Tag Archives: Wong Kar-Wai
dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2013, Hong Kong/China
Opening this Friday in select U.S. cities is Wong Kar-Wai’s ambitious, years-in-the-making martial-arts epic/Ip Man-biopic The Grandmaster, which premiered in China back in January shortly before receiving its international bow — in slightly truncated form — at the Berlin International Film Festival. There has been a fascinating divide in terms of how the film has been received in the East versus how it has been received the West, which in many ways reverses how Wong’s movies are usually received: The Grandmaster has gone over much better in China (with both critics and audiences, becoming the director’s first true homegrown hit in a career spanning 10 features) than in Europe and North America. While Wong has typically been a darling of western critics and cinephiles — especially in the period lasting from Days of Being Wild in 1990 to In the Mood for Love in 2000 — his movies have often been quizzically regarded as arty and pretentious specialty items back home. I think the reversal evidenced by The Grandmaster‘s reception can be explained by what might be termed its China-centric qualities, especially the way Wong explores notions of Chinese identity and history and, perhaps most importantly, the philosophical side of kung fu (though it is also chock-full of good old-fashioned kick-ass fight scenes that should satisfy genre aficionados). Western critics have been quick to criticize the new film’s narrative “patchwork” quality (it is certainly the most elliptical thing Wong has ever made) and they definitely have a point. To paraphrase something Andre Bazin said about Robert Bresson, however, I would argue that Wong sees in his narrative awkwardness the price he must pay for something more important; for, while it may not be as “perfect” as beloved earlier films like Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, I believe The Grandmaster‘s astonishing thematic richness makes it more profound than either.
As a piece of storytelling, The Grandmaster definitely has the quality of seeming like it’s the digest of a much longer movie. The plot, such as it is, unfolds as a series of almost self-contained vignettes in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung, underplaying but charismatic as ever), a real kung-fu master who immigrated from southern mainland China to Hong Kong in the mid-20th century, single-handedly popularized the minimalistic fighting style known as Wing Chun and became Bruce Lee’s first teacher (yes, an adorable moppet turns up as young Bruce in the final scene). Each scene feels like a narrative block that has been separated from the ones that precede and follow it by a span of several years, sometimes with only intertitles to fill viewers in on crucial missing information. Characters who seem like they will be important (especially Ip Man’s wife and a mysterious barber/martial artist known as “Razor,” played by Song Hye-kyo and Chang Chen, respectively) pop up for a scene or two, make a big impression, then vanish. The film’s second most important character is Gong Er (an excellent Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung-fu master from the North, who is the center of a parallel narrative that sees her attempting to avenge her father’s murder, and who shares feelings of mutually unrequited love with Ip Man. While unrequited love has long been a pet theme of Wong’s, the characters’ emotions here, while deeply moving to witness, are not the film’s primary reason for being — as has always been the case with Wong’s movies in the past — but are rather the byproduct of a fascinating allegorical story about the paths different Chinese people took in terms of dealing with social upheaval and adapting to exile during a specific period in history. (Unusual for Wong, he collaborated on the original script with co-writers: Xu Haofeng and Zou Jingzhi.)
One of the Grandmaster‘s most fascinating aspects is the way it illustrates how the philosophy behind kung fu can provide valuable lessons for not just how to fight but how to live. Wong has always been concerned with preserving the past — whether shooting old buildings for Fallen Angels that he knew would soon be torn down, to making Hua yang de nian hua (2000), a short film celebrating the golden age of Chinese cinema, to lovingly recreating the past of Hong Kong and China in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and The Grandmaster. The importance of preserving the past becomes the explicit theme of the new movie as Wong uses kung fu as a metaphor for Chinese culture in general — the “grandmaster” Ip Man is a teacher who passes along traditions and thus allows his cultural heritage to perpetuate. In this sense, one of the most important scenes shows how Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), is incapable of teaching his traitorous disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), a particular kung-fu move that involves the act of “looking back.” Ma San soon colludes with occupying Japanese forces and thus symbolizes disrespecting tradition and sacrificing one’s own integrity in order to survive. Gong Yutian informs Ma San that he will never attain the highest level of martial arts — the ability to “see humanity,” which follows “seeing oneself” and “seeing the world.” By contrast, Ip Man and Gong Er are able to maintain their ideals (Ip Man informs Japanese government officials that he would rather starve than eat their rice), and live in exile in Hong Kong — although their differing philosophies ensure that they too meet different destinies. Gong Er betrays her father’s final wish in seeking vengeance for his death and allows herself to become mired in pessimism and opium addiction. Ip Man, however, has the ability to look forward and backward simultaneously; his essential optimism — even in the face of overwhelming suffering (two of his daughters starve to death and he and his wife are separated from each other against their wishes) — ensures that he alone among the film’s characters is able to “see humanity,” and that his Wing Chun school in Hong Kong will flourish. Regardless (and perhaps because of) the disjointed quality the movie takes in getting there, the final scenes are the most mature and humane that Wong has ever created.
I hasten to add that I hope my analysis of the Grandmaster‘s thematic content does not make watching the film seem like anything less than the viscerally exciting experience that it is. The action scenes were choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping and part of the fun of watching the characters fight is seeing how their personalities are expressed through their different fighting styles: the clever and humble Ip Man’s brand of Wing Chun is based on the precise execution of a few effective blows, while the more petulant Gong Er is the last remaining practitioner of the maximalist style known as “64 hands.” Razor — a master of the Bagua school — is both barber and undercover assassin, and wields as a weapon the blade that gave him his nickname. Wong, working with his longtime editor (and production/costume designer) William Chang, as well as collaborating for the first time with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd, has broken martial-arts movie tradition by capturing the fights not with long takes and long shots but by using close-ups, varying film speeds, fast cuts and an unusually shallow depth field. (This last aspect is a major trend in contemporary digital cinematography and has the effect of turning everything in front of the camera lens — drops of water, icicles, Zhang Ziyi’s porcelain skin, etc. — into a fetish object.) These breathtaking visuals, aided immeasurably by the bone-crunching sound effects, do not seek to whip viewers of the ADHD set into a frenzy the way that most spatially/temporally-challenged Hollywood action movies do. Rather, they manage to break down each fight — especially the instant classic train-station climax involving Gong Er and Ma San — into many comprehensible individual moments. In other words, to watch The Grandmaster is to take a master class in filmmaking.
You can view the trailer for The Grandmaster via YouTube below (please ignore the awful car-commercial voice-over):
I shot this video at a Q&A in Chicago last night following a sneak preview screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. It was quite dark in the theater but the audio is clear. Tony is quite the charmer:
The Grandmaster opens in the U.S. on August 23rd.
A continuation of my list of essential Hong Kong movies. This part of the list includes titles released between 1986 and the present.
A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986)
With this 1986 action movie extravaganza, John Woo almost single-handedly kicked off the “heroic bloodshed” genre, where the conventions of the period swordplay film are transposed to the mean street of contemporary Hong Kong. This tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law (one a cop, the other a counterfeiter) has all of Woo’s soon-to-be trademarks: outrageously choreographed shootouts, mawkish melodrama, references to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville, and the charismatic Chow Yun-Fat at his most iconic – sporting sunglasses and a trench coat and with a .45 in each hand. Boo-yah!
An Autumn’s Tale (Cheung, 1987)
Or Another Side of Chow Yun-Fat. While Chow will likely always be most closely identified with John Woo shoot-em-ups, I think his best performance is in this beautiful romantic drama by the relatively unheralded female director Mabel Cheung. An Autumn’s Tale was shot entirely in New York City and charts the exceedingly poignant love story between Jennifer (Cherie Chung), a Hong Kong native who moves to the States to join her no-good, cheating boyfriend at NYU, and her cousin Figgy (Chow), a gambler and wastrel who nonetheless proves to have a heart of gold. The two leads are superb and the deft use of New York locations makes this sweet and touching film a priceless time capsule.
A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching, 1987)
Producer Tsui Hark (often referred to as “the Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong” for his proclivity for big budget fantasy) teamed up with action choregrapher Ching Siu-Tung for this awesome remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1960 ghost story classic The Enchanting Shadow. Leslie Cheung plays Ling, a traveling tax collector who seeks refuge for the night in a haunted temple where he falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Joey Wang) who turns out to be a ghost! Scary, funny (Cheung is hilarious as the bumbling Ling), thrilling, romantic and with delightful special effects (I’m especially fond of the tree spirit with the killer tongue).
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 1991)
As producer/writer/director Tsui Hark inaugurated a new wuxia boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s with titles like Swordsman I and II, Dragon Inn and the Once Upon a Time in China films starring Jet Li as real life doctor/martial arts hero Wong Fei-Hung. Set in the late 19th century, the first and best of the series pits Wong against the forces of British and American colonialism as well as local Chinese gangs and throws in a taboo romance between Wong and his Aunt Yee (the lovely Rosamund Kwan) for good measure. A serious, intelligent kung fu film with fight scenes as exciting and cinematic as the best dance sequences from the golden age of the Hollywood musical.
Actress (aka Centre Stage) (Kwan, 1992)
Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.
The Bride with White Hair (Yu, 1993)
In many ways the ultimate Hong Kong film – a Romeo and Juliet style love story liberally dosed with fantasy, comedy, over-the-top action and colorful, expressionist sets. Brigitte Lin (a Garbo-esque icon of mystery and beauty) plays Lian Ni-Chang, a girl raised by wolves(!) who works as an assassin for an evil cult. She falls in love with Zhuo Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung), a Wu Tang Clan commander and the chief rival of her bosses. The conflict both characters face, between professional duty and the desires of the heart, is almost inexplicably moving given the film’s outrageous, absurdist tone. But that kind of off-the-wall genre-busting is what Hong Kong cinema is all about.
A Chinese Odyssey (Lau, 1994)
Jeffrey Lau, Wong Kar-Wai’s more commercially-minded cousin, directed this ambitious and masterful two-part adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Part one is subtitled Pandora’s Box, part two is subtitled Cinderella; both must be seen in sequence to be understood. The convoluted but consistently entertaining plot tells the epic story of how Buddhism came to China courtesy of Joker, a bandit who discovers that he is the reincarnation of the “Monkey King.” Lau’s masterstroke was casting Stephen Chow, one of the most popular Hong Kong actors (and filmmakers) of the late ’90s and early ’00s, in a relatively early performance that is arguably his finest. It is no exaggeration to say that Chow recalls no one here so much as golden age Charlie Chaplin in his flawless blend of comedy and pathos.
Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)
One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.
The Mission (To, 1999)
I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.
Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak, 2002)
Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak reinvigorated the cop thriller with this inventive and complex doppelganger story about an undercover police officer (Tony Leung) who infiltrates a gang and his opposite number, a gangster (Andy Lau) who becomes a “mole” in the police force. In addition to the swiftly paced storytelling, beautiful cinematography (Wong Kar-Wai’s longtime DP Chris Doyle is credited as consultant) and Leung’s impressively tortured performance, what really impresses here is the extent to which the film eschews physical violence in favor of old-fashioned suspense based on cat-and-mouse style chase scenes. Deepened by references to Buddhism (the film’s original title translates as “Continuous Hell”), this is far superior to the Hollywood remake (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed).
This fall will see the return of a grand master when Wong Kar-Wai releases his new movie The Grandmasters. The world’s most romantic filmmaker directing what is promised to be a “real kung fu film” (with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai playing Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher) is a mouth-watering prospect. The fact that it is Wong’s first movie in over seven years to be made in his native Hong Kong has raised anticipation and expectations even more. Although working slowly has since become his modus operandi, in the mid-1990s Wong was synonymous with the frenetic urban energy and unique East-meets-West flavor of Hong Kong after releasing Ashes of Time, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels within an astonishing span of just 13 months.
In 2006, I travelled to Hong Kong and visited many of the iconic locations featured in the delightful Chungking Express / Fallen Angels diptych. Here is my own personal photo tour of Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong:
The central location of the first half of Chungking Express is Chungking Mansions, one of the oldest and most famous buildings on Hong Kong’s Kowloon side. (This is where Brigitte Lin’s character, the Woman in the Blonde Wig, recruits the Indian drug smugglers.) The first floor consists of dozens of retail shops, some of which are no larger than phone booths, with the upper floors containing hostels that cater to international travelers. (This is not an endorsement. It is reportedly an unsafe place to stay.) Watching Chungking Express is even more fascinating after having visited this location, as one can really appreciate the accuracy with which Wong captures the building’s singularly grungy poetic quality. Especially impressive is the way the film evokes what it feels like to wander around the first floor – with different ethnic music drifting out at anyone walking through the maze of myriad shops. This is also where Takeshi Kaneshiro’s mute character, He Zhiwu, lives with his father in Fallen Angels.
Outside of Chungking Mansions:
In a dilapidated corner of the building’s interior:
“The Woman in the Blonde Wig” inside of Chungking Mansions:
The central location of the second half of Chungking Express is the fast food restaurant Midnight Express. This is where Faye (Faye Wong) serves black coffee to heartbroken Cop 663 (Tony Leung) every night. The restaurant also makes a cameo in Fallen Angels when He Zhiwu briefly works there. By 2006 Midnight Express, located in Lan Kwai Fong (the nightlife district of Hong Kong Island), had closed and the space was being used as a tobacco shop. From what I understand it has since been converted again, this time into a 7-11.
Faye and Cop 663 in Midnight Express:
Outside of the First In Tobacco Shop (formerly Midnight Express):
In Chungking Express, Cop 663 and Faye make a date to meet at the California Restaurant. Any Wong Kar-Wai fan visiting Hong Kong for the first time will probably be amazed to learn that it is on the same block as Midnight Express (but on the opposite side of the street) – a much closer spatial relationship than one would ever deduce from watching the movie.
I drank a beer inside of California Restaurant (I particularly like this shot because it looks like it could be from a WKW film):
But unlike Cop 663 I didn’t talk to any empty bottles:
Cop 223 eats a burger outside of a Tsim Tsha Tsui McDonald’s (Kowloon side) in Chungking Express. This is also where Leon Lai’s hitman meets Blondie (Karen Mok) in Fallen Angels:
Outside of the same McDonald’s 12 years later:
Next to Wong Kar-Wai’s star on Victoria Harbour’s Hong Kong “Walk of Fame”:
The above photos of me were taken by the great Mia Park
Update 01/14/12: Of all the old posts on this blog, this one has remained the most popular because of the number of people constantly looking for information about the locations where WKW shot his films. Someone even linked this post to the official Wikipedia entry for Chungking Express. Therefore, I’m going to provide more detailed information about the addresses of the locations discussed above.
Chunking Mansions is located at 36 – 44 Nathan Rd. in Kowloon.
California Restaurant is located at 32 – 34 D’aguilar St. in Central.
Midnight Express is now a 7-11 and is located at 3 Lan Kwai Fong, a very short walk from California Restaurant.
The basement McDonald’s that figures in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels is located on Salisbury Rd. in Kowloon. I don’t know the exact address but it’s easy to find.