Wong Kar-wai’s films all bear the imprint of a distinctive sensibility. Call it the cinema of beautiful, if futile, obsession. The veteran Hong Kong filmmaker’s characters fixate on friends, strangers, lost loves, potential lovers, almost lovers, time passing, time to come, memories, mantras, clichés, folk wisdom, trash, pop songs, totems, slippers, cigarette brands, a month’s worth of expiring pineapple cans. They yearn for reference points in a world that rarely adds up. As the critic John Powers writes in an essay included in World of Wong Kar Wai, a new Criterion Collection boxset featuring restorations of seven of the director’s films, “the essence of Wong’s art lies in the disjunction between the allure of the surfaces of his world and the yearning, disappointment, and failure that lie beneath.”
Wong was born in Shanghai in 1958. He and his parents were resettled in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong when he was five years old. Cut off by the Cultural Revolution from his siblings back on the mainland, and from his peers by language and culture, Wong spent almost every day with his mother at the movies, and after studying graphic design at university, began writing soap operas for Hong Kong TV.
By the 1980s, Hong Kong film companies like Golden Harvest and Media Asia presided over a boom in crowd-pleasing martial arts and crime films by filmmakers like John Woo and Jacky Chang. Wong worked on dozens of movie scripts throughout the decade, and his first directorial efforts, 1988’s As Tears Go By and 1990’s Days of Being Wild, seem to fit right in. Telling the stories of young gangsters and doomed romance, they mix melodrama and violence with long, languid summer evenings and muted interiors. And yet both films reveal hints of Wong’s emerging aesthetic: vintage pop songs, mirror shots, a halogen-bright love scene set to a Cantopop cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
Wong might have been remembered only as a stylish genre director if not for 1994’s Chungking Express. Made over the course of three weeks while Wong was recuperating from the editing of his Wuxia pastiche, Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express was shot without permits in the streets and alleys of Hong Kong. Key scenes were entirely improvised and set in borrowed bars and in the apartment of the film’s cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Chungking Express employs all the conceits that would become Wong’s hallmarks—vivid slow-motion, step printing, delirious montages set to retro pop cues—and it focuses on his signature theme: romance. His stars court one another across dark bars and bright shopping warrens. The result is a sugar rush of sound and vision. And yet his pairs never actually get together. The actors Faye Wong and Tony Leung have an overpowering chemistry, but their paths never quite intersect. Each time I rewatch the film, I find myself hoping that this time the story will come out differently. This, perhaps, is the magic of Wong’s work: his stories, like his creative process, contain many possible paths.