We return to the Wong Kar Wai well to review the later half of his output thus far. Will we fall in love with Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046, My Blueberry Nights, and The Grandmaster? Join us and find out!
We move over to Argentina in this 1997 effort, as Leslie Cheung’s Ho Po-wing and Tony Leung’s Lai Yiu-fai are introduced to us on an ill fated road trip to a scenic waterfall, aborted when an argument sees Po-wing storm off and initiate the latest in what’s clearly a series of breakups between the two.
Later we rejoin Fai, working as a promoter cum bouncer at a Buenos Aires nightclub, with him taking up the by now familiar voice over duties of narrating his life, trying to save up money to return to a Hong Kong that he misses, when life throws a spanner in the works when Po-wing shows up with a new bloke, although it seems that he’s a paying client.
A blow by blow recap of the twists and turns of their relationship as they are again drawn to each other, through some desperate events, probably won’t do a great deal of justice to them, but it must be said that after the last episodes’ surfeit of relationships that stretched credulity, we finally have one here that I can finally believe in and invest some emotion in. Not a healthy relationship, obviously, on either party’s end, but one that feels altogether human as these two come together again, and, inevitably, it seems, apart again.
The other strand woven in to this comes from a work colleague of Fai’s, Chang Chen’s Chang, another Taiwanese youngster touring about, stopping off to make some money before travelling to the ends of the Earth, or at least the lighthouse at the end of the world. He and Fai become friends – Chang’s only friend in Argentina, he says, and it seems like there may be more than just friendship on the cards. However, it’s not the case, Chang remaining a solitary figure on the rest of his travels, leaving us wondering if, perhaps, the title of this film is purely ironic.
If you didn’t catch our last podcast, the general consensus would be that Wai has style to spare in his films, although plot and character were, in fact, spared almost entirely. As a relationship study I suppose you could argue that this still isn’t going in hard on the plot elements, but as mentioned earlier it’s finally delivered a bunch of characters that I’m invested in, a final component for proper enjoyment of his films when coupled with the now-expected fine performances from Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung.
Thankfully, the style remains too, with another well shot film that contrasts the city’s charms alongside the character’s less glamorous lodgings, and later, workplaces. Finally it’s all come together to produce something I can recommend without having to put any caveats in.
As for wider meaning, I’ve heard arguments on both sides as to this presentation of the gay relationship, drawing as it does little to no attention to the leads actually being gay. Is this entirely normalising the relationship in society, as it ideally should, or minimising the lived experiences of the gay community for whom such normalisation is far from guaranteed, both, sadly, now and at the time of release? I’m not best placed to judge, but I’d recommend y’all watch it and make your own mind up.
In the Mood for Love
Hong Kong, 1962. Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung), a secretary, and Mr Chow (Tony Leung), a journalist, are two people who, along with their respective spouses, both begin to rent adjoining apartments on the same day. To the casual observer both appear to be happily married, however as viewers we soon become aware that something is off. Mrs Chan’s husband seemingly spends most of his time away on business trips, while the equally nebulous Mrs Chow is frequently likewise away with work or tending to distant ill relatives. Soon, it begins to dawn on our two leads that their spouses are having an affair, but in the aftermath of this revalation the pair choose to keep their knowledge on the down-low and form a bond of friendship that becomes increasingly romantic throughout the course of the movie.
Vowing never to be like their partners the pair agree that they must remain faithful in order to uphold both the outward appearance of their respective relationships, but also their own dignity. Eventually Chow confesses to Chan that his feelings for her have gone way beyond those the pair promised they would allow, and to spare them any further torment he moves to Shanghai in pursuit of a job opportunity. Now, as far as plot is concerned, what with this being a Wong Kar-Wai movie that’s almost your lot. Not quite, but almost.
If you listened to our last podcast on this topic you’ll remember we had variable results, tending toward the disappointing, and in particular I felt let down by the reputation of Days of Being Wild. In The Mood For Love shares a great deal with that movie, indeed the pair are part of an unofficial trilogy of sorts along with 2046, but whereas that movie felt about as flyaway as it gets here, at arguably the apex of his career, Wong manages a wonderful feat in marrying that subtlety of unobtrusive plot with depth of character, genuine emotional resonance, and an atmosphere bordering on the tangible.
Much of the movie’s success is due to Cheung and Leung as the nascent couple, their subtle chemistry occasionally simmering as they orbit each other in a way that is both believable and satisfying; it would have been easy to play this one for over-the-top melodrama, but it is at all times reserved and all the more heartbreaking for it. Both Chow and Chan are likeable, empathetic characters in a way that is thrown into stark relief by both the behaviour of their spouses (almost entirely absent from screen, only occasionally glimpsed from behind or heard from across a hallway) and also their dignity, of which Wong affords them plenty.
Speaking of dignity, I think it is interesting to observe how much of it Wong affords the female leads of his movies, in stark contrast to much of Western cinema’s output for the same period. Maggie Cheung could easily have phoned in this performance on looks alone had she so desired, because believe me when I say she is an absolute vision in every frame of this movie, but her calm resolve as Mrs Chan is at least equally as beautiful to behold, and we are in no doubt that she is fully in charge of her own destiny throughout. Likewise, this may be my favourite performance from Tony Leung, whose similar resolve and eventual epiphany, that he no longer holds the affair against his wife as he understands how easy it is to fall in love, is just as quietly heartbreaking.
Those two central performances ought really to be enough, but in this instance we are spoiled by frankly world class cinematography lead by frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, beautiful costume design by William Chang, and totally on-point art direction courtesy of Lim Chung Man. And anyone who has listened to our podcasts for any length of time know I never call out those departments by name. I don’t know if I’ve settled on how to articulate my thoughts about the cinematography in particular, but if Chris Doyle had laid the camera down at the end of shooting, announced his destiny in this life had been fulfilled and then disappeared in a puff of smoke I doubt anyone could have acted surprised.
That all of this comes together in a single package is remarkable, enough so that I might now be forced to go back and re-watch Days of Being Wild to ensure I haven’t made a terrible mistake. I don’t think I did, but that’s okay; only having In The Mood For Love is enough for me. It actually made me re-assess my feelings toward 2046, but we’ll talk about that in a bit. Suffice to say outside of that movie this is the first time I feel Wong’s reputation has been fully realised for me. Really great stuff.
Not being one for a cohesive narrative even within one film, it’s perhaps a surprise that Wong Kar-wai followed up In the Mood for Love with something of a sequel, and one that benefits from (though does not require) having seen the earlier film, but he did just that with 2046, named for the number of the hotel room in which Chow and Su Li-zhen collaborated on their martial arts stories in In the Mood for Love.
Chow has returned to Hong Kong from Singapore, and we soon see that the he is dealing with the failure of his ultimately chaste relationship with Su Li-zhen, and the loss of her, his great love, from his life, by being a womaniser and, well, a bit of a prat where women are concerned, though whether because of the likeability of Tony Leung, knowledge of the character from In the Mood for Love or just because he’s considerably better than many of the other men in Wong’s films up until now, he stills comes across as likeable and sympathetic.
Having occasion to visit Hong Kong’s Oriental Hotel after running into Days of Being Wild’s Lulu/Mimi, he is struck by her room number, 2046, and asks the manager a few days later for that room. Currently unavailable, he is given the adjoining room 2047, and here he begins two very different relationships with two women who will take up residence next door.
First is the elder daughter of the hotel owner, played by Faye Wong, who is in love with a Japanese, a relationship that won’t be countenanced by her father, so Chow offers to play the go-between for their correspondence. They begin a writing partnership, one of the products of which is a serial entitled 2046.
After her is Zhiyi Zang’s Bai Ling, a club hostess who, it is fairly heavily implied but never stated, is also a call girl. Chow begins a relationship with her, but for unclear reasons, though perhaps as some sort of self-defence or armour, he treats her very badly. Naturally, because healthy relationships don’t yet exist in Wong Kar-wai’s world, his being an asshat to her causes Bai to fall deeply in love with Chow, up until the point that she finally gets fed up and leaves.
Chow attempts to reconcile his feelings, desires and pain through his story, 2046, set in that year and telling the tale of a young Japanese man who is the only passenger aboard a train full of beautiful, servile fembots. Their detachment and emptiness finally brings Chow to an epiphany about himself.
All of this occurs, as I’m sure you by now expect, in a non-linear fashion, and a fairly incoherent one too: Wong’s works are about mood and feeling far more than anything else. Well, that and cigarettes, smoking and the combustion of tobacco products. But if you allow yourself to get lost in it, _2046_is a deeply affecting and rewarding film, though the regret, heartache, loss, pain and poignancy have a good chance of stomping on your mood.
As you might also expect, it’s beautiful, with Wong’s regular DP Christopher Doyle joined by Infernal Affairs photographer Lai Yiu-fai and Kwan Pun-leung, together creating a warm and rich world that at the same time feels distant and empty. Some of the beautiful compositions even manage not to involve smoking, showing that Wong is prepared to grow as a filmmaker.
My Blueberry Nights
Wong’s first and so far only English language film transports us initially to Noo Yawk, as Norah Jones’ Elizabeth has her heart broken by some gadabout, depositing her cheatin’ ex’s apartment key at the local cafe, run by Jude Law’s Jeremy, joining a jar of other manifestations of broken dreams. She can’t help but hang around night after night to see if the key will be reclaimed, sharing a slice of blueberry pie with Jeremy. Just as it seems that there might be some sparks in that relationship brewing, if that’s what sparks do, I’m not a scientist, she ups sticks and leaves.
She heads South to find herself, working in a diner by day and bar by night in Memphis, Tennessee, where she will become a witness to another tragic relationship between David Strathairn’s Arnie and Rachel Weisz’s Sue Lynne, although perhaps more accurately it’s the relationship between Arnie and the bottle of scotch that’s the issue.
Later she’ll head off to Nevada and get wrapped up in the life of a risk-taking card sharp Natalie Portman’s Leslie, in a segment that was certainly a thing that existed, but I’m not sure what the wider point of is, before returning to New York and Jeremy, who has rather soppily been waiting for her, like, a year later, for some reason.
This got a rather tepid reaction on release, and is considered a bit of a flop. And, well, it is, at least in the company of the films we’re talking about today. If I was feeling contrary, I could argue a point that the shallow characters and meandering through-line is not significantly worse than was seen in his earlier work, and at least Wong’s had the sense to cast David Strathairn in it, instantly making it a watchable film regardless of the well trod Americana it’s dressing itself in.
However at that point I’d just be arguing about relative positions in the bottom half of Wong’s league table, and as there’s no relegation from that division I’d rather spend our time here talking about more positive experiences. So I won’t say much more, other than to say it’s no-one’s worst hour either in front of or behind the camera, but far from their best (particularly Jude Law, and that allegedly Mancunian accent). Apart from Norah Jones, I suppose, who didn’t really act in anything substantial after this to date, so this is both her best and worst hour. Such is life.
By no means awful, but by no means recommended to anyone other than a completionist.
Who can take a bad guy, kick him in the face? With just his little finger chuck him about the place? The Ip Man, the Ip Man can!
So bereft have I been of foreign cinema and assosciated culture these past few years that I was under the impression Ip Man was basically a kung fu movie franchise fronted by Donnie Yen. I had no idea that Ip Man was an actual dude and something of a cultural icon within the martial arts community, and certainly not that he was in fact the master of one Bruce Lee.
Long in the gestation (about a decade or so), Wong Kar-Wai’s 2013 movie The Grandmaster seeks to address the legend himself, seemingly lamenting as it goes the passing of martial arts from a dynastic way of life to a recreational pursuit with the second Sino-Japanese War somewhere in the middle. The film begins with a rain-drenched fight where Ip Man (Tony Leung) kicks the collective ass of about a dozen men, one of whom is, for reasons perhaps known only to himself, wearing Iron Shoes. I gather this scene takes place chronologically rather later in Ip Man’s life and that the remainder of the film is essentially comprised of flashbacks, but I’m not clear on that because by some combination of exotic cultural mores, confused subtitling and a banging headache I struggled to make much sense of the first half hour of The Grandmaster. Having sense-checked via a quick dip into Wikipedia I’m now much clearer on it, and things scanned markedly more logically when I watched the remainder the following day, so I’m guessing it was mostly the headache.
Anyhoo, in the early 1930s Ip Man is selected to represent martial arts interests in Southern China by grandmaster Gong Yutian, who surprises everyone when he announces his retirement. Gong’s daughter Er (Zhang Ziyi) objects somewhat to the formation of a Southern branch of the family’s interest, but perhaps grudgingly forms some respect for Ip when he defeats her father in a philosophical battle. In the North it is decreed that tradition passes to Gong’s student Ma San (Jin Zhang), who looks like he might be a wrong’un, but we’ll come back to him.
Having formed a friendship with Gong Er, Ip Man plans to travel to the North with his family, but his plans are somewhat scuppered by the Japanese invasion of 1937. In the resulting chaos of war Ip Man loses two of his daughters and relocates to Hong Kong in order to try and provide for his family by teaching Wing-chun in one of the city’s many martial arts schools. In the meantime we have seen Ma San side with the Imperial Japanese forces and turn traitor on Gong Yutian, killing the master, thereby understandably invoking the ire of Gong Er.
Now if that sounds like a lot more plot than is typical for a Wong joint you’d be correct. If it sounds like a lot more action you’d also be correct. Now that I think about it I wonder if that first half hour didn’t see me blindsided by simply being in the wrong mindset, because by all obvious measures this is really very far removed from the director’s typical fare. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Grandmaster, because there’s a good deal to like about it; this is, after all, a movie where a man has to fight a cake. However there are also things I don’t like about it, such as…wait a minute…a man has to fight a cake?
Were The grandmaster to focus purely on the drama aspect I feel I might have fared a little better, as the dynastic dealings and brothel-bound debates are easily the best thing about it. The intrigue and internal politics of mid-century martial arts houses against a backdrop of foreign invasion would be easily enough to sustain a ten part Netflix series, never mind a two hour movie, so while it may sound counter-intuitive it almost seems a shame to bring things to a halt for martial arts sequences. Martial arts sequences that are absolutely fine, and seem technically adept, but that I couldn’t really get all that excited about; I only need so many super-slow motion shots of feet sliding to a halt in rain and snow in my life, and I’m pretty sure those constitute at least fifteen minutes of this movie’s run time. If those were the only things missing from the Harvey Scissorhands US cut of this movie I might actually recommend it.
Having said that I’m not going to pretend I didn’t let out a “yesssss” when Gong Er gives a certain asshole forty rapid against a passing train, on which note let me once again talk of dignified female leads. While I have no doubt Zhang Ziyi could kick most people’s ass, male or female, it is wonderfully satisfying to find her ultimate move is very publicly correcting a battered Ma San’s assertion that he passes the family legacy to her.
But yes; bit of an odd one this. There’s a lot here to like, but with a foot in two camps it can’t quite reconcile in cinematic terms The Grandmaster is not my highest recommendation this episode.
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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