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Wong Kar-Wai: Celebrating Celluloid and Sad Songs

Photo of Wong Kar-wai

Among the glittering firmament of revered and influential international filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai is arguably one of cinema’s brightest stars. The Hong Kong auteur has a small but far-reaching body of work — just 10 feature films — that have cemented him in the canon of must-watch filmmakers for any cinephile, young and old.

His trademark sensuous visuals, unforgettable musical cues, and enduring romantic themes have resonated deeply with movie-goers around the world and through the decades. Along the way, WKW (as he is sometimes known) has transformed perceptions of Hong Kong cinema indelibly.

His diverse and eclectic tastes have deeply infused his work and style with unique sounds. From mid-century Latin American beats to ‘90s pop ballads and timeless classical melodies, there is often a key piece that highlights a pivotal emotional scene or underlines a moment with apt lyrics. And, of course, some of his film titles are references to songs.

Below is a brief overview of Wong’s incredible filmography while touching upon some of the music that elevated each work.

As Tears Go By/旺角卡門 (1988)

Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s crime flick Mean Streets, As Tears Go By stars Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung as a pair of low-level triad members and close friends, Wah and Fly, while Maggie Cheung Man Yuk plays Lau’s love interest and cousin, Ngor. Over the course of the film. Lau’s protagonist is pulled in two different directions by his association with his combative and troublesome friend and by his budding romance with his sweet cousin.

The film made an immediate splash in Hong Kong. It was nominated for several Hong Kong Film Awards, nabbing wins for art direction and Jacky Cheung’s supporting role. Wong was also nominated for best director at the Golden Horse Awards. This well-received drama held the title of Wong’s highest-grossing film in Hong Kong for 25 years until the release of The Grandmaster.

As Tears Go By also marks the first instance of Wong’s transformative use of a needle drop. In the memorable sequence when Wah decides to pursue Ngor, the grimy and violent world of gangsters dissolves as a Cantopop rendition of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” plays. Swooning covers of Western hits and a nascent dreamy visual style would go on to become part of Wong’s signature flair.

Days of Being Wild/阿飛正傳 (1990)

An immediate departure from the standard gangster fare of Hong Kong cinema, Wong’s sophomore feature Days of Being Wild is a sultry period piece, which allowed him to fully lean into his signature style. It is also his first collaboration with director of photography Christopher Doyle, who would go on to shoot six more movies with Wong.

The film features many of Hong Kong’s biggest stars of the time — Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, Carina Lau, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai — and includes the return of Wong’s As Tears Go By cast — Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, and Jacky Cheung. A complicated series of love triangles, a man’s search for his birth mother, and a stylish 1960s Hong Kong offer up a darkly romantic and moody story that expands to other international influences.

The movie’s soundtrack is filled with Latin American music, which permeated Wong’s childhood, thanks to imports from the Philippines into Hong Kong. It offers a greater glimpse into the multicultural confluence of taste and culture that makes the island so unique. Days of Being Wild captures a fascinating slice of the crowded city — intriguing, sexy, and mysterious.

Chungking Express/重慶森林 (1994)

In the midst of an arduous and drawn out production of wuxia epic Ashes of Time, Wong found himself in need of something light and fun to film during a two-month break. Thus Chungking Express was born — a duology about young love, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and elfin pop idol Faye Wong.

Two loosely connected stories about police officers dealing with heartbreak, Chungking Express takes its name from two, Hong Kong-based settings: Chungking Mansion, a bustling building full of diverse retailers in Kowloon and wholesalers hawking goods from around the world; and a simple fast food stall called Midnight Express.

Claustrophobically narrow and incredibly busy places are cleverly shot and made iconic by Doyle’s handheld camerawork, which helped create the frenetic, freewheeling, textured look of the film. (Fun fact: parts of the film were even shot in Doyle’s apartment!)

Although the two stories are treated like opposites — literally, one is set at night and the other at day — they brilliantly portray the sweet and silly story of a young man pining after a breakup and a young woman becoming infatuated with a handsome stranger. Pixie-haired Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of “Dreams” by The Cranberries also became a zeitgeist-defining hit for Hong Kong youth.

Ashes of Time/東邪西毒 (1994)

Acting as a prequel to the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (pen name of Louis Cha), Ashes of Time is a new school wuxia film starring Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing as Ouyang Feng, the narrator and nexus point for five storylines of different assassins and wronged lovers. The film also sees the return of many of Wong’s usual collaborators, such as performers Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Carina Lau, and Brigitte Lin.

A focus on character introspection rather than extended bouts of fighting makes this a wuxia film unlike any other before it. With characters looking back at their lives with regret and longing, Ashes of Time delves deeply into emotions, humanizing otherwise straight villainous characters.

The muddled and cyclical plot hints at the stressful production journey of the film, which stretched over two years, but the breadth of hallucinatory and chaotic visuals almost make up for it. Ashes of Time received mixed reviews when it came out, but over time, it has been hailed as an underrated classic of the genre. A later re-edit of the film by Wong titled Ashes of Time Redux trimmed seven minutes from the original and added Yo-Yo Ma’s cello to the score.

Fallen Angels/墮落天使 (1995)

Wong’s return to crime drama, Fallen Angels can be seen as a companion piece to Chungking Express, having been written for that film originally but later cut for length. Again, Wong pairs two separate storylines into one movie, although this time following two criminals instead of two cops on a search for meaningful connection in contemporary Hong Kong.

Starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Charlie Yeung, and Karen Mok — and including the return of Chungking Express’s Takeshi Kaneshiro — the film captures existentialism with lurid colours that offer a dizzying glimpse into the lives of disaffected youth. A certain air of anxiety and bleakness in the film can also be tied to the imminent handover of Hong Kong from British rule to China in 1997, which impacted much of Hong Kong culture in the years leading up to it. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are, in a way, Wong’s love letters and snapshots of the bustling city before a step into an unknown future.

This work also pushes the filmmaker’s sensibilities and style even more into the forefront with frantic camera movements, wide-angle lenses, grainy film stock, and a distinct green tinge that emphasize the film’s themes of postmodern isolation. On the sonic front, the film dips into the avant garde, including trip-hop music and experimental sounds. A key piece, however, is “Forget Him,” a diegetic Cantopop song sung by Shirley Kwan that neatly tells one character to move on from her obsession with another.

Happy Together/春光乍洩 (1997)

A boundary-breaking gay love story starring two of Wong’s stalwart actors — Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing and Tony Leung Chiu Wai — Happy Together is the first of the director’s films set mainly outside of Hong Kong. It garnered the most global attention for him at the time, winning the Best Director title at the Cannes Film Festival and netting a nomination for the coveted Palme d’Or.

Tempestuous, complicated, and messy, the emotional tale of Happy Together is set far away from Hong Kong in its antipode — steamy Buenos Aires — in 1997. Cheung and Leung give stellar performances as fighting lovers, at times tender and other times abusive toward each other, as they struggle in a foreign land to find a sense of belonging.

Another brilliant use of Western music — aside from the excellent selection of heady Latin American tangoes — is the inclusion of the titular The Turtles song, covered by Danny Chung, which closes the film. Subverted by the conclusion of the men’s relationship, the cheery beat of “Happy Together” no longer becomes a joyful declaration of love but an ironic pondering of what has passed.

In the Mood for Love/花樣年華 (2000)

Regarded as the pinnacle of Wong’s oeuvre, In the Mood for Love is an enduring and achingly beautiful love story of two obscenely attractive neighbours. Actors Maggie Cheung Man Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai return once again to Wong’s world of 1960s Hong Kong as married strangers who discover that their spouses have been having an affair with each other. As Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan try to overcome their sorrow, they also reckon with their growing attraction to each other in the stifling confines of Hong Kong’s narrow passages and vintage alleyways.

A masterpiece of unspoken yearning and deep connection, In the Mood for Love has also become iconic for its use of opulent cheongsam tailoring, balletic pacing, and searing crimson tones. It may come as a shock that this perfect cinematic gem was formed in the editing room — the director and actors did not know which way the story would go while it was being filmed, which led to a prolonged shooting schedule of 15 months.

The song that provided Wong with the film’s English title was Bryan Ferry’s version of “I'm in the Mood for Love,” but the original Chinese title came from “Hua Yang De Nian Hua" by Zhou Xuan, which translates to “age of blossoms.” When the Mandarin-language song plays in the movie, it serves to connect the two main characters as they quietly pine for each other while listening to the radio. However, perhaps the most indelible piece in the film is the waltzing “Yumeji's Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi, which comes from Japanese director Seijun Suzuki's Yumeji soundtrack.

2046 (2004)

A sequel to both Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, 2046 is an interesting experiment for the director into the world of sci-fi with early 2000s CGI.

Tony Leung Chiu Wai returns as his writer character Mr. Chow from the previous film, but now as a successful novelist and disreputable ladies’ man. Still in love with Cheung’s character Mrs. Chan from In the Mood for Love, Chow has a string of lovers with a connection to room 2046 while he lives in room 2047 in an apartment in Hong Kong. He also writes a sci-fi novel about other characters obsessed with room 2046. This makes way for an impressive cast of actors including Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li — both new to Wong’s roster — and sees the return of Carina Lau and Faye Wong as collaborators.

Layered with fictional elements of Chow’s own sci-fi novel, shown as bizarre visions or fever dreams, 2046 is slinky and sexy and quite different from its immediate prequel. Yet, it is full of entrancing classical and instrumental music, like the “Adagio” recorded by Secret Garden, Xavier Cugat’s “Perfidia,” and a newly written theme by Shigeru Umebayashi, reinterpreting his previous “Yumeji's Theme” with a touch of tango.

My Blueberry Nights (2007)

Wong’s first (and only) foray into English-language film, My Blueberry Nights stars heavy-hitters Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law alongside singer-songwriter Norah Jones in her debut acting role. Jones plays a drifter in this American road movie who finds connection with Law’s diner owner while encountering a series of unhappy women.

While not a critical or commercial success in America (the domestic box office was under one million dollars), the film was nominated for a Palme d'Or. A jarring, alien treatment of the American way of life might be to blame — something was definitely lost in translation. But Jones’ jazzy original song is pretty good!

The Grandmaster/一代宗師 (2013)

This martial arts biopic of the legendary Ip Man, one of the most famous practitioners of Wing Chun and a teacher of Bruce Lee, is set during a tumultuous time in Chinese history: The Second Sino-Japanese War. The Grandmaster covers the great scope of the story with operatic grace.

Relying on his staunch collaborator, Tony Leung Chiu Wai (who broke his arm twice during training), as well as Zhang Ziyi and the famous martial arts coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, Wong crafted an stylish film that won countless awards and was shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The music is a little less remarkable than Wong’s previous work, but the fight choreography more than makes up for it.

Although his feature film days seem to be behind him, Wong still continues to direct shorts and commercials, while producing and writing as well. Since his last feature was released a decade ago, the arthouse director has finally announced a new production, a television series entitled Blossoms Shanghai.

There is no denying the impact the internationally acclaimed auteur has had on world cinema. With lush, candy-coloured visuals, unforgettable music choices, and an eternally beautiful cast of young romantics, Wong Kar-Wai’s cinematic world is one that film lovers will continue to obsess over and re-watch again and again.

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