Wong Kar-wai  by Han Ong

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Wong Kar-wai, writer/ producer/director of Happy Together. Photo courtesy of Kino International.

Wong Kar-wai is the director of six films: As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and the film that won him the 1997 Cannes Best Director nod: Happy Together. His style can be summed up by the phrase “Romance Overdrive.” The colors in his films are lush and lurid, the camerawork (by longtime collaborator Chris Doyle) jittery as if swooning, and best of all, he loves his characters and builds his films from that foundation. His men are cool, his women kooky and beautiful. The psychology in the films is rarely deep, but that isn’t the point. He takes the ridiculous beauty of Hong Kong action films one step further: In those movies one simply waits for the next thrilling sequence of carnage and passes over the thin, unmemorable connecting sequences; in a WKW film, the time between gunshots is filled in, lengthened, allowing for boredom, rumination (in his films, characters trade voice-overs like kicking a ball around), a sense of real time he effects by repetition or focusing the camera on what appears to be a dormant scene. In other words, he puts in what other people leave out, or don’t bother to think about in the first place. His films are pitched like anomalous but memorable pop songs. And his themes? The eternal ones: Love, etc., Ships passing through the night. He makes hip audiences go along for the ride because the look of his films is jazzy and new: jigsaw editing, step-framed sequences of violence where the backgrounds are rendered watercolor washes, and of course, Mr. Doyle’s tied-to-the-back-of-a-monkey camerawork, all of which have become WKW signatures. Audiences eat them up, find them groovy. Whereas modern-day American moviemakers trade in the same themes but drench their films with irony so as to appear superior to the sentimentality of their Hollywood forebears, WKW goes about his work with conviction: he believes in the whole corny, primary- colored ball of wax. This results in work that is energized, unleaden, and free-spirited. An infusion of oxygen. And if you stack them against the rest of the field, it’s obvious that they are, indeed, the grooviest thing around.

Han Ong In the winter of 1994, the Rosemary Theater here in Chinatown did a retrospective of your work and I had the good luck of seeing all your films in chronological order. It was a great accident to see them all together. If you could look back at your body of work and pin down a “Wong Kar-wai signature,” even as far back as As Tears Go By, you already had the blurry, step-frame scenes of violence.

Wong Kar-wai As Tears Go By was my first film, and at that time John Woo had just made A Better Tomorrow and everybody in Hong Kong was making gangster films. I thought, “What else can I do?” So I made Days of Being Wild and borrowed its form from MTV.

HO When you say an MTV “form,” do you mean the quick cuts?

WKW Yeah, it’s more fragmented. Most of the filmmaking in Hong Kong, even now, is very lyrical, very smooth, and always very traditional. Of course MTV has become something very formulaic, but in the late eighties, when it was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction. About the step-printing process, in effect it’s an answer to John Woo’s use of slow motion. We did it in reverse and shot with a faster speed, which turned out to be something like step-printing.

HO Days of Being Wild has been described as a Chinese Rebel Without a Cause — have you heard this before?


HO It was a shorthand description a critic and friend used. It wasn’t meant to be definitive, but suggestive.

WKW The fact is that when Western films are shown in Hong Kong they have a Chinese title. The Chinese title of Rebel Without a Cause was Days of Being Wild.

HO So it was wrong of him to extrapolate from that that this was a Chinese version of Rebel Without a Cause.

WKW Yes. In fact that’s also the case in Happy Together. When Antonioni’s Blow Up was shown in Hong Kong the Chinese title was not exactly “happy together,” but “the first gleam of the spring light.” (laughter)

HO But when you appropriated the title Days of Being Wild — was there meant to be a slight reference? There are some surface similarities: it’s about good-looking young men…

WKW Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes “our faith,” which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean. They came from rich families, had nothing to do, they weren’t happy with their lives and were trying to be different. It was a typical ’60s symptom.

HO So the title was a means of getting at that time period. Another trademark of yours is the slow-mo tracking shot: of the palm trees swaying with that beautiful soundtrack in Days of Being Wild. I remember a guitar strumming as Leslie Cheung was walking into the shop where the soda girl worked. It’s very romantic. It’s lush in the way that perhaps young American filmmakers are afraid to be because it’s part of the legacy of the fifties’ studio films. Young American filmmakers’ response to that is to be hip and cynical. They don’t want to be seen as corny and syrupy. But you, on the other hand, do it, and you keep doing it, and do it with such faith in its power and with such love. In other words, you’re not winking.

WKW I make films mostly by instinct, and I tried to make the stories in Days of Being Wild in different styles: sometimes as in Hollywood B-movies where there’s a long take and it’s very melodramatic; and sometimes I just wanted to make it like a Bergman film with lots of close-ups. I had fun in Days of Being Wild. I really enjoyed it, although it was painful to make because we had so many problems and in the end it wasn’t a big commercial success. The producer didn’t make the sequel because he thought it was too risky. After my first film, As Tears Go By, everybody expected another very commercial film with the six hottest young idols in Hong Kong.

HO Who were also in Days of Being Wild?

WKW Right. And the image of the palm trees, like the waterfall in Happy Together — all these shots remind me of nature. People should be very humble towards the natural world. Fassbinder said, he tries to show change by showing something which never changes. In this case, the waterfall never changes, the people keep changing.

HO So it’s a contrast between the constant changing vicissitudes of life as manifested in the characters, and nature, which simply exists. After Days of Being Wild you were working on Ashes of Time, which actually took two years to complete. It’s been said that during that time you were frustrated and started working on Chungking Express as a way to clear your mind. Paradoxically, Chungking took a very short time between its conception and completion. Was Ashes of Time a project initiated by you or was it something your producers recommended—maybe after the commercial disappointment of Days of Being Wild it was something they felt would be easier for you—to have another commercial hit with a commercial genre.

WKW Of course that was the thinking of the producers. After Days of Being Wild it took me a while to find a producer who was willing to finance my film.

HO How long did that take?

WKW About a year. I had an idea to make a film about two women: the Evil East and the Malicious West. I borrowed these two characters from a novel by Louis Chua, The Eagle Shooting Hero, which is very popular. The producers suggested, “Instead of making a film about the two women, why not make the novel into a film?” I thought it would be fun. I’ve always wanted to make a costume drama.

HO When was this novel written?

WKW Around 1950. It is the most popular book, second only to The Little Red Book by Chairman Mao. Everybody knows about this novel, and when we were students we were crazy about it. But to make it into a film… after rereading it, I didn’t think I liked it that much. The two characters I had originally wanted to develop, the Evil East and the Malicious West, were still the only characters who interested me. And in the novel they are already seventy-something. I thought instead of making a film about these two old women, I’d begin to think of their younger days. So rather than rewriting the novel, I invented prologues to it. It took almost two years to finish this project.

HO For what reasons?

WKW We had ten of the most famous movie stars in Asia, and their schedules were impossible, and we were shooting in Hong Kong and in northern China, which is a desert. I was also the co-producer of the film, which was so painful. I had to think really carefully about every decision I made because it costs a lot of money and time. It’s not fun to make a film like this. After we completed the film and had finished the post-production, it was April already and we knew the film was going to compete in the Venice Film Festival at the end of September. That meant we had four months without anything to do, and I thought, I should have a holiday. So I made a film.

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Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

HO Your way of having a holiday is making another film?

WKW Yes, I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film. After Ashes of Time I decided that if I wanted to be a director, I had to know exactly what my space was in the market. If I was going to make big expensive films, that meant I had to face mass audiences. And not all of my material is for mass audiences.

HO That’s a key realization.

WKW You try to cope with the mass audience, but in fact you are not doing something for them—I would be fighting with myself. I thought, I don’t have to make big films, I can make small films that I can be happy with. I can find my own audience. So I made Chungking Express with a very low budget, and we made the film very quickly, only six weeks from the idea to the edit.

HO Was the script written in process, or was it written before the production began?

WKW As a writer, I always have some short stories in my mind which have not yet developed into a script, and I just picked out three and said, “Okay, let’s start shooting.” I wrote in the daytime and we shot at night. We were shooting in chronological order.

HO So you wrote the movie as you went along, you didn’t hodgepodge it, or skip around and decide later in the editing room that this was the order? You already knew?

WKW I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, but I knew what had happened today. After I finished a day of shooting, then I knew what would happen next. We were going step by step, and because I had so much fun making the first part, I made the film too long. So I skipped the third story.

HO The third story became Fallen Angels. Of all your films my favorite is Chungking Express. What stays in my mind is its romantic quality, the protagonist’s voice-over in the beginning of the film: When he bumps into Brigitte Lin in the marketplace and says, “I was this close to the woman I would fall in love with 24 hours later.” Physical proximity is going to translate into an emotional proximity. The lushness of that romanticism, without being corny, was like a very good pop song.

WKW But for me it is very Chinese. In Chinese there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like “chances.” It means: Why am I sitting here having this interview with you instead of somebody else? Why should we meet here? This is about chances, and I think all my films are about chances.

HO What I was referring to was the highly romantic nature—not just that it’s coincidence, meeting and not meeting which is part of living in a large city—but the treatment, which to me was very atypical of most of the Hong Kong movies which treat romance in a giggly way. I cringe watching them. But somehow in your film I felt myself opening up. It wasn’t embarrassing, in fact, far from it, it was a great pop song with a refrain that stayed in your mind.

Whereas Chungking was sunshiny and suffused with bright, lovely daytime colors, Fallen Angels is more about neon, and night time, and grunge. It’s also the difference between the ingenue of Fay Wang and the eyeshadow-wearing German chanteuse aura of Michelle Reis, who plays the booking agent.

WKW You’re right, because to me Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long. I always think these two films should be seen together as a double bill. In fact, people asked me during an interview for Chungking Express: “You’ve made these two stories which have no relationship at all to each other, how can you connect them?” And I said, “The main characters of Chungking Express are not Fay Wang or Takashi Kaneshiro, but the city itself, the night and day of Hong Kong. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong.” I see the films as inter-reversible, the character of Fay Wang could be the character of Takashi in Fallen Angels; Brigitte Lin in Chungking could be Leon Lai in Fallen Angels. All of their characters are inter-reversible. Also, in Chungking we were shooting from a very long distance with long lenses, but the characters seem close to us.

HO Would that account for the freshness and intimacy with which the actors interacted with each other?

WKW Yes. And in Fallen Angels the characters were shot with an extremely wide angle. The camera is very close to the actors, but they seem far away. The purpose of the cameras in both films is that they are just like civilian cameras.

HO Like surveillance.

WKW Yes, they are always there watching people’s behavior. In fact, they are the other main characters in the film. The purpose is the same, but we’re using different approaches: Chungking is so far but so close; Fallen Angels is so close but so far.

HO That’s very enlightening, because for me Chungking seemed much more expansive, more airy. And what I got from it was joy. I felt so transported watching it, even though I had to get used to your sense of timing. These languorous moments fill out the body of the film and are interspersed with sudden ventings or bursts of violence, people chasing each other on the street, and that great montage of Brigitte Lin organizing the dope smuggling with the Indian family. They’re great bursts and then you see these longeurs where nothing much happens and your sense of time gets distended—particularly in the latter half of the film when it’s primarily about Fay Wang developing a huge crush on Tony Leung. It makes sense now that you say you were shooting the actors from far away. There’s a nice feeling of not being intruded upon; but in Fallen Angels I get cramped.

WKW As I said, the main character in these two films is the city, the Midnight Express fast food shop, because if that shop could talk… It’s always there but the people keep changing.

HO I don’t know if I buy that. I say this not out of any disrespect, but it underestimates the vibrancy, the charisma of specific actors. The idea may be the abstract concept of this inanimate object being passed into and out of by different characters, but what you end up responding to are the lives you see embodied by those characters.

WKW Of course, people are more affected by actors or acting. But as a filmmaker, I need some logic. And this was my logic in making these two films, and how I connected these stories and these films together. People say my films don’t have any plot or storyline, but in my logic there is a storyline.

HO The constant being the place, and then the idea of ships passing through the night.

WKW Yes.

HO Let’s talk a bit about Fallen Angels. My response to Fallen Angels, as I said, is set up by the idea of night and day, or light and dark. I lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and I moved to New York three years ago. With that move, my tastes in film and music and everything changed considerably. I would probably love Fallen Angels if I still lived in L.A., but now that I live in New York, where joy is in such short quantity—where you ride the subway and people’s faces are so downcast, living billboards of discontent—it seems that Fallen Angels is a redundant reminder of that. When I was living in L.A., I wanted unhappiness. To balance my diet. That’s why I used to love Fassbinder, he seemed to have a predetermined goal to be unpleasant. Now I respond more to Chungking’s sunshine than I do to the grunge of Fallen Angels.

WKW I asked you before if you like sweet things.

HO I do, I love ice cream. And it’s a recent thing, I never used to have a sweet tooth.

WKW Mmm-hmm.

HO So, that’s my spiel about light and dark.

WKW Yes, the light side and the dark side, this is one of the reasons that I made Fallen Angels. It’s fair to show both sides of a coin.

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Brigitte Lin and Takashi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.

HO What I responded to in Fallen Angels were the groovy parts: The scenes where Leon Lai plays the hitman and he’s walking to his assignments with the Massive Attack soundtrack.

WKW I wanted to use Massive Attack’s music, but it was too expensive, so I asked my composer in Hong Kong to do something like Massive Attack.

HO Well it’s very successful. It’s an iconic, cool moment. People might criticize it as being synthetic or…

WKW I like the term synthetic. In fact, his part is synthetic. It is my impression of Leon Lai, who is a very professional actor—so professional that he works everything according to the arrangement of his manager. So I thought I should put his character in this form. If he’s going to kill somebody, he must behave like a killer. Everything is image. And his character is incapable of communicating, of contact with real people. Even with his schoolmate…

HO Who he bumps into on the bus.

WKW Yes, but he’s embarrassed. He’s so good at killing, but he’s kind of lost in that moment. He doesn’t know how to react, because the manager didn’t arrange this meeting. It took him by surprise. And he hates surprise.

HO But in the end, the irony is that he is surprised because his life has ended in an assignment.

WKW Or maybe he’s predicted something like that. If you are a killer, you have to predict that somehow you will end up being killed. It’s an arrangement. The whole thing is about arrangement: A very obedient guy who works according to schedule and doesn’t want surprises.

HO The other thing I responded to was the slapstick humor, the female character going from floor to floor and screaming out, trying to prevent the wedding between her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. Again, it’s both the humor and the coolness that refers back, for me, to Chungking. A new element in Fallen Angels is the introduction of a longing for family. In Chungking, the characters seem so self-contained, so young, so much of the present. They didn’t suggest a past where families were involved. They were loners.

WKW I don’t agree with that.

HO You don’t?

WKW In Days of Being Wild the main character is going back to the Philippines to find his family. And in As Tears Go By, the gangster character goes back to visit his family before he goes to kill somebody.

HO I stand corrected.

WKW But the father figure is new, because in As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, it’s the mother figure. Takashi’s father in the film, in fact, is the manager of the place where we were shooting, the Chungking Mansion guesthouse. I met him when I made Chungking Express, and he’s a very decent, very quiet man. He took care of us. And I was very curious about this guy, because he could not speak Cantonese, he speaks Taiwanese dialect. I thought, why is he working as a night manager in a guesthouse in Hong Kong? There must be a story behind it.

HO We still haven’t really talked about Happy Together. You won the Best Director award for it at Cannes. That’s a big deal.

WKW No no no. In fact, it makes no difference, it’s just something you can put on an ad.

HO Happy Together moved me very much—God, I hate reading words like that, “moved me very much.” But I’ve heard Christopher Doyle, your collaborator and cinematographer, describe it as your most linear, straightforward work.

WKW Yes, I told him this film should be very straightforward, because after Chungking and Fallen Angels, people expected fragmented films. And there are so many young filmmakers doing things like that now in Asia. We had to move on. There’s no point staying there forever. And also, the topic of this film—in the last three or four years there’ve been some films about gay relationships made in Hong Kong and Asia, and somehow the characters were either treated too delicately, or as a joke. Sometimes it was too aggressive, like a character saying: I’m gay and you’re straight so you don’t like me and I don’t like you. I don’t like this kind of attitude. So I thought if we’re going to make a film about two men, I wanted it to be as straightforward as possible. Just treat it as two people, that’s it.

HO Why Buenos Aires?

WKW I didn’t want to make a film about Hong Kong in 1997. After we made the film, we knew that it was not about Buenos Aires, but was somehow more related to Hong Kong. So instead of calling it “Buenos Aires Affair,” which was its working title and would have been very exotic but misleading, we called it Happy Together. Maybe you think that is kind of cynical…

HO No. I didn’t respond to it as cynical at all; to me it was what they could have been but weren’t. By the end, the film achieves a great melancholy power. It’s also about the pop world of love, ships passing in the night, and the wonderfully lush moments, this time transposed to a different country and a homosexual context.

WKW To me, Happy Together applies not only to the relationship between two persons, but also the relationship between one person and his past. If people are at peace with themselves and their past, this is the start of being able to be happy with somebody else.

HO And that somebody else could possibly be Chang, the third character who gets introduced?

WKW Yes.

HO I responded strongly to Chang. When he entered the scene a little after halfway through the movie, the spirits of the film seemed to lift, in the same that Fay Wang was…

WKW Fresh air.

HO Yes, it’s a break from the masochistic affair between these two guys. (pause) At what point in your life did you decide you were going to be a director?

WKW The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies. Somehow I think I enjoy being involved in this business. I started as a scriptwriter and one day one of the producers asked me, “Do you want to make a film?” And I became a director.

HO Just like that he asked you? Did he see something in you or was it mere convenience?

WKW There were two reasons: I had been working for him for two years and he knew me well; and it was right after A Better Tomorrow, and the situation in the Hong Kong film industry had become very prosperous. That year we produced two hundred films.

HO What year was that?

WKW 1988. So they needed more directors and more young faces, and I got the chance.

HO Who are the directors that you like?

WKW The list changes from day to day, but I don’t think it’s fair to mention them.

HO You’re not going to mention any names?

WKW No names.

HO Are you sure? We can preface this by saying, this is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s not meant to be definitive; it’s not meant to crowd out anybody who you forget, conveniently or inconveniently, at the present moment. (laughter)

WKW No names.

HO I tried.

Han Ong is a high school dropout turned playwright. He was named a 1997 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Born and educated in Manila, he is the author of a first screenplay, Cantonese Pop Star, which he will direct in 1998.

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Originally published in

BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

Read the issue
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