Pop Culture at its Best

Ranking the Films of Wong Kar-Wai

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As one monthly theme begins, another ends. The former is, of course, Sound on Sight’s monthlong dedication to all films that scare, terrify, or spook us in conjunction with October being the scariest month of the year. (That’s a scientific fact, folks.) The latter is our look at the works of Wong Kar-Wai, inspired by his latest film, The Grandmaster. Though September’s just now ended, a handful of your intrepid Sound on Sight contributors, as well as our benevolent editor-in-chief/overlord, came together to vote on Wong Kar-Wai’s best films, his worst, and everything in between. What follows are capsule reviews of each of his films, listed in order based on the Sound on Sight’s staffwide vote. What’s our favorite Wong Kar-Wai film? Well, read on through the entire list, and you’ll find out. Enjoy!

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10. My Blueberry Nights

Stylistically at odds with itself, Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights makes for an interesting, if extremely problematic American debut. Wong casts Norah Jones as his waifish ingenue, whose heartbroken roadtripper is unbearably naive and disproportionately wise in her continental soul-searching. Following a messy breakup, Jones drifts between American cities, first stopping by Jude Law’s New York diner for advice and romance atop a piece of that day’s leftover blueberry pie. Beginning with its titular baked good, Wong is concerned with the harmful and curative aspects of vice and guilty pleasures. Taking on odd restaurant jobs, Jones meets Natalie Portman’s Southern belle with daddy issues and a gambling addiction, and serves up cocktails to David Straithairn’s alcoholic cop, a man who never knows when to put a cork in it. The two actors deliver big caricatures rather than wholesale performances, but Rachel Weisz’s haunted widow manages to rise above the script’s sappier reflections.

Fortunately, many of Wong’s familiar stylistic touches remain on display. Despite the absence of mainstay Christopher Doyle, Wong’s new cinematographer Darius Khondji draws out the Nevada desert’s melancholy yellows and the cool blues in Law’s cafe, and the film’s visuals often blend well with its director’s blurry expressionist flourishes.  As in his masterpiece Chungking Express, Wong also fixates on American jazz and the forlorn romance of boozy nightlife. Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” is a spiritual successor to Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” and more obviously, the director casts a jazz vocalist as his lead, perhaps a nod to Chungking’s singer-songwriter Faye Wong.

Wong hits his checkpoints, but he strains to reconcile My Blueberry Nights’ rote, polished series of goodbyes with his auteurist tendencies. Characters still deliver soft-spoken voiceovers, but the meek Jones’ inexplicable philosophizing feels less like genuine introspection and more like a college paper’s romantic advice column.

— David Klein

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9. The Grandmaster

Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most distinctive directors in the world, making whatever material he decides to tackle, from wild science fiction to period drama, feel like his own. He unites these tales with a beautiful, disconnected style and a focus on a disaffected dreamer. His films are tales of melancholy romantics searching for, and often denying themselves, connections. While many of the challenges in The Grandmaster are physical rather than emotional, the core of the film is a familiar one to fans of Kar-Wai: the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung) and his unexplainable connection to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the reigning Grandmaster and the one person we ever see best Ip in a fight. Though the fight scenes (choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, known for his work on The Matrix) are beautifully shot and staged, capturing the technical mastery of the participants and exhibiting their strategic and philosophical approach to battle, it is Kar-Wai’s examination of missed opportunities and regrets that is most resonant. Kar-Wai often depicts worlds that are fading and characters who cling to them, and The Grandmaster is no different, with two leads honor-bound to codes that keep them from what they want, and live in a China fast fading into obsolescence. During the film’s middle chapter, which finds Ip Man and Gong Er both in exile in Hong Kong, the weight of the past is downright palpable, and their regrets color the world around them. There’s a glorious sadness to the film’s leads, a sense that they see how the world’s gone wrong, but can’t turn back time and right things. A shift in time and culture has left them behind, with their traditions and their sorrow, in a beautiful world that no longer exists because in some sense it cannot.

— Jordan Ferguson

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8. As Tears Go By

Wong’s first feature, As Tears Go By, is a gangster drama filled with the expected tropes of Hong Kong action cinema, yet giving hints to the oncoming impressionism audiences would come to expect and love from his career. Wah (a young Andy Lau) is a small-time criminal with enough history behind him to warrant admiration from his goofy disciple Fly (Jackie Cheung) and wary romance from his distant cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung). The plot of the film is unabashedly taken from the character dynamism of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, as Wah pleads with Fly to stop his dangerous behavior of attempting to collect a loan from a mob boss, often getting himself, his brother Site (Ronald Wong), and Wah into firefights and deeper troubles with the mob. The developing story, outside the episodic mob tale, is Wah’s interest in his fish-out-of-water cousin, often shielding her from the harsh realities of his street life. This is where Wong plays with his upcoming tropes: a Cantonese version of “Take My Breath Away” plays on repeat during its more tender moments, the camera focusing on the red light of the jukebox or slowing time to feel the emotional intensity of the lovers’ first kiss. However, he also feels at liberty to return to the gunfights with the same budding structure: low blue contrasts with the deep red romantic scenes, yet the slow-motion and close-ups recur to give the same level of intimacy.

The character dynamic manages to play out at the level of a soap opera: one character’s immediate emotive responses forcefully furthers the action and imbues a sense of duty to others. Ngor notices that Wah is returning disgruntled late one night, and asks if he just broke up with his girlfriend. In fact, he did, prompting him to lash out against Ngor, pinning her to a wall and later apologizing profusely. The character of Fly is embedded with that attitude throughout the film, only pumped with masculine excess as he skirmishes with a senior Mafioso, shoving his pistol into the gangster’s pants and shooting his genitals. His brashness, wonderfully played by Cheung, is nonetheless disappointingly attributed to his longing to be cool like his “big brother” Wah: “At least you were a hotshot for a while!” and “I’d rather be a hero for one day than a fly on the wall for the rest of my life” are the excuses given in the penultimate scene. Yet, as in all of Wong’s films, criticizing either narrative or character seems futile in the scope of Wong’s post-production talents: the film is less about recounting a story of Triad activity than it is using that story as a vehicle for the smaller moments of guns, lights, jukeboxes, and alcohol. Wong fetishizes what makes up the genre and crafts its constituents into a moody, atmospheric adventure.

— Zach Lewis

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7. 2046

If it was possible to think of the notoriously meticulous, slow-shooting Wong Kar-wai as even less leashed, that came to fruition with the gorgeous 2046, a loose relative to his masterpiece, 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Where the latter film was a hopelessly romantic excursion into impossible love, 2046  seemed an attempt to translate those feelings of passionate pining into something purely visual and nearly non-narrative.

Don’t be mistaken. There is a plot in 2046. Tony Leung Chiu Wai seems to reprise his Chow Mo-won role, while Li Gong is a Su Li-zhen replacement for Maggie Cheung.  Yet what was a playful, sometimes tragic whirlwind romance has been transformed into a languid longing whose major concern seems to be more color palette and composition than heterosexual relationship.

— Neal Dhand

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6. Days of Being Wild

Days of Being Wild is an emotional period piece that stands as one of Wong Kar-Wai’s greatest films, rivaled only by Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Following his impressive debut, As Tears Go By, this film established the trademarks of this great director: vivid visuals, aimless storytelling, offbeat and melancholic characters, wonderful use of slow-motion, innovative montage techniques, and a terrific soundtrack. Days of Being Wild is a landmark film and unfortunately has become obscenely overlooked, in part because Wong has continued to make great films in his career.

Days of Being Wild is a period piece set in Hong Kong and the Philippines in the 1960s. Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) is a James Dean-esque twentysomething who floats around Hong Kong breaking hearts without a second thought. We meet him in a shop, using his masculine wiles to seduce Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). She resists his advances at first but eventually gives in, only to have her heart broken. Yuddy repeats the process with a young, beautiful cabaret dancer named Mimi (Carina Lau), the object of Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung). Yuddy does a number on her, causing her to fall in a deep state of melancholia. Wong’s main character is a cruel man who inflicts pain on women because he has an raw emotional wound and breaking women’s hearts provide some sort of relief or payback.

It’s a bit strange that Wong would film such a despicable character with so much beauty. Yuddy is much more despicable than James Dean’s Jim Stark and yet, Wong created an exotic and nostalgic set of images and sounds to depict Yuddy’s emotional warpath against the pretty women of Hong Kong nightclubs in the 60s. But the wonderful images are coupled with a deep sense of despair and desire to regain what was once lost, namely Yuddy’s love from his mother. We find out that he was adopted by a Hong Kong prostitute (Rebecca Pan). We never see any flashbacks to his childhood but, like the rest of the film, the moment of emotional rejection is never shown, only the consequences.

Yuddy eventually decides to make the trip to the Philippines to find his biological mother. She is an aristocrat living in a big mansion with lots of servants and the like. Yuddy finds her, but she refuses to see him, either because she is uninterested or because she doesn’t want to face the son she abandoned so long ago. What follows is one of the best sequences of the film. Yuddy is turned away from the mansion, angry and dejected, walking fast down the road he came, all the while filmed in a continuous handheld shot, and Wong switches to slow-motion while the music from the opening credits plays. This sequence is both exquisite and sad, and encapsulates everything the film offers thematically in only 90 seconds.

Days of Being Wild ends in a strange way, showing us a character we haven’t been introduced to but who we will catch up with Wong’s seventh film, In the Mood for Love. This film is thus the beginning of an informal trilogy that finally ends with 2046.

— Cody Lang

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5. Ashes of Time

Not many directors are supplied with the time and funds necessary to release a second cut of one of their projects several years following its original theatrical release. Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Ridley Scott (AlienBlade Runner) are three such examples, as is Wong Kar-wai with his 1994 effort,Ashes of Time.

Taking place in a desert landscape in ancient China, Ashes of Time somewhat follows the story of a semi-retired swordsman (Leslie Cheung) called upon by various clients to assassinate certain targets. The hitch is that the protagonist calls upon the help of other bounty hunters to do his clients’ bidding. The term somewhat is employed because nothing about the picture’s plot is simple. Multiple stories of loves lost, a curiously muffled narrative flow, and oddly edited fight sequences are cobbled together to create what looks and sounds like a movie but left most people baffled back in 1994.Cut to 2008, when Wong released a digitally remastered cut, Ashes of Time Redux. Looking more brilliant than it had in almost 15 years, the film was only slightly more coherent the second time around, yet the pleasures remained the same as they do today. Even after multiple viewings of Wong’s romantic wuxia opus, several key plot-related queries will undoubtedly be left hanging loose.

The secret to enjoying the picture lies in the word romantic. Despite that Wong’s narrative structure in Ashes is obstinately confusing, there are more than enough moments of poetically tinged exchanges, gazes of longing and desire, musical cues, and sumptuous shots of the desert vista that help hammer home the swell of emotions to found and cherished.   Ashes is the sort of film that, to engage with it on any level, has to wash over you, in its sights, sounds, and unabashedly and classical romantic moments. Trying to decipher the throughline linking the revolving door of characters and motivations is virtually the worst manner in which to engage the picture, although first-time viewers will be forgiven for trying. Almost purely through visual and aural stimuli, Wong invites viewers to feel melancholic, mournful, and impassioned. Even considering his stunning propensity to accomplish just that in his other films, he does so with remarkable aplomb in Ashes of Time.

— Edgar Chaput
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4. Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels is a seedier companion piece to Chungking Express, the two films juxtaposing twin tales of unrequited connection and urban living. Both concern similar Hong Kong locales and share Takeshi Kaneshiro in a role that explicitly recalls his Chungking character in a cute way, but is otherwise completely different. Unlike in Chungking, the two stories of Fallen Angels interweave: one is a farcical tragedy about two obsessives, while the other is a brooding blend of violence and sexual frustration. The less romantic notions in comparison to its predecessor, alongside the resulting emotional swings of its interweaving tonal switches, may make it a less immediately lovable film for some than its companion piece; further viewings clarify the logic of the film’s structure.

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’ most striking feature is its cinematography, the film hosting what is perhaps frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle’s most dynamic work in terms of camera movement alone. The film also bears some of the director’s greatest use of potent melancholy and offhand witticisms. Fallen Angels, at least until 2046 and the foray into another language with My Blueberry Nights, was the riskiest film Wong Kar-Wai made, but the end result is what could well be his most exhilarating work as a whole.

— Josh Slater-Williams

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3. Happy Together

Wong Kar-Wai’s disjointed but visually luscious Happy Together follows the tumultuous relationship between a restless young gay couple (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The vignettes don’t add up to much; there is little dialogue, no back story, jagged editing, brief freeze frames, slow motion, shifts from colour to black and white, and abrupt transitions; but the stylistic choices perfectly mirror the tangled, cut-off lives of his characters, and reinforces the sense of isolation and displacement they feel. Aided by longtime collaborator and cinematography Christopher Doyle, Wong fragments his tale into sections and moments of mundane life. Every scene feels spontaneous, buoyant, familiar yet original. There’s no specific moment when the relationship begins nor ends, but structurally the film starts in Argentina and culminates on the other side of the world in Taipei – and even during their best moments spent together, the film’s characters always seem at opposite ends of the earth. It’s one of the greatest gay films ever made, giving Wong Kar-Wai the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival.

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2. In the Mood for Love

There is no better director in the world at depicting things not happening than Wong Kar-Wai, and In The Mood For Love is his moody, spellbinding masterpiece. The film tracks neighbors Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Chung) as they navigate loneliness in 1960s Hong Kong, drawn to each other as if to a beacon in the darkness. Though they suspect their spouses are involved in an affair, the two refuse to sink to their level, and their attraction remains unconsummated. The film has a lyrical, dreamlike pace and structure, depicting moments as if they surface from a sea of time, giving weight to glances and fragmentary interactions by displaying them as if they are being recalled from decades later. Though they would seem insignificant in the hands of any other director, or if they were not being performed by two of the greatest actors in the world, they become monuments to regret, totems of nostalgia tinged with sadness for what could never be. In The Mood For Love is an unspeakably beautiful, quietly devastating film that gets under your skin. It drifts through the lives of its characters until it guides viewers into their head space, forcing us to contend with their emotions even as we can feel their actions and delicate inactions resonate within ourselves. The film is a note-perfect depiction of unrequited love, of years spent yearning and desires destined to remain unfulfilled.

— Jordan Ferguson

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1. Chungking Express

Unquestionably Wong Kar-wai’s most iconic film, Chungking Express is a spontaneous and stylish delight perfectly capturing Hong Kong in all its overwhelming freneticism and the fatalistic romanticism of jilted love. It’s a testament to Kar-wai’s talent as a writer and director that he turns stories of a claustrophobically overcrowded Hong Kong into ruminations on isolation and loneliness. The story – or, rather, the two unconnected sections of the film – concerns two lovesick cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who cross paths at the Midnight Express restaurant stand where pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Although their stories are separate and Faye is the only tangible connection between them, they are paralleled in the tumultuous nature of their breakups and their subsequent soul-searching. The first story centers on He Qiwu, cop #223, who takes a deeply philosophical approach to his recent breakup. Every day for the month of April, he buys a can of pineapple with a sell-by date of May 1. If his ex-girlfriend doesn’t change her mind by the time he has bought 30 cans, their love and the pineapple will official expire. As this experiment begins, Qiwu pursues an ephemeral connection with a mysterious wig-wearing woman. The second section follows the chirpy Faye as she falls for unnamed cop #663 and takes it upon herself to keep his flight-attendant girlfriend’s breakup letter from him and use her discarded spare key to covertly redecorate his apartment.

The film is full of iconic images that stick in the mind: empty pineapple tins strewn across the table in a bizarre act of cleansing, “California Dreamin’” blaring in the narrow food stand, and Faye breaking into cop #663’s apartment just to clean it and add fish to his aquarium. Mood is the great takeaway from Wong Kar-wai’s films, and Chungking Express is a uniquely memorable exploration of the common journey of broken hearts. In this regard, his characteristic multilayered narrative works seamlessly. Add to that the sheer kinetic energy he and cinematographer Christopher Doyle infuse with restless hand-held camerawork and breathless editing, and Chungking Express is a vibrant triumph, a pop masterpiece.

— Katherine Springer

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