The Colourful World of Wong Kar-wai

Having directed more than 20 films, this short list highlights some of Wong Kar-wai’s best work. Image: Sara Wong / The Peak

By: Lester Leong, SFU Student

1. Chungking Express (1994)

This is the film that arguably gained widespread recognition for Wong Kar-wai. Featuring two loosely connected segments about two individual cops yearning for love in the nighttime streets of Hong Kong, Chungking Express is a breezy, fun, and playful film that is part crime thriller and part romcom.

While the first segment — featuring Takeshi Kaneshiro as a detective who finds one night of solace in a mysterious woman from the criminal underworld — is fun in its own right, it’s really the second segment that makes the film memorable. It features Tony Leung as Cop 663, the object of romantic longing for Faye Wong’s character, who is also named Faye. The playful nature of Faye’s yearning for the love of Cop 663 turns creepy acts (breaking into her crush’s apartment, keeping and reading his ex’s private break-up letter, etc.) into something meant to be cute and naïve. Unusually optimistic and cheerful for Wong, Chungking Express is the best starting point to get into his filmography.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Wong Kar-wai’s filmmaking style features doomed romances, exquisite uses of colours within the frame, and magnificent performances from regular collaborators Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung; In the Mood for Love is the perfect example of that. Widely considered to be his quintessential masterpiece, it is an atmospheric, immersive, and colourful film about seeking comfort in an unlikely romance.

The films of Wong Kar-wai are not so concerned with plot progression as they are with the overall mood of the film and the emotions they provoke within the viewer. In the Mood for Love, however, does have a steady plot. It’s about two neighbours in 1960s Hong Kong, who — after finding out that their spouses are having an affair — start to bond.  The main focus of the film is the central platonic relationship between the two protagonists; this lends a lot of sympathy for their plight. In other movies, the cheating spouses would be the focal point and they would have been vilified by the audience. However, In the Mood for Love does things differently. Instead of showing them completely in the frame, Wong chooses to hide their faces, so the audience cannot associate a face to the act. The main point is not to hate on the cheating spouses, but to follow the bittersweet journey of the two protagonists.

3. Happy Together (1997)

Ill-fated romances are a key feature of most Wong Kar-wai stories, and Happy Together is no different. Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung play a gay couple who get stranded in Buenos Aires after a spontaneous trip to the city to rekindle their relationship. While most of Wong Kar-wai’s films have doomed romances featuring two characters that would be perfect matches, Happy Together depicts two people, who are arguably terrible for each other, finding their toxic relationship slowly crumbling. Although there are the occasional moments of happiness in their relationship (like the romantic waltz in the kitchen), it is ultimately a futile endeavour. It’s not the most cheerful of Wong Kar-wai’s films, but it does have a rather bittersweet ending that’s more optimistic than most.

All of the aforementioned films are available to rent online through the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.