Wong Kar-wai was a rare commodity within the Hong Kong film industry - a maker of "art" films. Moreover, he made these films with studio backing and all-star casts, with some of these projects even making money. In an entertainment arena dominated by over-the-top actioners, florid melodramas, and broad comedies, this was no small achievement. For Wong, genre merely provided a template through which he worked out his ongoing thematic preoccupations, such as the transitory nature of experience, the importance of memory, the influence of pop culture, and the lasting sting of rejection. His bold stylistic signature - slow-motion action scenes blurred and pixilated by step-printing; huge, distorting close-ups and compacted fight sequences shot from disorienting angles - had tended to overwhelm most conventional generic concerns. But what distinguished Wong most of all, was his not ever using a script - like Miles Davis with Kind of Blue, Wong sketched basic ideas and trusted those around him, particularly the actors, to help him improvise his films - a stunning achievement, given the difficulty of making even a descent movie from the best of scripts.
Beloved by critics and the Hong Kong acting elite, Wong's films had won him favorable comparisons to master experimentalists Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais in their heyday. His rare genre outings had also been evocative of the work of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Called a "poet of time" by BFI's Sight and Sound, Wong evinced a greater interest in the poetics of light, mood and texture, than with the more prosaic concerns of action or straightforward narrative. Nonetheless, actors - even some of Hong Kong's biggest stars - Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia - enjoyed working with Wong because he encouraged improvisation and giving them meaty, unconventional roles, for which they tended to win major awards. Surprisingly, for a purveyor of such an imagistic cinema, Wong first established himself as a writer - initially of TV soap operas.
Born in Shanghai, China in 1958, a five-year-old Wong moved to Hong Kong with his mother in 1963. The rest of the family was to follow. A month later, however, the Cultural Revolution broke out, closing the mainland's borders and trapping his father, elder brother and sister for some years. As the only way to communicate with his detained relatives was through writing, Wong became a regular correspondent. His father also instilled in him a love for Chinese and European literature. Graduating high school, the future filmmaker attended a technical school, focusing on graphic design, but his true interest was photography. In 1980, during his second year, Wong quit to enroll in a training program for TV drama production run by Sir Run Run Shaw's Hong Kong Television Broadcasts, Ltd. (HKTVB). He soon entered the industry as a production assistant on several dramatic serials. Wong subsequently became an assistant director and later a writer for soaps, including the 1981 thriller serial "Don't Look Now." He left HKTVB in 1982 to pursue a screenwriting career and found considerable success, writing some 50 screenplays - about 10 were produced with his name in the credits - in genres running the gamut from action to comedy to melodrama to pornography.
Wong segued to directing with "As Tears Go By" (1989), an idiosyncratic gangster movie punctuated with lots of popular music and fast-paced montages, which Wong also scripted. The film proudly displayed its debts to Martin Scorsese's landmark, "Mean Streets" (1973). A surprise hit, "As Tears Go By" earned nine nominations for Hong Kong Film Awards - an unprecedented number for a directorial debut. This success helped Wong attract major names, like Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai to his next project, "Days of Being Wild" (1991), an ambitiously stylized and experimental look at youthful ennui in 1960s Hong Kong. Though hailed "as some kind of masterpiece" by the likes of Time Out (London) film critic Tony Rayns, HK audiences were put off by its slow pacing and indifferent plotting. "Ashes of Time" (1994) was a breathtakingly stark and beautiful rumination on period martial arts movies. The shoot was a difficult one, running behind schedule and over budget. During a two month break in post-production, Wong, his crew and a few of his stars knocked off a minor masterpiece, "Chungking Express" (1994), a quirky romantic comedy with some crime movie trappings. The film was a great critical and commercial success, while the long-awaited "Ashes of Time" proved a box-office disappointment. "Fallen Angels" (1995) marked a return to crime stories that some Stateside reviewers found formally appealing, but disorienting and inaccessible in its story of the after-hours HK world of a sympathetic hit man (pop star Leon Lai Ming).
His next feature, "Happy Together" (1997), earned Wong the Cannes Film Festival Best Director Award. Hailed as blending the melancholia and striking visual styles of his earlier efforts, it marked a maturation of the director's style. Essentially a chamber piece exploring the relationship between two gay men from Hong Kong and a heterosexual youth befriended by one, the film was more linear than his earlier efforts and benefited from Christopher Doyle's superb camerawork. Wong once again used familiar faces - Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung - for his next film, "In the Mood for Love" (2001), a poignant and lyrical film about sadness and heartbreak that featured some of Christopher Doyle's most inspired cinematography. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, "In the Mood for Love" told the story of two neighbors (Cheung and Leung) in an apartment building who, after developing a tentative friendship, discover that their respective spouses are carrying on an affair. Even though the two fall in love, both struggle to maintain their end of the wedding vows. "In the Mood for Love" proved to be one of Wong's most celebrated films, earning numerous award wins and nominations across the globe - but sadly, nothing from the Academy Awards.
Wong next joined an international cadre of directors - which included the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh and Pedro Almodovar - for "Eros" (2004), an anthology of three medium-length films on eroticism and desire. Wong's contribution, "The Hand," focused on a young tailor (Chang Chen) who cannot control his desires for a beautiful prostitute (Gong Li) when he goes to her home for a fitting. Meanwhile, Wong returned to familiar territory with "2046" (2004), a loose continuation of his previous film, "In the Mood for Love." Though not the same story or characters, "2046" did utilize the themes of loss and loneliness, as a novel writer (Tony Leung) finds himself thinking he's writing a science fiction story set in the future, when in fact he's really writing about his past, and all the while having meaningless sexual encounters with three different women over the years.
In 2007, Wong opened the Cannes Film Festival with his next feature, "My Blueberry Nights," his first English-language film and also the first to feature an Anglo cast - among them, jazz singer Norah Jones, in her first acting role. Reportedly, Wong had chosen her to lead his film, based solely on her interpretive musical stylings. This leap of faith proved wise, when the film and Jones received glowing reviews from international critics.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
At age five, moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong with his mother; the Cultural Revolution broke out a month later, trapping his father, sister and brother on the mainland
Quit school during his second year and enrolled in a training program at Hong Kong Television Broadcasts Limited
Scripted the thriller-soap "Don't Look Now"
Left Hong Kong Television Broadcasts Limited
Credited with about ten scripts; wrote and produced
Conceived the plot for "As Tears Go By" while working on helmer Patrick Tam's "The Final Victory" as a writer
Feature debut as writer/director, "As Tears Go By"; received nine nominations for the Hong Kong Film Awards
Wrote and directed "Days of Being Wild"; film was a financial failure
Feature debut as a producer, "Chungking Express"; was the first feature to be released through Rolling Thunder, the specialty distribution label at Miramax created by writer/director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender (released in the US in 1996)
Directed the well received, "Happy Together"
Helmed "In the Mood for Love," a period romance set in 1962 Hong Kong
Directed the short, "The Follow"; one of five film advertisements for BMW shown over the Internet at bmwfilms.com
Filmed "2046," the third chapter of a shared story that began with "Days of Being Wild" and continued with "In the Mood for Love"
Became the first Chinese director to preside the jury at the Cannes Film Festival
Helmed first full English-language film, "My Blueberry Nights"; featured singer-songwriter Norah Jones in her acting debut