Why you should dive into the work of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai
You've seen and felt Wong Kar Wai, even if you've never heard of him. You've seen him in the lush images and impressionism of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. You've felt him through Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's poignant ode to human connection. And if you've read any list of the best movies of the 21st century, you've probably come across his name. (Or perhaps you've heard Quentin Tarantino talk about him at some point.)
Wong, from Hong Kong, is one of the most acclaimed and influential filmmakers of the last 20 years, a towering figure for lovers of art-house and international cinema. Those terms can be intimidating, but his movies are very approachable (and fairly fast-paced), riffing on familiar themes and genres with a hypnotic style that may take some getting used to, but that you'll certainly never forget. And it's a perfect time to dive into his work: On Tuesday, prestigious home video label The Criterion Collection is releasing a new box set assembling the bulk of Wong's filmography — seven of the 10 films he's directed to date.
It's a milestone moment; while Wong's movies have been intermittently available stateside for a while (if you've known where to look), never have so many of his major works been collected together, in one place, at such high quality. (For those less inclined toward lavish physical media, four of the seven movies in the set are currently available on Criterion's streaming service, with the rest likely to follow soon.)
And it's a moment you should seize upon. Here in the (God willing) waning months of the pandemic, the window is closing on all that free time to explore new interests and new viewing, and Wong's films, believe it or not, perfectly suit the #QuarantineMood: dripping with the ache and longing of loneliness, yearning for human connection, perfect for late nights or melancholic days. (As The A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd put it, "Wong Kar Wai commiserates.") They're intoxicating, sexy, poignant, romantic, and as good a way as any to open up your world and perspective.
Just ask Jenkins, who saw Wong's Chungking Express as a young film student and was immediately captivated. "I'd never really seen a foreign film before; I wasn't watching a lot of foreign films," the Moonlight director recalled in a 2016 video for Criterion. "I remember just being sucked in, and having a feeling of how big the world was, but how small it was at the same time. Because I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, I'd never been outside of the state of Florida, and I'm watching this film, and I'm feeling all these things."
Chungking Express is perhaps the best place for a Wong neophyte to start. The 1994 film tells two distinct, bifurcated stories about lonely and heartbroken cops, with a playfulness and energy that grabs and holds your attention. Not unlike Tarantino, Wong revels in the visceral pleasures of movies: gorgeous actors, vibrant colors, transporting pop music (you'll never hear "California Dreamin'" again without seeing Chungking star Faye Wong bopping along to it). It's gorgeously artistic yet remarkably fun — and like Jenkins, you'll soon find yourself sucked in.
Wong's masterpiece, though, is pretty much inarguably In the Mood for Love, a romantic drama set in 1960s Hong Kong that follows a man and a woman (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who realize their spouses are having an affair. They're drawn to each other, but determined not to consummate their feelings ("We won't be like them," Cheung's character says at one point), providing the film with an aching tension. It's one of the great simmering romances of cinema, filled with keenly observed details of performance (watch for telltale looks and gestures) and period. And Wong's regular cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, outdoes himself here, bathing the movie in glowing neon and sensual reds, and crafting one indelible image after another.
From there, explore at your will. 1990's Days of Being Wild, Wong's second film, established his personal style and voice, and deals with similar themes of romantic longing and connection. 1997's Happy Together stars Leung and Leslie Cheung as a gay couple living out their turbulent relationship in Buenos Aires. 1995's Fallen Angels is a companion piece to Chungking Express, but with a noir-y sensibility all its own. But all are distinctly Wong, and, above all, human, suffused with the feelings of love and pain that unite us. It's filmmaking at its best: a window into the universality of emotion and the specificity of experience.