The Reality of Wong Kar-wai — Essay

I had always heard of the films of WKW but his oeuvre lived in a blind spot in my viewing. Recently the Criterion Collection released a box set of his films on Blu-ray. The visual style of the films are lush. The dark colors are heavy, crushed. As a viewer you are completely sucked in. Not dissimilar to an experience I had sitting in front of a Rothko for 25 minutes in the Seagram Murals room or what I call the Red Room of the Tate Britain in London. It’s mesmerizing, transcendent and a little scary. You need to re-calibrate to reality afterwards — but it’s never quite the same. In the case of WKW, now you know how beautiful a film can actually be. 

The collaboration of WKW and Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is now legendary. Doyle, an Aussie who lived in Hong Kong and spoke fluent Cantonese worked hand in glove with WKW. He is featured prominently in behind the scenes documentaries in the Criterion set. However, years ago I had seen a BBC doc in which he walked the audience through Hong Kong. Describing how, for example, certain streets or lights from buildings inspired his style. It’s not surprising that in both directing and cinematography the craft of these films is derived from the surrounding world. Consider that the inspiration for one film, Happy Together, came from a lamp that long time WKW Art Director and Editor William Chang found at a local shop in Buenos Aires. 

Which leads us to WKW’s directing style. As Western filmmakers, at my grad school, UCLA and in my own role as a teacher, I have always followed the rule, been told and taught that the script is the Bible. And on large productions this holds true. All the department heads look to the script to help find clues to or straight up answer questions. No stranger to this method, WKW had 50 TV & Film screenwriter credits before he directed his first film. But his own directing method is antithetical to this. He works 100 percent from improvisation. It takes many months to complete his films. The actors have time to sink into their roles, costumes, movements — their world. Curious about this method, also shared to an extent by Wenders and Fellini, I tried it myself on my last film. The way to pull it off is to be working with smart actors who have great ability to pivot depending on what’s happening. Actors with great intuition and ability to go with the flow. Sure, there are adjustments from the Director, notes. But setting the scene, creating the environment, is the main job of the Director when working this way. WKW was certainly one of the most successful —and intense— Directors to achieve results with this method. Combined with the visual style, he tapped into raw human emotion and created a parallel reality in front of the camera.

— If you’d like to experience this reality firsthand, then head over to The 602 Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’ll be screening In the Mood for Love on Blu-ray on Friday, January 13th.

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