The first film my new university course fellows and I was treated to, on our first day no less, was Wong Kar-wai's critically-adored, notably beautiful, but also (at least in this viewer's eyes) distressingly slim and uninvolving, In the Mood for Love. Nevertheless, the superb visual stylings and intriguingly deft direction left me with a strange hunger to explore more of his back-catalogue, which, thanks to the university library's dvd collection, I could now do on a whim. So I checked out the three available I had yet to see: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and Happy Together, and sat down and gorged myself, with sizeable breaks in-between, on a Hong Kong movie fest. The result proferred surprisingly unexpected reactions.
True to my anal-retentive fashion, I of course viewed them in chronological order, which offers an intriguing insight into a directorial development that is rarely found nowadays. Most directors, David Cronenberg for instance, hover around the same thematic moods but explore different subjects; but in Kar-wai, we see a director honing selective themes, never really losing ideas from his previous films but working them in a more precise fashion. Chungking Express, the first Kar-wai I ever saw, lives only in my memory for now, but that film's duet of romantic complications does indeed seem to fit in with Kar-wai's development.
[As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, 1988): Kar-wai's first full-length feature (he had been a successful screenwriter beforehand) is a familiar Eastern gangster pic, a traditional balancing act between love and war. Wah (Andy Lau) is continually bailing out his ambitious little brother Fly (Jacky Cheung) but doesn't really have the drive to go far in the business himself. When his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) arrives to stay with him, they form a bond that leads Wah to go in search of her when she returns to her more rural home. The typicality of the film in terms of the gangster genre of Hong Kong at that time is quite surprising, and it seems to me that the film has only gathered favourable attention because it was Kar-wai's debut. It does have a few of his notable qualities- vagueness of plot, soft focus, slow-mo techniques- but it never coheres, striking a bizarre balance between the two plot threads and unfortunately never becoming particularly engrossing. Of the actors, Lau fares best in both role and performance- a young Maggie Cheung seems uncharacteristically lost. Grade: C]
[Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1991): With this film, Kar-wai reportedly wanted to break the excessive popularity of the gangster movie (that he had so conformed to in the film above) with a romantic drama. Days of Being Wild presents a more familiar Kar-wai, though he was yet to fine-tune his narrative vagueness into a coherent whole (perhaps because he was trying to set up an abandoned sequel). Like In the Mood for Love, though not as evocatively or prominently, Days of Being Wild takes place in the 1960s, where sexual predator Leslie Cheung dumps Maggie Cheung, who can't get her mind off him until she meets a policeman (Andy Lau), and moves onto the erratic Rebecca Pan, all the while pestering his adoptive mother to tell him who his true mother is. The more expressive emotional themes Kar-wai employs here lead unsurprisingly to a deeper film, filmed by frequent collaborator, and photographic maverick, Christopher Doyle in a gorgeous soft focus, but Kar-wai was, as mentioned, yet to form totally coherent plots- the film is almost too vague in it's emotional complications, never really sure of itself and jerking off in strange directions. Nevertheless, it's an engrossing watch, well performed and a fair indicator of where Kar-wai was eventually going to reach. Grade: B-]
[Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997): Happy Together was one of Kar-wai's most critically disliked films, but it happens to be one of his best, happily marrying a thin plot laden with emotion to Kar-wai's striking style. The slow but moving tale of two male lovers in a deeply problematic relationship in Buenos Aires gives Kar-wai plenty of room to employ what he likes best, and perhaps most immediatly striking is the contrast between colour and black and white. Starting the film with a sexually-explicit prelude which is both in Hong Kong and in black and white, Kar-wai employs perhaps the idea of a nostalgic point-of-view, as Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Cheung), the more reserved and unhappy of the pairing, reflects on what his relationship once was. Kar-wai constantly plays with perspective, not just through cinematography but through character- subtle shifts in performance tone perhaps clue us in to the idea that we have switched from one lover to the other, as Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung)'s selfish demands are dialled down and the negativity switches instead to Lai Yiu-fai's downcast reticence. This delicate imbalancing is just as due to the actors as to Kar-wai, and both Cheungs (no relation) acquit themselves extremely convincingly, sketching an entangled past without showing it to us and drawing a sad portrait of human dependancy. Grade: B+]