For a fair number of people, Wong Kar-Wai is Hong Kong cinema, the only contemporary filmmaker from that city-state who has become a brand name on the international film-festival and art-house circuit. And he is not without honor in his hometown. His elusive, fragmented, fetishistically accessorized character studies, embellished with American pop tunes and wreathed in longing and mournful recollection, have won almost as many prizes at the annual Hong Kong Film Awards as they have abroad — a string of honors that culminated last year when In the Mood for Love, which opened in Los Angeles last week, won a best-actor trophy for star Tony Leung Chu-Wai. But Wong is clearly an anomaly in a film industry like Hong Kong’s, which is almost feverishly commercial. A legendary fanatic about details of behavior and locale, he has been known to launch $3 million productions on little more than a concept, a setting and a handful of characters — only to spend years shooting and re-shooting a film, revising the storyline from one week to the next and discarding entire plot threads already shot. The production of In the Mood was a two-year marathon that ended just days before the film premiered at Cannes last May.
Lanky and long-legged, and often sporting shades even indoors (one passionate fan site on the Web is called The Eyes Behind the Sunglasses), Wong is an outsider in another sense, as well: He was born not in Hong Kong but in Shanghai, in 1958, and came to the then–Crown Colony when he was barely 5 years old. He grew up in a teeming Shanghai immigrant community, a milieu almost exactly like the one that forms the backdrop of his newest film. In the Mood for Love is not directly autobiographical, Wong insists; nothing in his own experience suggested the film‘s central story of a man and a woman (Leung and Maggie Cheung), next-door neighbors in an apartment building full of noisy Shanghai immigrants; the two barely speak two words to each other — until they discover that their spouses are having an affair.
”The main thing for me was reconstructing that environment,“ Wong says, ”from my memories and from those of my production designer, William Chang, who is also from Shanghai. I like to say, ’This film is not about love, it is about the mood for love.‘ But the settings, the clothes, the music, the food — all this makes a context for the things that happen to these two people.“
Despite Wong’s rarefied status as Hong Kong‘s pre-eminent art-film director, his formative years were spent cranking out scripts for routine Hong Kong genre pictures, post–John Woo gunplay sagas like Flaming Brothers (1987), or only-in–Hong Kong genre hybrids like the police-action horror-comedy The Haunted Cop Shop (1987). And when he began directing his own films, their roots were planted firmly in commercial forms: As Tears Go By (1988) is a romantic gangster drama, Ashes of Time (1994) a gloom-shrouded martial-arts saga. The films that made him a star abroad, Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), are slacker variants on film noir. (His next film will be a science-fiction item called 2046.) It is almost possible to take Wong at his word when he tells Fredric Dannen, in the book Hong Kong Babylon, that he has never attempted to make an art movie: ”I think I’m a not very successful commercial director.“ As Tears Go By is still his only film to have made any serious money in Hong Kong.
Almost from the outset, Wong found his subjects in the interstices of conventional pulp fiction, in the side elements of mood and atmosphere that some directors brush past impatiently. The genre structures have given him something durable to build on, familiar skeletons that he can flesh out with quirky behavioral details. It is precisely his sidelong treatment of genres, of course, that has made him a cult figure on the hipster-festival circuit at the turn of the century. It is no accident that Chungking Express was distributed in the United States by Quentin Tarantino‘s company, Rolling Thunder. But in Wong’s most recent films, Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love, there is evidence that he is making an effort to leave behind the solipsism in his early work that led some to dismiss Fallen Angels as inadvertent self-parody.
As Wong told British critic Tony Rayns, ”Too many other directors are ‘doing’ Wong Kar-Wai these days, so I have to do something different.“ The ”something different“ seems to involve older characters in more serious relationships, people who have a place in the world or are actively seeking one — people who are more like Wong himself, a 43-year-old producer-director, married with children, with his own production company and a flair for self-promotion. And he may be on to something: The shift could attract a larger audience that includes older members of the traditional art-house crowd. The genre elements are still present in Wong‘s more mature films, but are now so deeply sublimated that most observers barely notice them. He seemed to relish startling his auditors at a Los Angeles press luncheon in December by declaring that ”In the Mood for Love is a kind of thriller, like an Alfred Hitchcock film.
“Actually,” Wong says later, “the role of Tony in the film reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. There is a dark side to this character. I think it’s very interesting that most of the audience prefers to think that this is a very innocent relationship. These are the good guys, because their spouses are the first ones to be unfaithful and they refuse to be. Nobody sees any darkness in these characters — and yet they are meeting in secret to act out fictitious scenarios of confronting their spouses and of having an affair. I think this happens because the face of Tony Leung is so sympathetic. Just imagine if it was John Malkovich playing this role. You would think, ‘This guy is really weird.’ It‘s the same in Vertigo. Everybody thinks Jimmy Stewart is a nice guy, so nobody thinks that his character is actually very sick.”
In the Mood for Love’s kinship with certain Hitchcock thrillers might have been more apparent if Wong had shaped the picture the way he originally intended: “The opening scene was going to be just these two persons together in a hotel room, and they try to have sex but they cannot. Everybody would be thinking, ‘Who are these people? What are they doing here? Are they having an affair?’ Then we would slowly discover that they are the other side of the story, they are the victims of an affair and are only re-enacting it. And that makes it a little freaky. But somehow it didn‘t work that way, so we started from the very beginning and told the whole story chronologically. The lovemaking scene was moved, and it now came much later. When I saw the film just before I sent it to Cannes, I said, ’Okay, I don‘t want to see that happening at all.’ I think the film is better without it, much more ambiguous. Do they or don‘t they? But because we did film that scene, the two actors have a feeling that they have had physical contact already. They make you feel there must be something going on, but you don’t actually see it.”
Wong rejects the notion that the alternate storylines he often tries out during production are anything more than first-draft approximations, dry runs that did not pan out. He has at times expanded a subplot cut from one picture into a new work; Fallen Angels, for instance, was originally envisioned as an additional plot thread for Chungking Express. Wong likes to keep his options open, but only to a point; he has never embraced the “alternate scenario” contrivances that have become fashionable in the post-Tarantino era. “I thought at one point that with a different choice of footage, and a new narration from Tony Leung‘s character, Happy Together could have been a totally different story. But then I thought, ’Well, too bad. The movie is finished already.‘ In a movie, things that you don’t see are things you cannot confirm. You can only guess.”