Hong Kong’s poet of regret

Times Staff Writer

The impassive Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, blinking behind sunglasses that almost never come off and shrouded in his own cigarette smoke, tends to pause before speaking. He offers slow, thoughtful answers about film and filmmaking in accented English.

When asked, though, what he might do if he weren’t making movies, he doesn’t waste time. “I’d like to be a bartender,” he said. “It would be very specific: It would have to be happy hour, or else very late at night. People go to bars to speak up -- to tell you their stories.” Happy-hour patrons would be full of boasting, flirting and good cheer. “And by the time it was late, they would be quite drunk,” perhaps overcome by loneliness and despair. “They would tell you something quite deep -- or else nonsense.”

Wong’s career -- the last few years of which have been consumed with an odd, exquisite movie called “2046,” which opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 5 -- has been shaped a bit like a night at the tavern. While much of his work is of a piece, marked by a strikingly un-ironic romanticism, his early films were about fleeting moments -- the restless, reckless spirit of being young. And he seems, since 2000’s aching “In the Mood for Love,” to be increasingly concerned with memory, regret and missed opportunities.

He’s become a kind of Hong Kong Proust, combining the kinetic movement and hallucinatory night life of his home city with a ruminative style and a growing concern with our inability to capture lost time.


Wong’s films are closer to Italian and French art cinema, crossed with American film noir, than the action movies associated with his hometown: His stories are told through gesture and indirection, and what’s outside the frame can be more important than what’s in it. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman writes that he is “the most avant-garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa)” and that his movies work “by subtraction.”

Much of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” especially its soulful but unconsummated relationship and the woozy, gently psychedelic cab rides through dim streets, was Wong Lite. Coppola, who thanked him as she collected the 2004 Oscar for best original screenplay, is not his only celebrity fan: Quentin Tarantino’s company distributed 1994’s “Chungking Express” -- Wong’s stylishly fleeting, Godard-inspired love story, over which Tarantino says he wept with joy on first viewing. Nicole Kidman agreed to work with Wong after likening him to the Creator.

For all his well-placed admirers, Wong also operates in a way -- combining spontaneity and perfectionism -- that drives his colleagues crazy. He works right up to the wire, sometimes shooting days before his movies are due at festivals, films without permits, and experiences creative “breakups” with key cast and crew. He plans so vaguely that entire characters, subplots and endings drop out of his films by the time they’re screened.

While ensconced in a sleek midtown hotel room, the lanky director talks about writing scripts in coffee shops -- “I hate the idea of writing,” he says, “so I try to make it less official, less formal.” But he’s also likely dodging his colleagues while making last-minute changes. (Given his films’ painterly surfaces and brooding affect, the fact that Wong jokes around, wears baggy jeans, and speaks reasonably openly about his work seems almost shocking.)


“I feel that the films we have done together are jam sessions,” says Christopher Doyle, Wong’s longtime cinematographer, often credited with the films’ distinctive underwater look and sense of pace. “We riff off a theme and we solo from time to time, but mostly we start together and try to end together, and where we lose ourselves in the meantime is what each film celebrates.”

Wong’s new film, six years in the making, involved getting slightly more lost than usual.

Discoveries in Hong Kong

WONG, 47, tends to set his films in an early-'60s, colonial-era Hong Kong he can barely remember.

“So it’s a preoccupation with the world of his parents and their generation,” says Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “which he probably feels so romantic toward because he feels so cut off from it.”

Wong moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1963, at age 5. His Mandarin-speaking parents were outsiders in the British-Cantonese city, and his sailor father, who told great stories of his travels, always assumed the family would return to China.

“We didn’t have friends and relatives in Hong Kong at that time, and we lived in an area full of cinemas,” Wong says. “So we watched a movie every day.” His mother would take him to Errol Flynn and John Wayne features, as well as locally produced Shaw brothers musicals and films of Cantonese operas. “It was like a dream in the afternoon.”

He also, soon after arriving in Hong Kong, where he still lives today with his wife and child, discovered music. “In China there was only one radio station,” he recalls. “So one of the first things that struck me was that when I got to Hong Kong there was radio everywhere, with different sounds: Mandarin music, Cantonese music, Western music” -- this all in a city also full of itinerant Filipino musicians playing Latin styles.


This collision of sounds led to a fascination with music and an eclectic, remarkably effective use of it in his films since “Chungking Express”: Several of his movies use Anglo-American songs for their titles -- though with characteristic Wong elusiveness, “In the Mood for Love” is not heard in the film to which it lends its name -- and he makes powerful use of sources as disparate as Argentine tango, Nat King Cole and Bellini opera.

Mostly, he says, “Music gives a sense of rhythm to a film.”

Old music also helps Wong recover lost time. “We’re trying to create a history for Hong Kong,” he says. “Because this city has changed so fast, it’s eating its own history. It’s impossible to shoot any exteriors for Hong Kong in the ‘60s anymore because the city has totally changed.” Much of “Mood” and “2046" was shot in Bangkok and elsewhere.

Wong’s fascination with 1960s Hong Kong led to the journalist character played by Tony Leung in both “Mood” and “2046" -- a repressed married man in the first who becomes a jaded Lothario by the second.

“Everybody says, ‘There’s no literature in Hong Kong, no writers,’ ” Wong says. “But it’s not true. They were a very colorful, interesting group of artists,” serious writers who ended up penning popular martial arts stories, women’s melodramas, and horse-racing stories to stay fed.

“Almost all of the great Chinese directors are dealing with history,” says Rosenbaum, “which becomes all the more precious because it almost doesn’t exist in Chinese culture -- where history is built on quicksand. And film is an art that involves time and the passage of time.”

Wong’s interest in time and history, though, goes beyond his obsession with a specific time and place. “All of his films could be described as period pieces,” the critic says. “Even those that are set in the present.”

The same, in fact, could be said of his new film, some of which takes place in the future.


Even by Wong’s standards, the process of making “2046" was complicated.

The movie, the director’s eighth, continues the story of Leung’s character, Chow, as the aspiring novelist breaks the hearts of a series of lovely women. Though the title refers to a speculative novel that Chow sets in 2046, and the movie was originally imagined as a “futuristic opera,” the finished film is more an oblique love story than sci-fi film.

Conceived about the same time as “Mood,” the movie was intended to be shot at the same time because of its busy cast. “It was very difficult to work on both projects at the same time,” says Wong. “Like falling in love with two women.”

But the Asian financial crisis repeatedly undercut funding for both films, the “Mood” shoot took seven months instead of the few weeks allotted, and the SARS crisis slowed things further. As the 2004 Cannes film festival approached, Wong was still shooting and cutting.

He delivered “2046" a few hours before its screening, with an escort of French police. (It went on to be nominated for the festival’s Golden Palm.) Then, in the following months, Wong cut it significantly before its theatrical run. It’s only now, six years after its opening shoot, getting a U.S. release.

“I have never met someone who had such a strong willpower and persistence to devote himself to making the films he wants,” says filmmaker Kwan Pun Leung, who helped shoot “2046" and made a documentary about Wong. “I think either he loves movies so much, or he’s nuts.”

Wong thinks too much has been made of what’s often described as his ragged, improvisatory shooting style. (Similarly, he doesn’t see his unabashed romanticism and glamour to be as unusual as the English-language press does.) It’s the way independent films are made all over the world, he says, and entirely typical of movies in Hong Kong.

There, he says, films often have release dates even before they’re shot, and they have to be made quickly and for small budgets. He doesn’t always have the patience to get permits when he shoots, and his actors have busy schedules, which lead to both rushing and delays. Because the script is always changing, cast and crew get only small sections at a time.

“I always start working on his film without much idea about the character I play or the story line,” says Tony Leung, who has worked with Wong on six films. “Because I trust Kar-Wai, we never start out with a full script.” Leung notes that “I know little of Wong Kar-Wai the person” but working on his films is like going home.

When one of the actors in 1997’s “Happy Together” -- a doomy, Manuel Puig-inspired gay love story shot in Buenos Aires -- had to return to Hong Kong for military service, Wong’s crew came to the base pretending to be family and taped a voice-over. As last-minute script changes led to actors’ being cut from the film after flying halfway across the world, the cast was jokingly dubbed the “casualty list.” The film, for all its angst, won Wong best director at Cannes.

“More or less, most of the independent filmmakers in the world work like this,” Wong contends. “If you look at the story of Cassavetes, it’s the same thing: It’s always been like this.

“Unless you’re working in Hollywood, in the industry. But if you want to be independent, you have to be flexible.”

Luis Bunuel, he points out, shot two actresses as the same character in the legendary “That Obscure Object of Desire” only because one was not originally available: The gesture has since been taken as an inspired Freudian or surrealist leap.

“And why does Godard come up with jump cut?” Wong asks of the New Wave signature. “He made the films too long, so he had to take out some of the shots randomly. So you have to be flexible. And sometimes those restrictions become the source of your inspiration.”

Doyle, who has had several legendary fallouts with Wong, isn’t so sure the process is quite so typical: “Thank God there is no one else in this world who works this way.”

A reunion of sorts

In some ways, “2046" marks the end of a chapter for Wong. The movie draws from characters and situations from “Mood” and 1991’s “Days of Being Wild,” though it frustrates a strictly literal connection. (Wong says his fragmented and dreamlike narrative style, which sometimes uses several point-of-view characters, comes from Latin American novelists like Puig and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

Wong compares the film to a reunion party at which you see old friends, who will mostly disappear at the night’s conclusion. While it’s not necessary to know the earlier movies, Doyle describes “2046" as an attempt to “complete some of the sentences we have started in other films.”

It’s hard for a director so critically acclaimed, and whose films are so beautiful -- thanks in part to production designer/editor William Chang, who could have worked for Sirk or Fassbinder -- to fend off Hollywood forever. Wong says he’s already turned down lucrative offers from major studios.

“If people give you $80 million to make a film, you’d better be careful,” he says. “I always give this advice to young filmmakers: You will have some success and you will be given a lot of money. If you make a film for $80 million, you have to cater to a huge audience. Will you be able to do that?”

To make a film that large, he says, you enter a different system. “All through the years we’ve developed our own habits; we’re like a creature of habit. So it’s not ‘Can we cope with them,’ it’s ‘Can they cope with us?’ ”

Still, Wong is not opposed to working with stars. His next project is “The Lady From Shanghai,” in which he’ll direct Kidman and write the script with English-speaking collaborators. (Despite his elastic relationship to the written word, Wong’s first movie job was as a scriptwriter.) All he’ll say about the film is that it will not resemble the Orson Welles-Rita Hayworth movie of the same name that is famed for its shattered-mirror conclusion: Wong chose the title for its evocative power.

“Lady” may be one of three English-language films he’ll develop independently (though not necessarily direct or produce) for release by Fox Searchlight. The films will be co-financed and co-distributed by the indie and by Wong’s company, Block 2, and probably made in Asia.

Claudia Lewis, Fox Searchlight’s executive vice president for production, says the company was drawn to Wong’s individual take on style, mood and storytelling. The director’s spontaneous way of working, Lewis says, “didn’t scare us away. We respect and respond to people’s creative processes.” The company’s deal with him, she says, is unusually loose.

As to his other ambitions, with Fox or elsewhere, Wong won’t say, though he’s spoken of a film in which Leung portrays Bruce Lee’s kung fu teacher.

When Wong looks at the state of U.S. cinema, he sees more films but fewer choices. He enjoys a wide range of movies, including “Batman Begins” and the “Star Wars” sequels, but says American film has been narrowing for two decades. “That’s why when I look at ‘Jackie Brown’ I really, really like that film -- more than ‘Kill Bill’ or ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Because there’s a certain tenderness about those characters which we haven’t seen in American cinema for a long time. Today everybody has to be so smart and so clever.” He misses the work of his favorite mid-century directors -- Otto Preminger, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock -- whose characters were “forthright” instead of smarmy.

He doesn’t despair entirely, though. The development of China, where serious cinemas are now being built outside the big cities, will be good for all filmmakers, especially Asians.

As for the making of poetic, philosophical movies like his: “I think it will happen -- always,” he says. “Because don’t forget, the first reason people are attracted to this business is their passion for expressing themselves through images. Some of them will make it and some of them won’t. But we know those people are always there.”