Back in February we enjoyed a mini film festival at ACMI, Love & Neon: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai. As advertised here on the wall of the Tinpot Cafe.
As you can see it was meant to finish in March but has been extended by popular demand to 31 May. I loved them so recommend you check them out. The only one I knew about was In the Mood for Love and then only from reviews – which were mostly ecstatic. Apart from that I didn’t know much about the director – born in Shanghai in 1958, moved to Hong Kong in 1963, worked in television and as a screenwriter before directing his first film in 1988, has now made eleven all up.
He’s now famous for having crafted a cinematic universe that’s instantly recognisable (quotes all from the ACMI website). Despite being in completely different genres – gangster, melodrama, sci-fi and historical – sometimes mixed in the same film – they all have a distinctive look and feel. Very cinematic, stylised, full of striking images evoking heightened emotional responses in the viewer. Realistic cinema this is not! Claustrophobic interiors, crowded streets, panoramic landscapes, glorious colours, brutal/beautiful close ups, scenes framed through windows, doorways, reflected in mirrors, through car windows, silhouettes, a focus on clocks, on food, on what people are doing – playing cards, cutting a dress, typing – striking action sequences, perfect immobility, stillness, lots of smoking, heavily made up women – bright lipsticks, garishly polished nails – perfectly tailored men with oiled hair – exquisitely tailored clothes on both men and women. He uses the same actors in his films – all of them very attractive. As the programme says he elevates cinema from mere storytelling … offering a genuinely cinematic space; a city so real … populated by beautiful stars navigating love, heartbreak and all the longing in-between. I’d call it sumptuous, voluptuous film-making. Of the eleven films screened we saw eight.
In The Mood For Love
Made in 2000 and probably his most famous; it won an award at Cannes. It stars my favourite of his male leads, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and the very beautiful Maggie Cheung. The programme includes a quote from the magazine Film Comment describing it as intoxicating, as exquisitely nuanced, and as luxuriously sad as movies get. Set in 1960s Hong Kong; a claustrophobic place of crowded apartment buildings, tiny take away food places, narrow laneways and hallways, indoor and outdoor staircases. We are in the heart of old Hong Kong where neighbours have to press against walls to let each other pass; where the inhabitants of a boarding house form a close community and nothing is private. Two discover their spouses – who remain unseen – are having an affair. Painful politeness morphs into intimacy that is not acted upon – we will not be like them! So much repressed emotion! Mournful eyes, pregnant silences, fleeting glances. She is always alone – in a house full of of the sounds of people enjoying life, walking down the same narrow stairs to the hole in the wall noodle place every night to get her take away dinner. Wearing a different beautiful, figure-hugging, high necked cheongsam each night. So lonely, so sad. But not ready or willing to accept the solace offered by Tony Leung Chiu-wai. He of the sad, soulful eyes, crisp white shirts, endless cigarettes. So much unsaid, so much longing, so much thwarted desire. Beautifully filmed by Australian cinematographer Christoper Doyle; in mirrors, through doorways and windows, in the pouring rain. Nothing happens – so don’t expect that! But I loved every emotionally charged minute of it. Here’s the trailer.
Now for something completely different – a kung fu action movie. Who would have thought for a minute I would love this just as much! But it’s not so different in sensibility from In The Mood For Love. There’s an emotionally charged love story in between the incredible fight scene set pieces and some amazing tableaus that look like paintings. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai again – he of the expressive eyes and ability to be so still but say so much! He is playing Ip Man (what a funny name), the real life Wing Chun (a type of kung fu) master and Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher. This time his romantic partner is a female kung fu expert, Gong Er played by the very beautiful Zhang Ziyi. She has learnt her particular form of kung fu from her father – beautiful scenes of a child and old man in the snow, passing on these age old lessons. Later there is a funeral for the old man; again set in snow with banners flapping in the icy cold. And there is a wonderful set piece fight scene between her and Tony inside a beautifully appointed building – up and down stairs, slow motion, acrobatic movements. Incredible. Wonderful as these scenes are, it is the story which engages. When the Japanese occupy China all of the kung fu adherents flee to Hong Kong; leaving family and livelihoods behind. While Ip Man chooses to teach his form of kung fu, Gong Er refuses to pass on the secrets of her school. It’s not so much about fighting but about the philosophy of kung fu. It took ten years to make and the cast spent a year learning kung fu which gives those scenes deep authenticity. Quite stunning and beautifully done. Here’s the trailer.
Ashes of Time Redux
A grand, historical tale set mostly in a sweeping expanse of yellow desert with undulating sand dunes and distant purple hills. Sands swirl around characters dressed in flowing linens and silks. Mysterious characters who are woven into a strange kaleidoscope of a narrative. It took him years to make, originally released in 1994 and then revisited a decade later – hence the Redux. Leslie Chung plays the role of a jaded, lone swordsman – a gun for hire – living alone on a tiny hill-top midst the sand. Maggie Cheung is the woman who didn’t wait for him and for whom he still yearns. Flashbacks tell the story. Visual poetry. Visitors seek assistance from our lone ranger on his hill-top. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, almost unrecognisable is a blind swordsman, is one such. We get to see his back-story too – a horse, a beautiful woman, a story that sounds the same as the lone swordsman’s. It’s hard to follow who’s who and how they inter-relate but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes our lone swordsman provides assistance, more often he doesn’t. He’s like a monk dispensing wisdom and practical advice – sometimes heeded, sometimes not. Stunning set pieces draw you in – by no means confined to sword fights although there are a few of those. It brings to mind any number of American Westerns; The Magnificent Seven, The Unforgiven. Elegiac, poetic, dream-like, mysterious, beautiful. Here’s the trailer.
The Hand (Director’s Cut)
It’s hard to find this film on the internet because it was part of a work containing three short films called Eros. We saw an extended version – hence the director’s cut in the title. Another tale of repressed desire along the lines of In The Mood For Love. We’re in the same claustrophobic streets of Hong Kong. This time in a tailoring business where young men, bossed over by the master tailer, all wearing just white singlets in the stultifying heat of the place, make beautiful clothes. These are mostly cheongsams in all sorts of fabrics and colours, some with exquisite beaded patterns. A young man delivers a package to the mistress of a rich man. He’s made to wait and listen outside the door. The courtesan gives him a taste of her sexual skills – using her hand. He is smitten for life. She’s played by the beautiful Gong Li. Time passes; she slowly, inexorably slides down the social scale. The shy tailor’s assistant played by Chang Chen stays loyal. There is a heart rending scene, when, alone in the tailors shop, he caresses the dress he has sewn for her. Sad, sad film. But beautiful. Here’s the trailer.
Days of Being Wild
We’re still in Hong Kong in the 1960s but this time with a very different lead role; played by Leslie Cheung. He’s Yuddy, a ruthlessly amoral young man who wins hearts and callously misuses his conquests. Hard to make such a character sympathetic. It helps that he is so handsome. His problem is he’s been abandoned by his mother (it’s always the mother’s fault); effectively sold off to an adoptive mother of whom he is scornful. There are three inter-connected stories. Yuddy seduces an innocent young stadium ticket seller, Maggie Cheung but then refuses to take things further after she moves in with him. She takes to walking in the streets around his apartment late at night where she forms an attachment to a lonely policeman. Yuddy takes up with a showgirl and treats her just as badly but she is made of sterner stuff and won’t take no for an answer. When Yuddy travels to the Phillipines in search of his birth mother she follows. By chance Yuddy meets the policeman, now a sailor. After his second parental rejection Yuddy gets involved with some local underworld figures who chase him and the sailor on a train. With Yuddy disaster is never far away. It sounds mixed up; and is, but at the same time was quite absorbing. Thanks to the performances – great. And to the cinematography – beautiful. In the final scene we see Tony Leung Chiu-wai, in a sparsely furnished room carefully dressing for a night out – as his character in In The Mood For Love. The film ends with him turning off the light and closing the door. This, along with the presence of Maggie Cheung as one of Yuddy’s conquests, has led to this film being seen in the first of trilogy associated with that later film made a decade later. Very opaque, but there’s no explanation of Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s presence. Here’s the trailer.
This is described as the visually dazzling and emotionally charged conclusion to what is now called a trilogy – Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love being the other two. This makes more sense because there are now overt connections to the earlier films. We are back with Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s character from In The Mood For Love. He’s been in Singapore (alluded to in the earlier film) but is now back in Hong Kong in a hotel room, 20146 the same number as one in the earlier film. He has a relationship with a character from Days of Being Wild; a relationship that is the reverse of repressed – full of passionate (exhausting) love-making. He’s writing a science fiction story, called 2046, about a train journey that can take the broken hearted back to recover lost memories. The candy coloured, dreamscape world of the train where a young man attempts to carouse and sleep his way out of heartbreak with his showgirl neighbour is accompanied by wonderful music. These moments are interspersed with Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s in the real world. He breaks up his relationship, tries to reconnect with Mrs. Chan from In The Mood For Love – just missing by moments as she has missed reconnecting with him in Singapore (which we see in flashback). It’s all very haunting. And sad. Here’s the trailer.
This was different again. He made it while having a break from making his period drama Ashes of Time, working guerrilla style (no permits, no licences to shoot) in the streets of Hong Kong for just three months. The programme called it a dizzying candy-coloured, genre mash-up full of chance encounters, romantic infatuation and daydreams full of anarchic energy. It takes a while to work out what is going on and by the time you do the film has moved on to the next story. There are two distinct ones; both involving policemen and both centred around a food stall in Chungking Mansions (I only know that from another review). To start we are following a woman in a blonde wig and fawn trench coat – a clichéd femme fatale if ever there was one – setting up a drug smuggling exercise. It looks like this will be the focus. At the same time we are introduced to a policeman having romantic troubles; he’s buying pineapples with a use by date of 1 May when, if she hasn’t come back he will know it’s over. In the meantime he jogs (ridiculously) and makes telephone calls that are not answered using the phone near the food stall. Eventually these two meet up – but not as expected. Then we move right along to the next story this time focussing on another policeman, played by Tony Leong Chiu-wai, who comes there every day to get lunch for his flight attendant girlfriend, who then breaks up with him, leaving him desolate. The owners young cousin, newly working in the stall takes a shine to him. She’s obsessed with the Mama’s and Papas California Dreamin’ which becomes a key part of the soundtrack. She becomes increasingly obsessed, eventually finding her way to his apartment, without his knowledge and rearranging his things. All quite humorous and engaging. But I missed the emotional depths! Although it has a very nice ending where everything comes together for the Tony Leong character and his tormenter. Here’s the trailer. Although I think the film is captured better in this clip.
His first English language film. I liked it quite a lot and thought all the actors were terrific – Jude Law and Norah Jones, both looking gorgeous but with not a lot to do. Also Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz. Wong Kar Wai called it a road movie about the soul. It’s certainly a road movie but there wasn’t enough soul really. He made the film for Norah Jones and she does look gorgeous in the hundreds of close ups of her face. But she doesn’t do much more than observe the people with whom she comes into contact. People in cafes, bars and casinos. She’s regular at Jude Law’s cafe in New York but when she discovers her boyfriend has been two timing her she takes to the road. It was all a bit fanciful. and clichéd The drunk with a heart of gold etc. The best bit was with Natalie Portman in Las Vegas. Finally she gets back to New York to discover Jude and his blueberry pie were all that she really wanted. lso were good in it, which was not the critics view. Still, not a patch on his others – which was the view at Cannes in 2007. Here’s the trailer.