less of an issue with Chang, the man behind so much of what we praise about Wong’s world. The two are so aligned in creative sensibilities that words don’t always need to be exchanged on set. In an accompanying essay, critic John Powers describes their relationship as “almost telepathic.” Chang knows creativity is paramount when working with someone who repeats themselves as often as Wong.

Consider how circular In the Mood for Love is: the innovative ways Wong and Doyle had to shoot those tiny claustrophobic hallways to keep the same location interesting. It’s a technique re-envisioned for the halls of 2046 and “The Hand,” and a shooting problem that presented itself in a different way in the making of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which share the frenzied primary location of the Chungking Mansions where Wong’s father used to manage a nightclub. Consider the many contexts he had to find to justify re-immersing the audience in “Yumeji’s Theme,” its repeat use to Norah Jones grief-eating a pie in My Blueberry Nights acting as a legitimate threat to that sanctity for some.

Consider the twenty-one distinct designs Chang had to fashion in the traditional qipao dress style — iterated on in new, equally stunning designs via Ziyi Zhang in 2046. Consider the ways Cheung and Leung had to reimagine their roles as Su Li-zhen, a prominent character in Days of Being Wild and a spectral glare of one in 2046, and Chow Mo-wan, who appears inexplicably in the final two and a half minutes of Days of Being Wild (or does he?) and would later lead 2046. The loose trilogy also spotlights Wong’s diptych/triptych storytelling mode (the influence behind Moonlight’s narrative structure), which can be contained within a single film (e.g., Chungking Express) or spread across a few.

In the Mood for Love also marked Cheung and Leung’s third and fourth go-around with Wong on the theme of ill-fated love, a subject matter central to all seven films in the collection, and one that showcases the balance he finds in romantic extremes through repetition. Note the severe contrast between the sweaty, physical, belligerent romance of Happy Together, the flirty, psychological, peculiar romance of Chungking Express, the cold, cruel, unwanted romance of Fallen Angels, and the delicate, passionate, muted, and mysterious romance of In the Mood for Love.

In the special features, author Andre Aciman refers to the director’s surreal ability to conjure disparate expressions of foredoomed love as a “balance between elegy and brutality,” a phrase that applies to Wong’s handling of all his trademark themes, like the passage of time, the complication of memory, alienation, expiration, and unspoken secrets. It is one of the many things that makes his tight runtimes feel like dense, fully lived experiences.

By the time one gets to 2046, the last feature in the set and Wong’s only sci-fi plunge to date, it plays like a greatest hits, a capsule of the previous six that simultaneously feels like his most idiosyncratic work, the ultimate testament to Wong’s expertise in the art of repetition. And his passion for it: “It’s about how a person deals with his past loves,” Wong says smoothly in a 2004 interview. The starry cast, for one, is loaded with Wong regulars – Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Chang Chen each having starred in at least two (and up to seven) of Wong’s films. All are laced with traces of a character they’ve played in the past, if not explicitly reprising one in a different stage of life, in the case of Leung, Cheung, and Lau.

The film flashes between a fictional future on a bullet train and writer Chow Mo-wan back in 1960s Hong Kong, one of Wong’s favorite characters in one of his favorite settings, although neither was a part of the film as it was originally conceived. Leung actually shot much of the film nameless, as he did with Chungking Express, so he and Wong could discover the character. Where Chow tried his hand at a martial arts novel alongside Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love, he now pens a sci-fi novel with a new lover, albeit in the same style of dress. Where In the Mood for Love found Chow whispering unknowns into ancient cracks in the ruins of Angkor Wat, 2046 finds an emotionally-stunted android whispering unknowns into a giant metallic orb resembling The Bean of Chicago.

Dreamy tracks from Days of Being Wild resurface when Carina Lau is on screen. Faye Wong blasts music like she’s in Chungking Express. The prominence of reds and greens in Doyle’s kaleidoscopic cinematography harken back to Happy Together, the color work of which inspired the gaudy, rustic aesthetic of Amélie. Intoxicating shots of the sky remind us of Wong’s sixth sense for infusing films with meditative natural imagery, one of his lesser-discussed feats. The dystopian iteration on the theme of expiration, in concert with the socio-political climate of the ’60s, once again echoes Hong Kong’s fear over what will happen when China’s fifty-year promise of partial autonomy runs out in 2047. The multi-national Asian cast accentuates one of Wong’s favorite themes, the polyglot cultural fluidity of Chinese diaspora countries, in new ways. Yet, the way he and Doyle shoot tears as a psychedelic refraction of light, after a career’s worth of experimentation with crying characters, might be the most poignant example of Wong’s boundless creative drive.

Wong Kar Wai is an artist in the most contemporary sense of the word, which is to say: singular and difficult. But not for nothing. His propensity for repetition and unconventional filmmaking processes have generated some of the most agreed-upon greats, and that influence can be felt across the industry, movies like Lost in Translation and Call Me by Your Name as indebted to him as he is to Antonioni, Wenders, or Hitchcock. Or, frankly, as indebted as his later work is to his earlier work, all films in conversation with those that preceded them, building on past magic and forking onto uncharted paths. With Wong, repetition never feels like imitation. And it isn’t. For it is not the same river and he is not the same man.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.