The Necessity of Wong Kar Wai

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Tony Leung in The Grandmaster.

As a 19-year-old film student, when I learned the definition of the word auteur, I was so excited I had to paint it on my stomach, Riot Grrl style, and make a movie about it. Youthful blasphemy aside, I've always been drawn to directors whose vision is so strong as to create that distinctive mood which would potentially define them as an auteur. Amidst all the terrible, formulaic crap that comes out, you have to appreciate someone, wholly successful or not, who is actually attempting something. It's natural that being inventive might result in flawed movies. The risks of making genuinely creative work, with a boldness and experimentation that eschews mainstream concerns, are the sometimes shaky results. But those are the movies I want to watch. Demonstrating both the benefits and the downfall of being an auteur, Wong Kar Wai's swirling, vivid films are full of the mistakes, incongruities and strangeness of a visionary.

Fallen Angels (1996) was the first Wong Kar Wai movie I saw and it will be forever seared in my brain. It's profoundly gorgeous, but the style is also the substance and that's why it's so phenomenal. It isn't just gorgeous; it's romantic and melancholy, rich with psychological exploration. It's both cool and sincere simultaneously, a combination that is Wong Kar Wai's signature strength. He's clearly still concerned with style; in the closing credits to his newest, The Grandmaster, Tony Leung (a stoically bad-ass Wong Kar Wai regular) looks right at the camera and asks, "What's your style?" It's a wonderful moment, playful and serious, a non-rhetorical question, meant to be considered and answered. This isn't about the surface of style, but the soul of it. In this semi-biopic tale, Leung plays Ip Man, a kung-fu master and Bruce Lee's teacher, following his life and never-quite-romance with a fictional woman.

Fallen Angels

Watching Fallen Angels was the first time I really fell in love with cinematography. I became riveted by the iconic Christopher Doyle, who shot most of Wong Kar Wai's movies, beginning with Days of Being Wild (1990) and ending with 2046 (2004). In some ways, my love of Wong Kar Wai movies is my love of Christopher Doyle cinematography. He also shot Last Life in the Universe, a brutal, surrealistic reverie directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and created the memorable palette of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. More than once when I've watched a notably well-shot film, it ends up being Christopher Doyle behind the camera. He is belligerently charming, calling Life of Pi, "a fu***** insult to cinematography" (Amen) and ranting about the authentic color of moonlight (it's not blue). Unfortunately if you type Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle into Google, one of the top suggestions is "falling out," so he's not the cinematographer for The Grandmaster. I was curious, but nervous, to see a Wong Kar Wai movie without Christopher Doyle's singular touch. 

Wong Kar Wai loves clocks, counters, rain, smoking cigarettes, leaning, stairways, stoicism, loneliness, slow motion, nostalgia and unconsummated everything. The Grandmaster has some of those things (the rain is awesome), but not others. Overall it gets a C+ and the plus is because I was looking for his tell-tale flourishes (they're there) and forgiving him when other things fell short.  A.A. Dowd aptly suggests that the confines of the biopic bogged down a director who thrives within fictional worlds.  The need of The Grandmaster to explain everything was tiresome, as if endless voice-overs and chunks of text were necessary for us to follow the story. It was also cut from 130 to 108 minutes and by all accounts the longer version is superior. The confines of chronology and history make the story move inexpertly and incompletely through time.

Still there are moments to love in The Grandmaster, moments where Wong Kar Wai pauses and luxuriates as he should. One fight sequence has Zhang Ziyi flipping up in the air over Tony Leung, their faces centimeters apart, the flip slowed down. It's a classic moment of Wong Kar Wai's particular brand of sexiness. In Leung's voiceover, he says of his initial meeting with her, "All encounters are reunions..." That too is classic Wong Kar Wai, the lonely man narrating a wistful truth to us from off-screen. This particularly beautiful line is nearly a thesis statement for all of his movies, a whispered burst of zen interruption, reminding us of what's at stake. It kept ringing around in my head for days afterward.


Most of Wong Kar Wai's movies spend their time illustrating the smokey, shadowy nuance of how we encounter one another, but The Grandmaster doesn't spend enough time there. I immediately re-watched Days of Being Wild when I got home from watching The Grandmaster. The main character, a sociopathic playboy insists a girl (behind a counter, of course) stand with him for one minute and then proclaims them "one minute friends," a status that is fact and can never be taken back. Wong Kar Wai has a gift for capturing the sensation of the present moment's inherent transience. In Chungking Express (1994) the voiceover says, "At our closest point, we were just 0.01cm apart from each other." At his best, Wong Kar Wai is concerned with examining these smallest of spaces between us. That 0.01 cm is evoked during In The Mood For Love (2000) when Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung pass each other on the staircase in a moment so restrained and sexy it's nearly too much to handle. The aforementioned flip in The Grandmaster is also about that 0.01 centimeters. The immersion in those moments is why Wong Kar Wai's movies are breathtaking.

Wong Kar Wai's first and only English-language film, My Blueberry Nights (2007), was a flop. I hated it along with everyone else I ever spoke to or whose review I read. It was Wong Kar Wai trying to be Wong Kar Wai and it was sad and weird to watch. The Grandmaster is not like that. It's a smart, careful, beautiful movie in a lot of ways. Some of the fights are spectacular, Ip Man is a fascinating person and I could watch Tony Leung brood for 108 minutes or 130 minutes or however long he felt like it. But one gets the impression that Wong Kar Wai is struggling; rehashing his old tricks isn't quite enough, but neither is leaving them behind. How can his themes, images and concerns evolve with him? Christopher Doyle had some mean things to say about how long it took to make 2046 and called it an "unnecessary" movie. So, what would a necessary Wong Kar Wai movie look like? While I wouldn't nominate The Grandmaster as my answer to that question, I'm still glad it exists and am grateful to have seen it in a theatre where all the gold light, speeding trains and slow motion rain drops were lushly delivered on the big screen. 

Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung in Days of Being Wild.


There is something much better, much more vital and true seeming about Days of Being Wild, as compared to The Grandmaster. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are two of my all-time favorite movies. And yet, I have to believe in the audience allowing an artist to experiment, to struggle as they move forward, to not always just get better and better, but to falter in their attempts. If someone is truly being an artist, as Wong Kar Wai is, then that trajectory seems a more honest one in some ways. He can't keep trying to make his '90s movies, nor should he. His concerns are epic, slow motion, aching, beautiful, heart-breaking, life and death concerns. I will gladly watch anything he creates in his attempts to unravel all that. And here's hoping maybe he and Christopher Doyle make up.