Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s much-lauded 2000 film, In the Mood for Love, which debuted on the 20th of May at the Cannes film festival and was to be re-screened for its 20th anniversary at this year’s festival, so our idea was to rather neatly stick that into the Intermission episode that we released on that date.
However, 5G masts erected by big pharma, or at least that part of big pharma that manufactures anti-malaria drugs, caused everything in the world to be cancelled (I’ve been trying to avoid the news, but I think that’s pretty accurate), so Cannes didn’t happen.
Why am I telling you this? Honestly, I have no idea, beyond that the introduction I had so carefully composed within my head earlier this afternoon buggered off before I could commit it to text, and I’m mostly just typing in the hope that the mere rhythm of doing so might recover my words, and I’ve written this now so I’m bloody well going to read it.
So anyway, we decided to just cover all of Wong Kar-wai’s films over a couple of episodes, is what I’m trying to say. Something something expanding cinematic horizons, something something well-regarded director. Something something.
Wong Kar-wai is Chinese by birth but moved to Hong Kong at the age of five, with his difficulties with the culture and learning Cantonese being strong influences in his work. Exposed to a wide range of cinema thanks to his mother, he has also been influenced by music videos and MTV, and the cross-pollination of cultures in Hong Kong.
He began his career as a screenwriter, particularly with soap operas before moving on to film, and by 1987 had worked on more than 60 scripts, though was only credited on ten of them. He began his directing career in 1987 with the gangster film As Tears Go By, while his third feature, Chungking Express, brought him to international attention, with his reputation being cemented by his best director win at Cannes for 1997’s Happy Together.
His films are usually visually distinctive and vivid, frequently use slow motion and multiple-character voiceover, and tend to have popular music soundtracks. They often contain themes of memory, and the passage of time and the significance of dates.
They are also going to be talked about. Now. By us.
As Tears Go By
Wai’s first written and directed by credit comes in the shape of this 1988 film, which is very much located in 1988, and also, of course, Hong Kong. Andy Lau plays Wah, a low level triad enforcer, and nominal boss / big brother to Jacky Cheung’s Fly, who is, and let’s be fair to him, a god-dammed liability. His crazy stunts and needling of fellow triad members most often sees Wah having to clean up the mess, normally by doing something even crazier. This, naturally, starts to cause some friction between Wah and Fly, and them and the rest of the mob, particularly Alex Man’s Tony.
Into all this allegedly organised crime shenanigans enters Wah’s distant cousin, Maggie Cheung’s Ngor, coming to the big city from the sticks, relatively speaking, in order to see a medical consultant for a somewhat vague respiratory malady. Initially they get off to a rocky meeting, in large part due to Wah’s unusual schedule and getting over a recent break-up, but they soon warm to each other.
You can perhaps see where that’s going, but a clock is put on it after yet another escalation of the situation between Fly and Tony and his goons, with Wah again having to bail Fly out and take a thorough beating for his efforts. It’s this latest humiliation that no doubt sees Fly, after recovering, keen to take up a job for the mob that Tony chickened out of, an almost certain suicide mission to kill an informant in police custody before a trial, which Wah would of course rather not see Fly throw his life away for.
This is one of Wai’s most successful films in his native land, however exactly why this would be the case eludes me. I didn’t dislike it, to be clear, and there’s a lot in here to like, especially on what I assume is a relatively restrained budget. In particular there’s some really nice, if highly stylised use of lighting from Wai and cinematographer Andrew Lau, the blues and reds giving a lot of atmosphere to locations that otherwise would rather betray their cut-price roots. It’s also an early outing for the way Wai handles action sequences, with that weird blurred slow-motion technique that’s also pretty effective at smoothing over and rough points.
What I’m struggling with, which will again be a bit of a recurring theme, is that these characters are not overly well explored and that makes quite a few of their actions and motivations a little baffling. Well, in this instance a lot baffling, as how anyone would countenance talking to Fly, let alone letting his dumb ass put you in mortal danger multiple times for little to no reason befuddles me. He’s just not someone you’d go to bat for. Hit with a bat, perhaps.
With that plot thread snipped, there’s not enough in the otherwise mostly unobjectionable Wah / Ngor relationship thread for support the weight of the film, leaving this flopping around rather unevenly. That said, the decent performances from Lau and Cheung, Wai’s mainstays of the period, the visual style and the snappy pacing are more than enough to keep things bustling along without it becoming a drag.
I’ve seen much worse directorial debuts, although I’d not be putting this near the top of anyone’s watchlists.
Days of Being Wild
Which more accurately translates from the original Cantonese title as “90 minutes of being a dick to women.”
Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore movie, and his first to be declared a bona fide critical success, Days establishes much of the tone that would eventually come to be seen as the director’s trademarked MO; mainly an omnipresent atmosphere of languor as defective adults sit in anonymous rooms, betraying one another’s emotions. The first part of what would later reveal itself to be a 60s-set trilogy, the action, or perhaps more accurately inaction of Days takes place in a seamy Hong Kong that seems typically half-remembered and humid with nostalgia.
In it we are introduced to Yuddy, a brooding Leslie Cheung, as he basically psychologically abuses his way into the affections of Su Li-zhen, played by Maggie Cheung, who is somewhat demure and unassuming, but because this is a Wong joint also stunningly attractive. In spite of his cold and detached demeanour Li-zhen is clearly besotted with Yuddy, and makes the mistake of mentioning marriage, at which point her beau makes his feelings on the topic clear by physically assaulting his way into the affections of showgirl Mimi (Carina Lau). Li-zhen finds some solace and emotional connection one night when, in the midst of an attempt at collecting her belongings from Yuddy’s house, she ends up walking the beat with police officer Tide (Andy Lau).
Predictably it’s not long before Yuddy tells Mimi to sling her hook too, this time propelled by a desire to travel to the Philippines and finally find his birth mother, an act that leads to an ultimatum from his adoptive mother, played by Rebecca Pan. All this plays out for the first hour until about twenty minutes from the end, at which point Yuddy is suddenly shooting gangsters while sharing a hotel room with Tide, who apparently quit being a cop and left to become a sailor. Even taking into account the fact I had a really terrible set of subtitles I’m still somewhat baffled by this sudden turn of events, and that’s before the final scene introduces a character played by Tony Leung, apparently apropos of nothing.
Now, depending what kind of mood I’m in I may try and source a better copy of Days with decent subtitles and watch it again, as I only really fell for Wong’s later work 2046, more of which in a later podcast, on a second viewing. Chances are I won’t, however, as one of my prerequisites for revisiting a film I’n not 100% sure I’ve got a handle on is having a sympathetic lead, and Yuddy is most certainly not that. While Leslie Cheung, rest his soul, was certainly a handsome young man I find it incredible that the character he portrays here would have quite the effect he does on women given the tactics he employs; your mileage may always vary, but I don’t think I know a single woman who would tolerate a man stalking them at work each day and incessantly demanding they dream of him that night, nor having someone restrain and suffocate them to the point of forcing their mouth open for a kiss.
Yuddy is, in short, a total shit, and exhibits none of the sympathetic character traits we would hope for from a leading man. If an early scene where he beats one of his adoptive mother’s suitors hints at a soul capable of emotion then little is to come of it, as from that point onwards he is equally a knob to her too. Unfortunately we get to spend precious little time with the other main characters, many of whom are actually interesting and display vaguely human qualities, and who would certainly give the movie some much needed heart. In particular I would much rather Yuddy were a background character in the story of Li-zhen and Tide, who its hinted may have gone on to have some relationship, though it is never directly implied.
I may have Days all confused, in which case I am happy to hear the argument as to why; certainly I appreciate the atmosphere and cinematography, though not to the degree I did in 2046, and there are enough people who argue this is peak Wong, even taking into account In The Mood For Love, that I have to at least consider the possibility that I am terribly, terribly wrong.
Takeshi Kaneshiro’s He Qiwu is a Hong Kong Police detective who is struggling to get over a break-up, and is coping with it through the medium of Del Monte tinned pineapple. Whatever it takes, I guess…
He is eventually helped out of his slump by an encounter with Brigitte Lin’s blonde wig and sunglasses-wearing, child-snatching, murdering drug-trafficker, and he decides that he’s in love with her, because no-one in any of these films (nor, I suspect, the director) understands how human relationships work, certainly not healthy ones. Despite it seeming that He Qiwu is the protagonist of the story, his story ends about a third of the way in (so successfully so that by the end of the film I had genuinely almost forgotten the first section entirely), and we move on to another lovelorn police officer, though not before we’re delivered the stunning insight that some people like pineapple and some don’t.
This second police officer is Tony Leung’s Officer 663, whose beat takes him regularly past the same Midnight Express takeaway where He Qiwu was making regular calls to his voicemail service. He’s prompted by the proprietor to try bringing his girlfriend something different to his regular chef’s salad, a tactic so successful that she decides to try something new herself, and leaves him.
The forlorn police officer becomes an attractive object to Faye (Faye Wong), so she sets about sneaking into his flat, changing things and buying him new goldfish, none of which he notices, which I guess explains why he’s still a beat cop and not a detective, but when he finally catches her in his house, he, naturally, wants to go out with her and she, naturally, buggers off to California.
Chungking Express is, by a margin, my favourite of the films we’re talking about in this episode, but I still don’t find it particularly satisfying, though I’m aware much of that can be attributed to an overriding preference for strong narrative. The biggest problem is that it feels so much like a feature-length music video, and I generally can’t really be that bothered with them when they’re only four minutes. Much is saved by the ever-watchable presence of Tony Leung, and the somehow harmless housebreaking Faye Wong, whose Jean Seberg-esque pixie haircut is far from the only thing here that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Her very expressive face is a joy to behold, the film less so, but it’s certainly distinctive and visually interesting.
Ashes of Time
I should perhaps note that I was watching the 2008 Redux version, which in the main appears to be broadly the same as the original versions apart from some more aggressive colour grading. Highly aggressive.
Originally released back in 1994, I gather to a politely baffled response for entirely relatable reasons. It’s certainly a Wuxia film in the literal definition of the term, but certainly not of the highly fantastical, superjumping wirework shenanigans that was the typical movie translation – it’s more grounded, in a very literal sense, than the likes of Fong Sai-yuk, Chinese Ghost Story or the later Crouching Tiger.
I rather regret giving myself this to attempt a plot recap, as it’s a little obtuse. It is, in what’s perhaps become a Wai staple technique, split into a few stories based around Leslie Cheung ‘s Ouyang Feng, initially a middleman connecting mercenary fighters with those seeking to hire them, typically for revenge, who later becomes a warrior himself. I mention this as, being told through a not completely clear non-linear framing, this may be confusing to some people, pointing no fingers at myself.
Further complicating things, his mercenary friend Huang Yaoshi (“Big” Tony Leung Ka-fai) has shown up, on the way killing a group of bandits to steal a horse, which will in a way precipitate most of the rest of the film’s events, the remnants of the gang looking for revenge. Before that, he’s brought a bottle of wine that a witch claims will steal memories. This may or may not actually work on Huang. It’s not clear. in fact, so many things are not clear to me in this film that I’m perhaps best served skipping over any attempt at a plot recap.
As the film progresses, we’re introduced to segments more or less focused on each of “Little” Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as a Blind Swordsman, Jacky Cheung as Hong Qigong, a beggar looking to become an assassin, Charlie Yeung as the perfunctorily named Girl with Mule, a poor villager looking for vengeance for her brother, killed by imperial goons, and Brigitte Lin as Murong Yang and Murong Yin, who is either a woman sometimes pretending to be a man, or possibly actually is supposed to become a man, given the genre, although at all times looking like a woman, even when she’s a man.
I’m not saying this film’s impenetrable, more that I was not able to penetrate this. Oo-er, matron. Perhaps it’s clearer if you know the bones of the classical work this is setting itself up as a prequel to, but as a first introduction to these characters and their actions, I’m left with questions. Actually, I’m not sure I’m given enough information to form those questions, other than who, what, where, why, and how?
I find myself in the same position as when we spoke about Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin back in 2016, which is to say it’s doing a great deal of things that I’d ordinarily be exceedingly irritated by, but, somehow, the atmosphere and the visuals power through it and left me somewhat entranced by it.
It’s a tough film to know who to recommend it to, however. There’s not the usual quantity of action that’s typical of Wuxia films, and what little that is there is atypical and somewhat more visceral than you’d expect. If you’re looking for a compelling plot do drive the action that there isn’t, well, strike two. On the other hand, if you’re more looking for a character piece, well, I don’t think there’s much here for you either. Again, I have no complaints with the acting but I don’t feel there’s much revealed about the characters. I get the impression that the depth is very much there, but not in any way that is meaningfully explored.
Briefly, back to the visuals, and particularly the grading – it’s an exceedingly saturated film. Particularly in the yellows. To the extent that some are claiming it’s an error. I don’t know the truth of that, but give how strongly Wai’s used colour in his other work, I’m more inclined to think it’s intentional, giving parts of this the feel of an Edo scroll or something similar but more culturally appropriate. Once I’d got over the visual shock of this I grew to rather like it, but I’ll happily hear counter-opinions saying it’s ugly.
A real curate’s egg of a film. I don’t regret watching it in the slightest, but at the same time I don’t think I can recommend anyone else do so without a cavalcade of caveats.
So what’s Fallen Angels_all about, then? No. Really. What’s _Fallen Angels all about? Because I’ve no bloody idea. I know that the bulk of it follows the adventures, such as they are, of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s He Zwihu, a mute former prisoner who makes a living by breaking into other people’s businesses at 3am and forcing people to have their hair washed, buy aubergines, or eat copious amounts of ice cream. At some point he decides he is in love and his hair starts turning blond because he’s a Taiwanese Russian. Oh, and his condition was caused by eating an out of date tin of pineapple.
Nope, no idea.
Before we meet He Zwihu, though, we’re introduced to a hitman and his business partner, who… cleans his house for him? She has feelings for him, so gets pissed off when he starts seeing a woman (who, by the way, is convinced that they already had had a relationship of some length in the past). This women wears a curly blonde wig, either because the director has a thing for women in curly blonde wigs, or, my guess, because there was a similarly bewigged woman in Chungking Express. It’s clearly super-solid stuff, plot and character-wise, so it fits completely with his previous four films, though, while there’s still the inexplicable and unbelievable relationships of those, there’s at least fewer creepy weirdos.
I should think it’s clear by this point that Wong Kar-wai isn’t interested in satisfying narrative or story, nor interesting characters: his films are impressionistic, a riot of saturated colour and rapid motion, that, for me, are trying to convey a feeling, a mood, of the bustling nature of Hong Kong (Ashes of Time aside, naturally), though I don’t think they do it particularly well. There’s not a film of the director’s that we’ve talked about in this episode that I like, though, interestingly, there aren’t any that I actually dislike either (though by this fifth one I was thoroughly sick of character interior monologue attempting to tell me things the visuals and action absolutely did not back up, along with occasional banalities).
Fallen Angels shares much of the sense of the urban isolation and melancholy that his other work exhibits, for all of its seeming energy and, as He Zwihu channels David Cameron and rides a dead pig, mania. But what it doesn’t have is romanticism, a word I’ve seen associated with the director a lot. And having now seen more of his work, and the seriously messed up relationships portrayed in them, I worry about anyone applying that term. But Fallen Angels does find time, rather unexpectedly, for a touching moment of love, and more than puddle-deep emotion, as He Zwihu observes his father.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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