How Wong Kar-wai lost his way.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 3 2008 5:03 PM

WTF, WKW?

How Wong Kar-wai lost his way.

This week marks the American release of My Blueberry Nights, the first English-language film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Click here for a review by Slate's movie critic, Dana Stevens.

Wong Kar-wai. Click image to expand.
Wong Kar-wai

In 1991, when Wong Kar-wai released his dreamy 1960s period piece, Days of Being Wild, he wrote in the director's statement: "I really do not think it matters much if my films are critically well-received or not. What is essential is that I want my audience to leave the cinema having enjoyed the film, and that means the whole world to me." Imagine his frustration, then, when Days was released to resounding critical acclaim and complete commercial failure, as were his next four movies. At some point he must have decided to reverse the formula—valuing critical acclaim over audience enjoyment—because this week his first American film, My Blueberry Nights, arrives in the United States, and it's the cinematic equivalent of seeing Wong disappear up his own posterior, eased by gobs of critical praise.

Twenty years ago, his first movie, As Tears Go By, caught lightning in a bottle when Andy Lau pulled Maggie Cheung into a phone booth and passionately made out with her as a Cantonese cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" swelled on the soundtrack and the booth's fluorescent lights burned brighter and brighter until they seared the screen white. It was the first "Wong Kar-wai moment," and, in the six movies he made between 1988 and 1997, there would be many more: Faye Wong singing "Dreams" by the Cranberries in Chungking Express as a lovelorn cop sipped coffee in slow motion while the world hurled itself around him in fast forward; Frank Zappa's satirical "I Have Been in You" transformed into a breakup dirge in Happy Together; the Flying Pickets closing Fallen Angels with their rapturous cover of "Only You"; Tony Leung gearing up for a night of breaking hearts while Xavier Cugat's "Perfidia" cha-chas in the background of Days of Being Wild.

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Wong's movies showed how pop songs let us escape the world for a place where emotions are stronger, colors are brighter, and everyone can say exactly how they feel—but for only three minutes at a time. He blended the tragic transience of pop with an aching nostalgia for the eternally ending present, a uniquely Hong Kong attitude. Hong Kong is a city fascinated with the next new thing while simultaneously feeling as cramped and close-knit as a small town. (See Wong's Fallen Angels, in which a hit man escapes a bloody shootout only to run into a high-school classmate.) Most Hong Kongers live a short commute from where they grew up, and everyone knows everybody else, but development happens at the speed of light, and most people's childhood memories have been paved over by the time they're adults. Living in Hong Kong means experiencing a constant, low-level mourning for the way things used to be while rushing at breakneck speed into the future—a lot like living in a Wong Kar-wai film.

Wong, his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and his art director and editor, William Chang, improvised fast-on-their-feet movies that captured this spirit of Hong Kong. They often pushed the length of scenes beyond the point of the audience's patience, but their highs were so high and their lows so low that it was easy to forgive the sometimes tedious middles. Despite Wong's relentless commercial failure, he quickly became a major force on the Hong Kong filmscape, with his movies spurring trends, getting parodied, getting ripped off, hated, and loved.

After Wong won the best-director prize at Cannes for 1997's Happy Together, he took off in a radical new direction. In the Mood for Love (2000) was an oblique tale of a love affair between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and it was to movies what Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles was to rock: a clear marker that we were now in the land of the middle-aged and the married.In the Mood was technically accomplished, but previously Wong had mixed reflective stillness with kinetic movement, creating a volatile cinematic experience. In the Mood was all stillness and no movement—it didn't race, it swooned. A weepy violin piece took center stage, with dozens of period pop songs relegated to the background, little more than audio wallpaper. The headlong rush of youth was gone, replaced by the regret of adulthood. The King of Pop had left the building.

And the critical praise had never been louder. In the Mood for Love created a new Wong Kar-wai who was the darling of Cannes and a global brand name. But rather than being invigorated by the critical hosannas, he seemed to be paralyzed. He spent years shooting his follow-up, 2046, swiping characters and settings from In the Mood, and the film landed on screens limp and lifeless. Next came his short film The Hand, * set in this same 1960s pocket universe, full of cosmetics-caked harpies in lacquered beehives and Tony Leung (plus Tony Leung look-alikes) with oil shining in his hair, smoking endless cigarettes in the shadows.

Even his collaborators were getting bored. "I feel that 2046 is unnecessary, in retrospect," Christopher Doyle said to the Guardian. "I think probably Wong Kar-Wai realized that somewhere, and that's why it took so long. You do realize that you have basically said what you needed to say, so why say more? I think you have to move on."

But Wong couldn't move on. He had always been fascinated with his childhood in 1960s Shanghai and Hong Kong, and his post-2000 work has been an extension of Days of Being Wild—replicating its cinematography, sets, costume design, and characters. His latest, My Blueberry Nights, is set in contemporary America and should have been a new direction. But it comes off as desperate, playing like a greatest-hits version of his '90s filmography performed by an all-white cover band. His visual motifs of clocks and countertops, no longer carrying the shock of the new, feel as empty and shopworn as fashion advertisements.

Even his upcoming projects sound like more of the same. There's a reworked version of his 1994 martial-arts film, Ashes of Time, and while that film deserves the attention, rereleasing it is the decision of a director who's looking backward, not forward. Then he plans to shoot another preserved-in-aspic 1960s film, this time starring Nicole Kidman. For a director who specializes in long, rapturous close-ups of his actors, there's something suicidal in the idea of casting an actress with the least expressive face this side of Steven Seagal. The saddest thing is that the critics who say they love Wong's innovative style and creativity have been praising him for performing the same tricks again and again.

Wong Kar-wai's production company, Jet Tone, also seems to be in a middle-age slump. The actor Tony Leung, who has appeared in six of Wong's films, is managed by Jet Tone. But rather than letting Leung age gracefully, the company recently issued airbrushed publicity shots, giving the handsome, middle-aged actor the smooth, inexpressive face of a 12-year-old boy. Leung, in an interview a few years ago, acknowledged that he and Wong seemed to be trapped in a time loop. "For the past ten years I think we're doing the same movie, starting from Days of Being Wild to 2046 we're somehow doing the same thing. One time we [Wong and I] talked on the set and said we should do something different, at least for the audience." But all signs suggest that Wong can't find the energy to break out of his gilded cage. He still has the potential to be the world's most transcendent director, but wake me up when he stops repeating his past movies and attempts something—anything—new.

Correction, April 9, 2008: This article originally had the incorrect title for Wong Kar-wai's short film The Hand. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.

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