Rightwing Film Geek

“All the leaves are brown…”

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Starting today, Washington cinema-lovers will have a great opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest film ouevres. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is having a comprehensive retro of his released films — meaning 2046 is not included — at the AFI theater in Silver Spring. The AFI is a wonderful place to see a picture and hopefully, they’ll put it in one of the bigger theaters (they played THE LEOPARD in the smallest one … grr). One measure of Wong’s importance is that he’s already being cited as an influence by the next generation of film-makers — Sofia Coppola thanked him when she accepted her Best Original Script Oscar for 2003.

A few years ago, I was writing occasional TV reviews (about fortnightly, I’d guess) as a favor to the arts editor at The Washington Times, and one review I did was of a Sundance special on Wong, where I describe some of what is vital and important in the man’s work. As for this retro, ASHES OF TIME and AS TEARS GO BY are the films I *have* to see, meaning they’re the ones I’ve never seen before. My favorites are IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and CHUNGKING EXPRESS, though I love all that I’ve seen with one exception. And if you’re new to Wong, I’d recommend CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS as the places to start (though unfortunately those two are playing at the end of the retro).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.33.25 PMWhile I was quite bored by HAPPY TOGETHER (seeing no point to all the on again-off again quarreling or being in Argentina or the black-and-white), CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS are both great works of romantic longing. In the latter film, the flashbacks of the silly old father and the repeated line “somebody else decides who lives and dies” are pitch-perfect examples of a tactic I love — repeating the same words or images, but in a different context which gives them a wholly new meaning (I could also cite THE END OF THE AFFAIR and BRIEF ENCOUNTER). There’s also a cramped quality to Wong’s framing and sets in these two films with frequent use of long narrow corridors and distorted or eccentric lighting, and most of the action seems to take place at night, as if the world can’t breathe, but it’s cool to look at. The earlier DAYS OF BEING WILD is film in a similar style, but is closer in mood and narrative (lack of) structure to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. As for EXPRESS, I can’t hear The Cranberries sing “Dreams” any more without imagining Faye Wong singing it in Cantonese. And when I hear “California Dreaming,” I get the images of a T-shirted Faye Wong slinking through the film’s titular Hong Kong fast-food joint, listening to this Mamas & Papas song, absolutely oblivious to the world outside her.

Wong is also one of the directors I’d cite — Quentin Tarantino being an obvious other one — as among the high-points of post-modern film-making. They handle pop reference, pastiche and stylistic panache without collapsing into nihilistic decadence. There’s a point to it all, in words — in Wong’s case, his early loosely-structured stylistically playful tales of amour fou cover his character’s deepest romantic longings and heartbreak. DAYS OF BEING WILD, a tone poem centered on a character’s madonna-whore complex and his casual moving from girl to girl (imagine James Dean without the Method for the general sense of Leslie Cheung’s character). This gentleman thinks a single shot from EXPRESS is the single greatest shot in the history of the medium — “expresses more longing and yearning than most films can accomplish in two hours of anguished dialogue.” Take all such superlatives with a grain of salt of course, but this is a very sane opinion that will never be cited on his commitment papers (like his opinion of GERRY will).

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And in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, the theme molds itself into a style that turns the film into a kind of middle-class tragedy — a florid memory piece about a man and a woman whose respective unseen spouses are having an affair with one another and what may or not happen between them. Like bittersweet memory itself, MOOD fixates on iconographic snatches, moments out of time, and a soft, romantic, almost fetishistic memory for detail tinctured with regret — Tony Leung’s hands, Maggie Cheung’s hairdo and dress, Tony’s pants crease, and Maggie’s hips. A lot of Maggie’s hips. In fact, a joke title for the film is IN THE MOOD FOR ASS. The film is a stylistic tour de force, filled with great touches by Wong — the way that when the couple walks down the beige brick street, reconstructing their spouses’ affair, we first see their shadows on the wall; the freezes of first Maggie and then Tony walking down the hotel hall away from us; the slow-motion last touch of hands when they’re “play-acting” the parting greetings; the way “Yumeji’s Theme” changes in meaning from longing to reverie and the way the relationship itself has actually changed from one playing to the next.

But the first time I saw the film, when “Yumeji’s Theme” swelled up for like the eighth time and we saw Maggie’s legs while the flask swayed in time with her movement and the notes weeped away on the soundtrack — there was audible groaning in the TalkCinema audience. Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.37.24 PMOf the films by Wong I’ve seen, MOOD and DAYS OF BEING WILD were the ones that required a second viewing to grow on me. Of the two, MOOD is the more pleasurable as a pure sensual object, lovely to look at, listen to and luxuriate in — but neither is the easiest film to try to make sense of or follow. Both are quite elliptical in terms of exactly what happens — although generally chronological, they follow an emotional structure with few of the usual plot cues. In MOOD, there’s never an instant where were TOLD that Maggie and Tony are no play-acting their respective spouses and are now themselves. On second viewing, basically knowing what happens, MOOD at least became much clearer, especially in terms of the POINT of every scene and what’s really going on. It’s like MEMENTO or 8 1/2 in that once you get the general sense of the film’s architecture that a first viewing gives you, it becomes a piece of cake and most everything makes sense. For example, it became much more obvious how many hints Wong dropped that Tony’s wife and Maggie’s husband were cheating (which gave the early scenes much more point). What I took to be a barrage of too many codas now became a logical progression of plotted scenes. It all ends at Angkor Wat, a monument to permanence that absorbs into itself the hearts of men, breaking over ephemerality.

March 4, 2005 - Posted by | Uncategorized, Wong Kar-wai

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