Director Spotlight III: Wong Kar-Wai

Column description: Director Spotlight is our self indulgent way to watch movies after movies, do minimal work, and call it productive. We are two great friends who both often enjoy the 90-minute long worlds created by these directors more than the one we are in. We spend most of our time together watching movies, talking about movies, or one-upping each other in our strange encyclopedic knowledge of independent film. We hope that our enthusiasm and love of movies can help encourage readers to perhaps step out of their (Avenger-heavy) comfort zone and join us in the world of pseudo-intellectuals and cinema.

Director Background: Wong Kar-Wai is a pioneer of Hong Kong Second Wave cinema. Born in Shanghai in 1958, he moved to Hong Kong, where the majority of his movies are set, in 1963. In 1988 Wong released his directorial debut, “As Tears Go By”, which established the directorial trademarks that would be prominent throughout his career. Then came Wong’s greatest cinematic successes: “Chungking Express” (1994), “Fallen Angels” (1995), “Happy Together” (1997), “In the Mood for Love” (1999), and “2046” (2004). These movies concretely placed Wong in the directorial hall of fame as a successor of the great directors of the 20th century and an innovator of visual effects and experimental storytelling.

Lou and Emi’s Picks:







Reasons We Love Wong:

Throughout Wong’s films, he returns to the themes of solitude and unrequited love. His characters spend the majority of their time alone, pining over lost loves or lamenting past lives. This solitude allows for cinematic exploration of how people act when they know no one can see them. In “Chungking Express”, some of the most memorable scenes feature the cop sitting on the floor of his apartment talking to inanimate objects, telling wet towels not to cry and commenting on the physical appearance of his large Garfield stuffed animal. Wong’s focus on isolation expresses itself in the aesthetic pleasure of smoking, which gives his characters something to do while they ruminate and stare off into the distance. 

Part of how Wong tackles these themes is his distinctive visual style. His films are saturated with color. Sultry reds, cool blues, and sulfuric yellows turn each frame vibrant and alive. Often, Wong’s roaming camera focuses on some inanimate object, like a flapping curtain or the bubbles in the lights of a jukebox, instead of the main action of a scene. This technique makes all his films feel like dreams or memories, littered with tiny details infused with feeling. Wong also incorporates titled angles, slow motion, rack focus, and freeze frames to place his audience further in the subjective realities of his films. Although Wong didn’t invent the use of mirrors as a cinematic tactic, he undoubtedly revolutionized it. He often drifts the camera into the gaze of a mirror, and occasionally uses fun house mirrors to obscure the shots, creating novel perspectives. 

Even to someone who doesn’t care about the shot focus or the dreadful yearning, it is impossible to overlook Wong’s masterful use of music. He does not use it merely as a part of the backdrop, but to convey emotion and progress the plot just as another character would. In “In the Mood For Love”, a snippet of Nat King Cole’s “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” plays at different moments as a reminder of the complex and lingering emotions of these characters. A more blatant example comes from “Chungking Express”, in which “California Dreamin” by The Mamas and The Papas plays almost constantly as the girl in the cafe’s favorite song. Her character is developed through her insistence on this song and although it annoys almost everyone around her, her stubbornness is her most endearing quality. These enthralling themes, enchanting visuals, and memorable music choices make Wong Kar-Wai’s films worth surrendering yourself to.