6 Filmmaking Tips From Wong Kar-Wai

By  · Published on August 28th, 2013

As a British colony until 1997 and Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong has created a popular culture completely unique to East Asian metropolitan living. This is demonstrated, in part, by the rich cinema tradition that has been continually exported from Hong Kong since the late 1970s, which bore films that distinctively combined East and West. While the region has produced some of the most memorable martial arts and action films of the late 20th century, the “Hong Kong New Wave” also witnessed the emergence of several great dramatists including Stanley Kwan, Yim Ho, Ann Hui and, of course, Wong Kar-Wai.

For someone unfamiliar with Hong Kong firsthand, Wong’s films provide a resonant, bewitching, perhaps even definitive portrait of the city. In his international breakthrough Chunking Express, the densely populated metropolis’s kinetic movement and globalized circuits are accentuated by the film’s restless camera and Cranberries-infused soundtrack. In the Mood for Love stages several intimate meetings of traditional and contemporary life in the claustrophobic corners in an exponentially vertical Hong Kong. The dizzying 2046 presents a Hong Kong ever at the concurrent precipice of the past and the future.

With The Grandmaster opening wide this weekend, Wong’s dramas now meet with that other signature Hong Kong genre, the martial arts film, providing as good of an opportunity as any to explore what makes his work so distinctive. So here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who somehow convinced us that beauty lies in a slow shutter speed.

Finding “The Film” Takes Time

Wong’s film shoots are notoriously long, and in the end the filmmaker rarely comes away with something strictly resembling the film he set out to shoot, especially as he rarely storyboards or employs a conventional script. For In the Mood for Love, Wong shot a love scene between the couple and an entire frame that takes place in 1990s Hong Kong with the couple’s elder selves. For years, Wong’s fans have pondered about this footage, and what even a modern classic like In the Mood for Love could have been.

But the point isn’t that there’s some other original vision that we aren’t given access to; the point is that what becomes “the film itself” is ultimately a set of complex and interrelated choices, not a sense of essential being. In the Mood for Love could have been any number of films; that it ended up being a rather sparse drama about a uniquely chaste affair is heavily dependent upon choices of framing – not only during the shoot, but during the editing process which, as Wong attests, is a another stage of production on its own.

Perhaps “The Film” is of Little Importance

Even though Wong’s process of making a single film is an arduous one involving years of shooting and editing, he rarely sees his “completed” films as discrete, bounded objects encapsulating a finalized vision. Wong continually revisits his work, and the titles that make up his filmography are deeply interrelated. A short film became an episode in My Blueberry Nights. The characters of In the Mood for Love were revisited with considerable variation in 2046. Ashes of Time (Wong’s first martial-arts film) was later re-cut entirely to fit a different vision as Ashes of Time Redux. Fallen Angels emerged from an idea that was intended to structure a proposed third story for Chungking Express.

In none of these examples is there an authoritative or original vision; Ashes of Time Redux is not the “director’s cut” of Ashes of Time. In Wong’s estimation, films are not sacred objects, but experiences subject to continual influence and change. After shooting, Wong is hardly finished with his improvisations.

This point about Wong’s work is necessary to understand his relaxed attitude to the significant differences in the US cut of The Grandmaster. In a recent interview with Drew Taylor of IndieWire, Wong had the following to say about The Weinstein Company’s application of their controversial scissors:

“Well, we had an obligation to release the film within two hours for the United States. But, I didn’t want to do it just by cutting the film shorter or do a shorter version by trimming and cutting out scenes because the structure of the original version is actually very precise…I just wanted to tell the story in a different way. So now the American version is 108 minutes, and we have 15 minutes of new scenes, and the story is more linear. So instead of a shorter version, to me it’s a new version.”

For Wong, there is no such thing as “the film itself,” only different possibilities therein.

Make a Portrait, Don’t Film Reality

“Well, people are very surprised when they come to Hong Kong after seeing my films, because my version of it is quite different than Hong Kong in reality. So my films are never about what Hong Kong is like, or anything approaching a realistic portrait, but what I think about Hong Kong and what I want it to be.”

In this 2001 interview with Scott Tobias AV Club in advance of the American commercial release of In the Mood for Love, Wong makes a distinction between his Hong Kong and “Hong Kong itself.” Perhaps it’s best to posit that there is no such thing as “Hong Kong itself” for an artist, as a city so large and diverse and changing can only be experienced through its fleeting moments, kinetic fragments, and chance encounters. In making a “portrait” of Hong Kong, Wong isn’t attempting to define the city, but portray a particular experience of it.

This is not, however to say that Wong’s Hong Kong is a fantasy, bereft of an immersed relationship to his life in the city…

Let the Place Guide You

At the same time that Wong’s films portray a subjectively painted, rhapsodic, and even dreamlike Hong Kong, that doesn’t mean that his chosen place to stage so much of his work is arbitrary. Quite the opposite. Wong’s films emerge from his experience in Hong Kong – his knowledge of the place, its people, their rhythms. Wong’s films might not portray a “reality” of Hong Kong, but the action painting of a moving image portrait he ultimately constructs is a product of the life and vibes of the city itself. The city is a canvas if the filmmaker extends their tendrils and remains in touch with their surroundings.

Movies are a Collage of Traveling Influences

Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes ‘our faith,’ which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean. They came from rich families, had nothing to do, they weren’t happy with their lives and were trying to be different. It was a typical ’60s symptom.”

In this 1998 interview with Han Ong of BOMB, Wong discusses the tangential, indirect influence of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause on Days of Being Wild (the film’s title in China) as well as Blow Up’s indirect relationship to Happy Together. For In the Mood for Love, Wong attempted to channel Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Many filmmakers use their cinephilia as a guiding influence, but Wong’s influences imbue the stamp of work that has circulated through culture, that has been re-framed for varying audiences and taken on particular social meanings in contexts outside of their original production. Wong does not pay homage to Rebel as much as he invokes Rebel’s role in early 1960s Chinese culture.

This same approach is evident in Wong’s musical selections. Wong uses Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of Irish band The Cranberries’ “Dreams” to illustrate her desire to travel westward (specifically to California). In the Mood for Love features several of Nat King Cole’s performances of Spanish-language songs. Even in his period pieces, Wong’s cinema manifests a truly global vision of culture, one that not only admires and utilizes the rich resources of great movies and infectious pieces of music, but pays attention to the way in which the travel of movies and music creates a shared, transgressive language between consumers of popular culture.

Fall Out of Love, Get Lonely, and Read

So many of Wong’s films are built collaboratively with the signature of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot everything between Days of Being Wild and 2046. Here he talks about the wealth of inspiration that loneliness provides for the artist – its enabling of engrossed perception, its ability to make one take time with simply being present, its revelation of profound heartbreak of being alone – that is present in almost all of Wong’s films. These are films built from such experiences, and so poignantly that the movies could never have been made the same way at other moments in time. You can’t fake that.

What We’ve Learned

It’s no wonder that Wong and Doyle were such fitting collaborators on their seven films together. Both approach their art as something contextual, momentary and fluid. On the one hand, you can never go back to the moments and circumstances that informed your approach to a particular film – the life of the city, the particular improvisations with the cast and crew, the emotional state that informs the work.

On the other hand, a film is never a sacred object: it is something that can be found, refashioned, selected, and even forgotten. Several critics have described Wong’s work as jazz filmmaking, and I can’t think of a more fitting description. While working in a medium that is essentially archival, Wong manages to somehow imbue his work with a sense of energy, timeliness, urgency, and ephemerality that so few filmmakers ever realize.

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