Wong Kar-wai’s 10th feature, “The Grandmaster,” arrives in North America in subtly butchered form (read more about it here [Film.com article]), but a Wong Kar-wai film it remains, resembling manna from heaven after a six-year absence. Still, the Weinsteins’ lack of faith in American audiences is tragic, not least because the true cut of “The Grandmaster” offers ample reminder that Wong, that great chronicler of the Hong Kong handover, indeed belongs to his country and not simply the international arthouse crowd. Among the latter, Wong is certainly one of the most beloved modern directors, perhaps as revered by budding young cinephiles as more classic gateway artists like Akira Kurosawa.
Like Kurosawa or the French New Wave (a movement to which Wong is frequently and often reductively compared), Wong provides exposure to the exotic while remaining sufficiently Westernized to allow easy access. Characters grow out of Hollywood and French tropes: the existential gangster, the fatale, the James Dean-esque rebel, even the manic pixie dream girl. What’s more, Wong’s narratives of intense longing and uncertain futures prime him for consumption by younger viewers likely experiencing the same feeling. The director can thus be seen almost as part of a cinephile “starter kit,” to be enjoyed until one moves deeper into the vast realms of non-American cinema.
But like so many of the other filmmakers lumped into that patronizing estimation, Wong survives the transition period from training wheels to full-bore obsession, his films sufficiently layered with aesthetic complexity, minute human gesture and social commentary that they can continue to open up under scrutiny. The issue of Hong Kong’s soul, its sense of Self when defined in relation to the Others that have held control over the region, informs the subtext for much of his filmography, a detail lost in a first viewing of, say, “Chungking Express” even though it is hidden in plain sight. So too do the straightforward, melancholic romantic arcs reveal themselves to be more than pity parties, instead honed in on the manner in which characters deny themselves happiness by externalizing all hope for contentment onto others. And at heart, the director’s alchemical blend of aesthetic excess with gulfs of static air and quiet contemplation leave huge areas to be explored time and again.
Of the 10 feature films Wong has directed, none is bad or even uninteresting. Linked by the filmmaker’s pet themes and moody tics, the features reveal a surprising amount of variety, from sequels that not only continue narratives but critique them to bookending works of commercial cinema that cater to genre even as a singular vision bends ossified rules to its will. Regardless of their position on this list, all deserve at least one viewing. Some of them may make you want to watch them again as soon as they’re finished.
In honor of "The Grandmaster", a (butchered) version of which opens in the United States this weekend, we ranked Wong Kar-Wai's films from worst to best.
10. “As Tears Go By” (1988)
Openly cribbing the premise of “Mean Streets,” “As Tears Goes By” is, as Peter Labuza rightly noted, otherwise very much in line with contemporary Hong Kong cinema. Sped-up and slowed down frames, heavy color timing and outlandish setpieces like a chase through an absurdly long billiards hall or a climax of ultraviolence all fit snugly within popular movies of the time. But if this does adapt Scorsese’s break-out hit, it also focuses on different areas of the story.
The romance that plays more of a tangential, atmospheric role in the original here defines the film’s tone and direction, where even gangster interactions play out in close-ups of hands and the spacious cool around a Triad is filled with sadness and desire. And surely no other film has come so close to wringing genuine heartache from “Take My Breath Away.”
9. “My Blueberry Nights” (2007)
As if to ease the transition to English language, Wong films most of the first shots in "My Blueberry Nights" with characters framed behind glass walls with text on them to create makeshift subtitles. Soon, however, Wong is off, following Norah Jones' jilted lover as she drifts all over the country trying to escape her feelings. But all she encounters are people suffering from her same problem of romantic grief in different ways, a connection hammered home by how much the other actresses, such as Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, share facial features with Jones.
Admittedly, the step-printing seems excessive even by the director's standards, and the occasional mingling of Wong's style with something more "American" traps dialogue between the poetic and the stiffly prosaic. Nevertheless, the film allows Wong to stretch out, leaving behind the dense confines of Hong Kong and the baggage of the Mainland even as he wrangles a great expanse into a manageable, pocket-sized America. And how can you not love that close up of vanilla ice cream running over a slice of pie?
8. “Ashes of Time” (1994; Redux cut 2008)
An adaptation of a classic wuxia story that redefines the term “loose,” “Ashes of Time” slurs elliptically along bronzed desert landscapes as if suffering from heatstroke, tracing the asymptotic not-quite-intersections between physically and emotionally adrift warriors. A few nods to generic tropes exist—a swordmistress putting such energy into a weapon thrust that a lake explodes, a doomed fighter sacrifices himself to save a village from bandits—but Wong corrupts them with a sense of loss, actions by those whose violence drove away love and who now turn to violence as their sole release. Operating, before and after, in the arthouse and festival circuit realm, Wong crafts something more familiar to Chinese audiences. The result, however, is possibly his most experimental work.
7. “Happy Together” (1997)
Released the year of the handover, “Happy Together” thrums with anxieties of identity. The chaotic chemistry between two gay lovers sends the quieter of the two (Tony Leung’s Lai) into a personal tailspin that only ever gets worse when he runs back into the more Dionysian Ho (Leslie Cheung). All the usual Wong keywords like “melancholy” and “regret” do not apply to this picture, which does not sulk around in misery but bursts in tortured spasms of (occasionally literal) self-harm.
Trapped in that relationship and oblivious to and scared of a potentially more rewarding one, Lai’s story naturally lends itself to a metaphorical address of the great unknown of Hong Kong’s cultural future. More surprising is how well the Argentinian setting works to bring out this subtext, providing Lai with a foreign land in which he can act out a kind of vision quest to address personal and social anxieties before returning home to face a new era.
6. “Fallen Angels” (1995)
This semi-sequel to “Chungking Express” does not continue the arcs of that film so much as portray an alternate-reality version of them. Here, Takeshi Kaneshiro’s pineapple-wolfing loner has been rendered mute for eating so much spoiled fruit, while a woman who cleans up after the man she loves cleans up altogether more gruesome messes. Most intriguingly, the film swaps out “Chungking’s” romantic view of love for something approaching capitalism, in which lovers’ identities are defined only by the services they provide to that person; one man even refers to himself as a store to which he hopes his crush will give her patronage. Requited love is the only salvation from loneliness in Wong’s other films, but here it is love itself that isolates, in which the Self is up for sale in exchange for fleeting fulfillment.
5. “The Grandmaster” (2013)
Forget the Weinstein cut and opt for the full version available on region-free imports, a cut that makes clear how, for the numerous and jaw-dropping fight sequences, “The Grandmaster” has nothing to do with violence. Well, that’s not true: as in “Ashes of Time,” “The Grandmaster” uses violence as the ultimate separation even as it finds the possibility of unity in kung fu, an unlikely reconciliation evidenced by its own semiotic makeup of “one horizontal, one vertical” character.
One character lives by the philosophy of kung fu, another by its force, and though one appears to accomplish more of material value in life, it is the other who lives forever. That the nobler, immortal spirit embodies Hong Kong while the passionate but doomed figure epitomizes China sets up a cultural commentary that makes the film’s incredible domestic success a deliciously subversive feat.
4. “Days of Being Wild” (1990)
With respect to Jean-Luc Godard, “Days of Being Wild” is the true film of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Its first shot, even, is of a Coke cooler that looks, somehow, redder than every other Coca-Cola machine in the world. Yet this sheen of nostalgia (the film is set in 1960) quickly dissipates as the film soon embodies a sense of the present, experiencing viscerally the turbulence of the first of the postwar youth to reach the age where they can begin to come to terms with the circumstances of their past.
Christopher Doyle’s instant affinity for Wong’s ideas and the perfectly timed editing make vivid the search for, and denial of, one’s roots. The coda, in which Leslie Cheung’s inchoate youth is mysteriously replaced by Tony Leung’s dapper Chow Mo-wan, almost recalls the transformation at the fulcrum of “Lost Highway,” albeit a more positive form of rebirth. Well, at least until Chow Mo-wan cropped up again exactly 10 years later...
3. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)
Maggie Cheung carries around melodramatic mise-en-scène at all times in the form of her floral cheongsams, but in general Wong communicates the melodrama of “In the Mood for Love” with a humid atmosphere pungent with lust that peels wallpaper. It leaves clothes on, though, thanks to the convoluted moral logic of two would-be lovers who come together when they learn their spouses are already conducting affairs with the other.
In contrast to the social pressures that force “proper” behavior in classic melodrama, the greatest hindrance for the couple here is their warped sense of pride, a desire not to sink to the level of their adulterous significant others. Their insular barriers prevent responsibility for a failed tryst to be externalized, and Wong’s cramped frames highlight that the only distance between characters is the ones they make for themselves.
2. “2046” (2004)
Nominally a science-fiction film, “2046” only really plays into the genre with digitally rendered space rails that look suspiciously like film strips. Instead, it uses its future projection only as a means of breaking the intimate, of-the-moment emotions of Wong’s filmography by projecting them across generations. That the sci-fi elements stems from a story-within-the-story adds metafictional layers that allow Wong to take even greater leaps around space, time and dimension as it chases down the lingering demons of “In the Mood for Love.”
Characters disappear and return vastly changed; lovers’ names are taken up by other people in a cruel embodiment of “loving the one you’re with,” and the 2047 end of Hong Kong’s self-regulation hangs over heads as much as the 1997 handover. Above all, the film suggests that, were some deranged executive ever so inclined to make an adaptation of “Finnegans Wake,” Wong would have to direct it. Of course, where Joyce’s dreamy, pan-temporal masterpiece swirls in guilt over a completed sexual action, Wong’s stews in the never-ending, nagging obsession with actions not taken.
1. “Chungking Express” (1994)
“Chungking Express” is a near impossibility, a spontaneous and immediate delight that only ever gets better with each new viewing and the additional dissection that entails. Mood is the great takeaway from Wong’s films, but “Chungking” overflows with images and sounds that sear permanently into the mind: emptied tins of pineapple strewn lovingly around a bizarre act of cleansing, “California Dreamin’” blaring in the confined space of a food stand and, of course, Faye Wong breaking into Tony Leung’s apartment simply to clean it.
Typically the first or second Wong Kar-wai film a neophyte sees, “Chungking Express” provides early exposure to his downer endings, but in retrospect the ambiguous conclusions of the film’s romantic arcs contain more hope than the director usually shows, demonstrating that, whether or not some characters do end up with each other, their encounters have changed them for the better instead of devastating them.