CINESPHERE: Whatever Happened to Wong Kar-Wai?


Wonk-Kar Wai started making films in the late 80s. However, it was the 90s that he really knocked it out of the park. He had a string of movies including DAYS OF BEING WILD, CHUNKING EXPRESS, FALLEN ANGELS and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE which established him as one of the world’s most interesting, and active, auteurs. And then it all started to fade away. So much so, that many a film fan, including myself, started to ask themselves “whatever happened to Wong-Kar Wai?”

Before I get more into that question, I want to go back and point out why it matters. I want to revisit CHUNKING EXPRESS and talk about why this film is so special. When it came it out 1994, the only reason many people had heard of it was Quentin Tarantino. Not only was he a huge personal fan, it was his short-lived, specialized distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures which, with the help of MIramax, put in on American screens.

If you have never seen CHUNKING EXPRESS, you need to. It is a breezy explosion of color and movement which feels like a Godard film set in the hyper-western/Chinese capitalist world that was Hong Kong at that turn of the millennium. That is not to say it has the same themes or intellectual depth of a Godard film by any stretch. In fact, many people consider CHUNKING EXPRESS a triumph of style over substance. It’s an easy argument to make given the in-your-face, kinetic imagery and use of color by Wong and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. However, I don’t think it gives the movie nearly enough credit for capturing small, but insightful, moments of what it’s like to be in love or to be a human in a world with other things on its mind.

That film put Wong Kar-Wai on the map in a way his previous movies had been unable to. Particularly in America. He cemented that position with a quick sister piece to CHUNKING EXPRESS called FALLEN ANGELS. Very similar to CHUNKING EXPRESS, ANGELS captured the same combination of relaxed plot and high-energy visuals. It’s not the revelation CHUNKING EXPRESS was and, honestly, just not as good. However, those that dismiss it as CHUNKING LITE are doing the film a grave disservice. It’s a cool movie, worth watching with its own flaws and rewards.

That film was followed up by HAPPY TOGETHER. It’s fine movie and won Wong a Best Director award at Cannes. Basically, it’s love story about a troubled relationship. But, at least for me, it is a let down from the two movies which proceeded it. However, in hindsight it may be significant in a much different way. It was the bridge between CHUNKING EXPRESS and the much more epic, subtle and insanely beautiful film, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, which Wong ended the decade with.

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is frequently sited as one of the best films of all time in many critics surveys. And, rightfully so. It’s a story of love and yearning set in 1960s Hong Kong. However, rather than the laser beam light show of CHUNKING EXPRESS, the visuals are long, languid and lush. The sort of imagery that feels hyper-real and dream like rather than like outtakes from a music video. The performances by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are subtle but super-charged. A glance. A gesture. A way of holding their bodies. It all came down to stuff like this to express an overpowering emotion which was not allowed to be expressed otherwise. In a nutshell, it’s fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, go fix that, right now. If you have, go see it again. It’s probably been far too long.

It was after IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE that it started to happen. Wong Kar-Wai’s fade out began. It started slowly, at first. He followed up the success of LOVE with 2046. The film was billed as the third and final in a loose trilogy containing DAYS OF BEING WILD and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. It’s set in the year that Hong Kong officially becomes fully integrated into with China. It has a very different feel, however, than either of those film. It’s not a bad film, by any stretch. It just fails to live up to the high bar of LOVE and had this misfortune of being a very troubled and expensive production. Something which would start to be associated more and more with Wong’s name.

After 2046 there was the ill-advised short Wong made for EROS. A project that also featured short films by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. And then it started to go really bad.

In 2007 Wong released his first English language film, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. It starred singer Norah Jones and as far as I know, has never had a single nice thing said about it. By most people’s accounts the film is a disaster on all fronts.

Then came 2013’s GRAND MASTER. It’s the story of martial arts master Ip Man. Sort of. It was considered by some people at the time to be Wong’s most accessible film. It was also expensive. Given the fact that very few people, even film fans, even remember it coming out, it is not considered by most people to be one of Wong’s finer works.

And then there was “development hell,” American-style. Wong was attached to all sorts of projects for a while, none of which ever came to pass. The most notable was a series for Amazon called TONG WARS. It was to be an epic telling of the history of Chinese gangs in San Francisco. He was also, at one point, supposed to replace Ridley Scott on a film about the murder of M. Gucci which never got made.

And then, finally, it looked like Wong was about to make another film. Not only that, but a project that seemed like it might be a throw back to his earlier, more personal work. The project was called BLOSSOMS. It was described as being similar to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046. It looked like it was actually going to happen. For real. Wong’s first feature film since 2013. Then Covid-19 hit. The project is currently on hold.

So, what is it with this guy? Why is this guy who was held up as one of the world’s great filmmakers twenty years ago unable to get a movie made? Think of the irony of being young and physically fit enough to still make movies as Criterion plans a restored boxed set of your films celebrating your genius yet not being able to get another movie made. There were even plans that Wong’s earlier films would be restored and shown theatrically again. However, that was before the impact of Corona was felt. So, we’ll see on that one.

But I digress. Why can’t Wong Kar-Wai get another movie made? Well, some of it IS bad luck. Nobody could have seen Cornona impacting the film industry (and world) as it has. Nobody can do much when the person that greenlit your project at Amazon is is fired in a sex scandal and your project is brushed aside by his successor. Yet, some of the blame is clearly Wong’s.

Wong Kar-Wai has always had a high-risk approach to making movies. His best movies didn’t really have scripts so much as detailed notes. The amount of takes he does borders on insane. And the resulting shooting ratio is out of control. Many actors loath working him because of this process. And, even under the best of circumstances, it isn’t a very economically efficient way to make a movie.

All of which is fine of that chaos and randomness leads to a finished product like IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Not so much with THE GRANDMASTER or, God forbid, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.

Which leads to the other related issue. As Wong accepts expensive projects from international film studios, he is surely getting pressured to work in a more rational, predictable way. So far, that tug of war on making films in a more traditional way has lead to the worst of all worlds. The projects are still expensive but have none of the magic of something like CHUNKING EXPRESS. Something which Wong might have finally understood himself. BLOSSOM was the great hope for a return to the Wong Kar-Wai of old and now that looks like it might not even happen.

So, where exactly does that leave us? I’ll tell you were. Eagerly waiting for that Criterion set and hoping they show those restored movies in a theater again in a world were seeing movies is once again normal. Wong Kar-Wai may have another great movie or two left in him. And maybe, someday, he’ll get to make them. However, let’s not lose site of the movies that he’s already made. It’s a body of work that still holds up and, if anything, seems more remarkable in the context of the current age. The man made some great movies. Period.

So, yeah, it will suck if he never gets to make another movie. But in the meantime, we can watch CHUNKING EXPRESS over and over again. And maybe, one day, even sit in a movie theater again with other humans and see a restored 4k version of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE on the big screen. Given the state of the world as I write this, that seems like more than enough to look forward to.


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