How Wong Kar-wai lost his way.

Wong Kar-wai China cinema film Hong Kong

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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.
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.
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