WORLD OF WONG KAR WAI: Mastery of Retrospection (Guest Blog)
We have invited some Wong Kar Wai super fans to discuss their love for the famed Hong Kong auteur’s work in celebration of HIFF’s virtual cinema series of WORLD OF WONG KAR WAI, a presentation of 7 digitally remastered classic films, streaming on HIFF”s streaming platform for the entire month of February.
A Wong Kar Wai retrospective is fitting as his films, famous for stylistic nostalgia and portraying characters whose acts of retrospection shape the director’s romantic cinematic world, begs to be looked back upon with the same measure of reverie and intrigue. Of course, with each return, it’s never quite the same. As I reflect on my own relationship with the world of Wong Kar Wai, my path through his work has evolved in unexpected, somewhat fleeting, but memorable ways. My most memorable return to his work came in 2013 as unexpectedly and as serendipitously as someone familiar gliding past me down a staircase.
My first foray into the world of Wong Kar Wai was in college as a film studies student. I dissected his films, offered breakdowns on his form and style, and listened to friends, professors, and classmates fawn over his work. To be honest, I wasn’t as swept away as others were. At that time, I would have never admitted it for fear of being shamed. How dare I love cinema and not be a mega fan of Wong Kar Wai! That said, I respected his work, learned how to write about his craft, and then moved on.
I wasn’t compelled to return to his films again until I saw THE GRANDMASTER (2013), which to this date is Wong Kar Wai’s most recent feature and only martial arts film. I remember thinking, right as the opening fight scene commenced, “How can the filmmaker of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE make a martial arts film?” Perhaps it was growing up in my mother’s karate dojo and my experiences there that set me up for it or because, at that time, I was just starting training in tai chi and kung fu and struggled to transition from the strong, sharp, staccato movements of Shotokan karate to something seemingly its opposite, softer, fluid, and infinitely dynamic — but THE GRANDMASTER floored me. All the other Ip Man films that came out around that time were strong, hard, and fast in style with conventional narrative structures, but this one was entirely different. Wong Kar Wai’s film captured the subtlety of movements hidden from view, honored the spaces of silence and rapt attention that predetermine an outcome of an exchange, harnessed the fleeting explosiveness of physical expression, never prolonged more than it needed to be, and depicted what rarely is acknowledged — the masters who choose to quietly disappear without fame or glory or fanfare and the overlooked contributions of women in martial arts — all this, matched by the softness, fluidity, and dynamism of the camera. As the film unfolded, that famous line from Happy Together came to mind: “Let’s start over.” I reflected back upon all his previous work, from the beginning, in an effort to visualize all the formal and emotional elements of his cinematic world that culminate to what can be seen — and not seen — in his most recent, perhaps most unexpected, work.
Shifts of rhythms and the harnessing of raw energy evolve in an organic way in Wong Kar Wai’s career. The raw, explosive energy found in his early work like AS TEARS GO BY and DAYS OF BEING WILD continues to fuel and translate into the experimental freneticism and boundary-pushing formal structures of films like CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS. What translates as expressions of violence in his earlier work evolves into latent emotional dynamism in his later lush romances — the energy of the early films expressed in broader, more explicit actions still exists but in a more controlled, harnessed fashion, requiring smaller and smaller gestures — a sign of mastery in any medium. In THE GRANDMASTER, in a genre where it would have been easy and almost expected to resort back to only explicit, broad-stroked action, Wong Kar Wai’s control of subtle gesture and emotion is on full display — one motion, one shot, communicates a world.
When Gong Er returns the coat button to Ye Wen, signaling the last of their exchanges and a romance unfulfilled, I thought back to the moments in every single Wong Kar Wai film where characters withheld their expressions of love and opted for delayed gratification for lofty ideals — all the beautifully-styled missed opportunities that make you want to eat a bowl of noodles in despair. That coat button recalled the many exchanges of clothing items endued with multiple meanings — from the passionately designed dresses in THE HAND to the pink slippers left behind and taken back in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.
As the clock of a train station marks a prolonged moment of waiting, and as the train pulls up in slow motion in anticipation of a climactic fight scene, I thought back to all the moments of pause in his previous work that lingered with me beyond the picture’s time code. As a filmmaker who lingers in the spaces between actions, Wong Kar Wai creates spaces for reflection that often translate into literal reflections in his earlier work — character symmetries and mirroring in CHUNGKING EXPRESS, for example, screens and glass surfaces that amplify aesthetics, facades and refractions that make you think twice about a scene, compelling you to continually return to ephemeral moments in which multiple perspectives are at play. The most compelling moments of pause, however, are when those spaces hold secrets and hidden expressions that remain unrevealed. As Wong Kar Wai continues to relish in those spaces throughout his work, he’s become increasingly adept at withholding words and actions from the audience only to make way for questions that linger with you beyond the frame. There’s an increased clarity to those question marks, a marked cadence of silences, especially in his later work. For a filmmaker whose aesthetics are so central to his world, what he achieves beyond aesthetics is what I find most moving. The silences that allow the viewer to feel what’s not being shown on screen is what sticks with me — the action and the aesthetics serve to strengthen what’s withheld, not vice versa. He leads you into a forest of gorgeous but fleeting facades, only to whisper something outside of visual and aural range. Those secrets are left to pass on into the unknown, like Gong Er’s knowledge of the 64 Hands or the message left in a temple wall in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.
Wong Kar Wai’s most recent feature speaks to what makes a “grandmaster”– being, knowing, doing — the act of passing on knowledge as the penultimate stage for achieving that highest level of mastery. When I watched THE GRANDMASTER and reflected back on Wong Kar Wai’s work, I realized that my personal definition of the highest form of mastery was not the same. I think of the great masters in the world who refuse to call themselves masters, who embrace knowledge, style, and ego as fleeting and pass on quietly without a name. No matter how much is given, there’s always something withheld. For me, the cinematic mastery of Wong Kar Wai has to do with what’s fleeting, what’s withheld, what doesn’t get passed down to the viewer such that we, as an audience, can pause and reflect in more dynamic, creative ways. It emboldens us as viewers to create our own styles for how to view the story, the characters, the world. It’s what makes a retrospective of the world Wong Kar Wai that much more of an active, intriguing viewing experience. His world is grand in many ways, for sure, but what makes his films most inspiring goes beyond romantic facade — it’s perhaps only in retrospection when we can confront that.
Taylour Chang, Curator, Film and Performance, oversees the Honolulu Museum of Art’s film and performance department and has overseen the Doris Duke Theatre since 2013. The Doris Duke Theatre is Honolulu’s singular mission-driven, community-based non-profit art house theatre. Since 2017, she’s been active in A4A (Alliance for Action), a collective of art house exhibitors and distributors addressing equity issues in the art house community and independent film industry. She is a filmmaker and received her B.A. from Yale University, majoring in both Film Studies and Theatre Studies with concentrations on World Cinema and Sound Design.