Even if he didn't wear sunglasses, smoke and drink Scotch, and say that the last Hollywood movie he liked was Picnic (1955), Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai would still have the distinction of being the coolest film director on the planet. That doesn't mean he's necessarily the most profound, innovative or technically accomplished, but he does excite people in a way that almost no one else does, with his sensationally romantic, lurid, beautiful and elegiac love stories, usually featuring memoir voice-over, and relentlessly creative visual energy.
Though he wears his influences obviously (Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard) and draws influences from other filmmakers, Wong's lonely, underpopulated Hong Kong universe is definitely one of his own creation. Since the loopy, elliptical, obtuse and inventive Chungking Express was first championed by Quentin Tarantino, the Hong Kong director has been an art-house favourite, a status he confirmed with the reserved and accomplished In the Mood For Love, released earlier this year. Next comes an untitled science-fiction work, involving humans and aliens in the year 2047, the 50th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China.
Toronto fans of Wong's recent work will have a rare opportunity over the next week when all seven of the director's films are shown in a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective, In The Mood for Wong Kar-wai. For several reasons, a Wong Kar-wai retrospective is a particularly useful exercise. The director has said, in effect, that all his movies are really one movie, exploring similar themes (loss, displacement, time, memory, refusal) and he uses the same actors repeatedly (Jackie Cheung, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung). He usually uses the same designer, William Chang, and cinematographer, the Australian expatriate Christopher Doyle, whose saturated colours and odd angles precisely complement Wong's anxious visual essays on loss, displacement and swooning romanticism.
Initially trained as a graphic designer, Wong spent two years as a writer on serial dramas in television, and six years (1982 to 1988) as a script writer for the Hong Kong film studio Cinema City. Eventually, he wrote three scripts of a gangster trilogy for Patrick Tam. One of those scripts became his own debut film As Tears Go By, the only time the determinedly off-the-cuff writer-director has followed a prewritten script.
Here are the films Cinematheque Ontario will screen:
As Tears Go By (1989) -- Essentially, Mean Streets in Hong Kong. A low-level gangster (Andy Lau) has a hot-tempered protégé (Jackie Cheung) who keeps getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out. The big-brother figure, ambivalent about rising in the ranks, falls in love with his cousin (Maggie Cheung).
Days of Being Wild (1991) -- Set in Hong Kong and the Philippines in 1961 (almost contemporaneous with In the Mood For Love) the film follows the exploits of a playboy, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), who sleeps with various women, takes money from his aunt and fitfully looks for his biological mother. Other characters include the snack-bar clerk (Maggie Cheung) who rejects and then haunts Yuddy, a dance-hall girl (Carina Lau) who pursues Luddy, a policeman (Andy Lau) who pursues the clerk, and Yuddy's best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung). The title in Chinese was the same as was used for Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause. Hong Kong seems bizarrely underpopulated, a conceit that Wong says was always his fantasy.
Ashes of Time (1994) -- Set in the desert, it's a movie that Wong describes as his attempt to sum up all the martial-arts epics, based on the characters from a pulp novel. Given the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's the sort of wuxia (swordplay) film that could enjoy a popular revivial. Though superficially his most uncharacteristic film, the themes of hit men, amnesia, and complex love triangles repeat throughout his work. Moody, surreal, filled with striking images and bafflingly elliptical battle scenes, it's a western on a mythic scale, featuring characters with names like Malicious West and Evil East, flashbacks, three interweaving narratives of betrayal and love with changing points of view.
Ou-yang Feng (played by Leslie Cheung), is the film's central figure who runs an inn in the desert and works as an agent for assassins, while trying to forget his love (Maggie Cheung), who married his brother. The separate stories include a mission in which he is hired by competing male and female twins (both played by Brigitte Lin). Another tale is about an assassin who is losing his sight, but is looking for one last job. The last story features another assassin (Jacky Cheung) who ties himself to a peasant girl (Charlie Yeung) who wants her brother's death avenged, but can pay only with a mule and some eggs.
Chungking Express (1994) -- The movie that defined Wong as the pop poet of the noir world of Hong Kong by night, with its malls, clubs, corporate towers and fast-food kiosks. Quickly conceived and shot, it's filled with odd humour and elliptical story-telling. There are two cops on the beat. One (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is obsessed with expiry dates and doesn't notice that the woman in the blond wig whom he meets (Brigitte Lin) is a murderous drug runner. The other (Tony Leung) is loved by the woman next door (Faye Wong), who secretly sneaks into his apartment, redecorates and changes labels on his food.
Fallen Angels (1995) -- A companion piece to Chungking Express, but more melancholy and nihilistic, Fallen Angels follows two interweaving stories. He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a mute who breaks into businesses at night and forces passersby to serve as customers; he falls for a woman (Charlie Yeung) bent on revenge for spurned love. Meanwhile, a hit man, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), awaits instructions from his agent (Michelle Ries), who secretly cleans his apartment out of love for him. Everyone feels they should be doing more with their melancholy lives.
Happy Together (1997) -- Leslie Cheung, as the wild destructive lover, and Tony Leung, as his embittered boyfriend, run away to Buenos Aires on the eve of Hong Kong's handover to China. Loosely based on a novel by Manuel Puig, and highly innfluenced by Godard (with a long quote from Breathless), the film is melancholy, garish and packs a strong emotional after-effect, with its theme of two beings struggling to accommodate despite differences appearing to be a metaphor for the handover. The film won Wong a best-director prize at Cannes.
In the Mood For Love (2000) -- Matinee-idol beautiful Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are a couple in early-sixties Hong Kong, thrown together when they discover their spouses are having an affair. Set-designed to the curl of a hair on a cheek and precise shades of blood red and golden yellow, the film revolves around food, miscommunications and near misses, in narrow apartment hallways where potential lovers brush by each other without ever quite connecting. All screenings are at Jackman Hall, the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. West, Toronto. Today at 8:45 p.m.: Days of Being Wild; Tuesday: Ashes of Time, As Tears Go By; Wednesday: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels; Thursday: Happy Together, In the Mood for Love. For more information: 416-968-FILM.