Over the course of three decades, Wong Kar-wai has created a distinct body of work that is regarded as a source of inspiration for many directors. From Barry Jenkins to Anurag Kashyap, several directors have been inspired by the works of this director from Hong Kong.

While I was introduced to his work from his breezy, charming 1994 film, Chungking Express, it did not take long for me to get soaked into his dreamy reality filled with universal themes. The irresistible pleasure is often why his films hold a great rewatch value. The emotions are so pure and honest that the gritty reality becomes an unerasable part of a viewer’s mindscape.

Wong Kar-wai’s cinematic oeuvre has a stylistic individuality due to the neon-lit cityscapes, atmosphere music, and a penchant for non-linear narration. It is impossible to talk about him without talking about his distinctive style, which largely dictates the world he explores. It is not just Kar-wai or Doyle, but a collective that works in accordance with the director’s instinctive style of filmmaking and puts the best foot forward to achieve the look and feel.

Our perception of the characters depends on the way the makers light the scenes, the distance kept from the characters (whether literal or metaphorical), and the way they explore the world that these characters inhabit. The sensory pleasure we experience is a result of their shared vision and dedication to building that specificity. 

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10. My Blueberry Nights (2007)

Wong Kar Wai My Blueberry Nights

Darius Khondji is known as a chameleon cinematographer due to his ability to adapt any director’s style that he works with. As a guy with a range of shooting Fincher’s Seven, Haneke’s Amour to lighthearted romantic comedies from Hollywood, he proficiently adapts Wong Kar-wai’s signature style built with Christopher Doyle over the years. The nightscapes in ‘My Blueberry Nights’ are soaked in multicolored neon lights that can warm up any Kar-wai admirer’s heart. They make the darkness in the characters’ lives even more prominent. 

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The film takes the director out of the Hong Kong streets and puts his characters in the desolate towns in the USA. The bars and the casinos from this foreign country add to his neon-dipped melancholy indulgence. Jude Law & Rachel Weisz among other actors make us resonate with these loners’ lives. The characters start off as great ideas. One can get easily charmed by their hopelessly romantic worldviews. Yet, the reason why the film does not leave a mark is that their mental landscapes are not explored enough to make them rise to the eternal status of the characters in Wong Kar-wai’s other works. And, despite achieving the look, the film does not reach the level of vitality or the intricacies of the behavioral studies present in his past works. 

9. As Tears Go By (1988)

Shot by Andrew Lau, ‘As Tears Go By’ follows the footsteps of gangster films that were popular in the mainstream film industry in Hong Kong. It predominantly features action sequences. But it was unlike the other films since the protagonists from ATGB were not leaders or influential people from such gangs. It felt distinct to the viewers due to its reliance on characters that are not part of the upper echelons of such gangs. They are just pawns in this game of street fights, who find themselves getting thrown back into this life because of having no other paths to lead their lives.  

We are presented with a heartfelt, moral tale that makes its characters realize the perils of gangster life. With the themes of brotherhood and romance, the film builds its narrative. There are traces of the director’s style in the early stages. You can find the gritty, stylized fight scenes over the pop music tracks – a technique that he masters over the next two decades. Despite that, the ideas are not fully realized, which makes it a lesser entry to his oeuvre. The narration is a little all over the place and preachy due to its reliance on the message than over exploring their lives. While it is impressive for its departure from the zeitgeist, it does not reach the level of his later works.

8. Ashes of Time Redux (2008)

While the original film was released in 1994, Wong Kar-wai shortened the runtime by a few minutes and represented it as Ashes of Time Redux. It is a saga filled with exuberant, wide landscapes in the deserts. Soaked in saturated tones, the film has some of the most striking visuals present in cinema. The action scenes of swordfights that make a big chunk of the film are mesmerizing. They keep you consistently engaged with Wong Kar-wai’s stylistic indulgence and mentally put you in the space that these characters inhabit. 

However, despite being aesthetically pleasing, and sonically impressive, the lack of a clear narrative thread makes Ashes of Time a frustrating watch. While bringing in the deeper thematic explorations on love, fate, and easter philosophy, it falls short due to a lack of plot. Being based on an old novel, the characters from the film are fascinating. However, the translation to the screenplay is too convoluted, which makes it difficult to follow the character arcs. The film can be enjoyed for its sheer cinematic value and the skill that went into creating a tableau of emotions. However, the visual canvas and the overall sensory extravaganza are not sufficient to make up for the inadequacies present in the script. 

7. The Grandmaster (2013)

The Grandmaster (2013)

The Grandmaster is an incredible feat achieved by a director who had largely explored the nitty-gritty of lives on the fringes till then. It is a biopic on an epic scale with excellent production design, ever-reliable Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the leading man, and the breathtaking cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd. While telling the story of the monumental figure of Ip Man, it uses the flashback of his memories to delve into the chapters of history concerning the political turmoil. The film aims to reflect on the nature of martial arts through the philosophical aspects involved in the fights. The action set pieces are expertly choreographed to keep the audience glued to the screen. 

The relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er is the strong suit of the film’s writing that elicits the strongest emotional reactions backed by the incredible acting performances. Their admiration for one another makes their relationship a great way to delve into their personalities. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the other characters who are not fleshed out sufficiently to make a lasting impact. Disproportionate attention to its elements creates a muddled script, which makes it difficult to achieve a deeper impact. As a result, despite being a visual treat, The Grandmaster feels like mixed baggage.

6. Days of Being Wild (1990)

Romance is at the core of Wong Kar-wai’s filmography. The director is a master at crafting cinematic pieces that follow a logic of sentimentality. ‘Days of Being Wild’ is one of them, which follows a rhythm of a dreamy languor just like its characters who have very little to fill their day with. A playboy, a prostitute, a ticket collector, and a police officer fall in conjunction with romance where their spur-of-the-moment decisions are motivated largely by love. Their impulses lead them to directions that are not run-of-the-mill ambition-driven. In their logic of the world, the way to live is to follow their heart. 

That is what makes Days of Being Wild so special. It has distinctly memorable characters backed by performances that linger in your mind long after. Their emotions become the driving force for their narratives where the romance becomes their logical reasoning. The unorthodox way of handling their adult lives makes it incredibly appealing. When someone says they would like their romance to be like a Wong Kar-wai film, this is probably what they mean they are attracted to! 

Days of Being Wild is the first feature collaboration of the director with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, which bloomed into an oeuvre with palpable energy. It exudes the raw energy that became synonymous with this duo. The camera captures moments between the moments, where characters are merely blushing, contemplating, or spontaneously dancing. It initiated their unique style filled with striking compositions and unorthodox editing techniques. 

5. 2046 (2004)

2046 is a cinematic treat for any person who has closely followed the director’s other works since it references them in his style. He has a penchant to let his characters speak their minds out through a voice-over narration and for interlinking different shot styles in a fluid and distinctly poetic manner. In 2046, the male character from ITMFL (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) rekindles his past, carves his present, and builds a future in his fictional narrative. The seamless editing of these timelines brings out the connecting themes and the subtext underneath while making their thematic overlap feel sublime. The way a writer borrows their inspiration and brings it into their made-up worlds, how the reality shapes, determines, and oftentimes dictates the resolutions of such fictional narratives – 2046 captures all of it in a consistently engaging way. 

Introducing science-fiction as a means to fulfill the fantasies of unrequited love is such a fascinating way to look at fictional writing and also to delve into a writer’s mindset. That is where 2046 succeeds. What lingers in this film are such unfulfilled stories and their aftertaste for its characters directs their present condition. While we follow the aftermath of the writer’s unconsummated affair, Mimi/Lulu from Days of Being Wild is also shown to be in the hope of finding her love. Her undying drive is pitted against a doomed romance just like the writer’s, which brings a melancholic mood to the film. 2046 becomes a pathway to travel such emotional territories and the metaphor captures the intricacies of a human heart in a poignant, yet sophisticated manner.

4. Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995)

‘Fallen Angels’ follows two stories that have little to do with each other besides the brief overlaps where the characters happen to run into the others. The first story is of a hitman and his partner in crime and love. Another story is of a mute street vendor and a woman who escaped prison. While the second couple frequently runs into one another in casual encounters, the hitman and his partner keep thinking or daydreaming about their times together while hardly ever meeting. The film navigates different shapes and forms we define love and how it unfolds for a person who lives on the fringes of society, for whom their daily survival is of utmost importance. It explores pain, sorrow, heartache, and joy in its very own manner that stays etched in your memory.  

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With its ingenious transitions from the bleak to livelier moods, and complete immersion into the yearning of its characters, Fallen Angels is a treat for every Wong Kar-wai fan who wants to get submersed into his world for a brief period. Instead of using long lenses to keep the characters at distance from the viewer, it places them uncomfortably close with its wide, fish-eye lenses. The tints of greens and yellows set its gritty cityscapes in neon lights, and the escape from this world is captured in fresher tones. Whether such decisions were deliberately taken or instinctively made, the impact on a viewer remains unparalleled.

3. Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) dir. Wong Kar-wai

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino who spoke about the film with great enthusiasm, the western film world became aware of Chungking Express. The film has an effervescent charm and exudes a cheerful optimism for its characters’ romantic outlook toward the world. While making a film in a limited period and budget, Wong Kar-wai created something that remains eternal due to its vivacious energy. Even the moments of sadness get soaked into the spirit of hopeless romantics. The indulgence in exploring their lives and quirks through tinted glasses of immaturity showcases them and the city through a refreshing outlook. 

Both the stories are about male cops mulling over their failed relationships. In the first story, the cop meets a drug smuggler. While he is an open book who speaks about his past relationship with anyone willing to listen, she hardly reveals anything about her. The second story is about a quirky local snack bar worker who has a crush on a heartbroken cop. Whether their romance succeeds or fails, they are not portrayed as emotional fools. The film believes in their pursuit and makes us root for them. It indulges in shooting all the moments with childlike wonder, that can reveal more of their character to us. If not for the capitalistic pursuit of goals and ambitions, wouldn’t most of us want to spend our lives just like them?

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Often regarded as one of the finest works in the 21st century, In the Mood for Love oozes cinematic brilliance in every scene. While narrating a delicate tale of yearning, the film creates an elaborate play of emotions while maintaining sophistication through the characters’ splendid appearances. Entrapped in the conventional bond of an institution of marriage, the leads from ITMFL look at infidelity as immoral. Even if their spouses indulge in such acts, they do not cross the lines of civility. It separates the film from Wong Kar-wai’s other works, where the characters do not value such limitations and wear their hearts on their sleeves. 

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While the film maintains the sadness of their lives, an undivided focus on their turmoil deepens the melancholia. The carefully crafted visuals compose frames within frames to convey their entrapment. By shooting the actors with long lenses, the film achieves the overarching feeling of distance and detachment. Yumeji’s theme, a music track that repeatedly plays throughout the film’s duration, becomes an anthem for heartbroken couples trying to grapple with the reality of their mutual attraction. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai convey a plethora of emotions through their muted gestures and body language. An amalgamation of these elements makes the film a classic, sumptuous mood piece. Not just the characters but the alleys, stairs, and the cramped-up spaces they inhabit, become eternal. In the Mood for Love becomes an ode to the time that just remains to be a memory for them and becomes eternal for us.

1. Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997) dir. Wong Kar-wai

At the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Wong Kar-wai won the Best Director award for Happy Together. Often regarded as one of the key films from the New Queer Cinema, it is undoubtedly one of the finest romance dramas. To shoot this film, Wong Kar-wai went all the way to the other part of the world in Argentina. Since it came around the time of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the characters and this move are regarded to have a metaphorical significance. Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), who stays in Buenos Aires without a passport, is confined to his limitations and looks for momentary pleasures. Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who has a passport, works hard at any job he gets, is incredibly caring, and dreams of a better tomorrow. Chang (Chen Chang), who works with Fai, has a family back home in Taiwan that he can go back to any time. These characters reflect the ground situations at the time while maintaining the incredibly human drama at its core.

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While the film portrays a relationship between two men, it separates itself from those where queerness is explored only through the lens of marginalization. It presents the ups and downs in their relationship with an incredible portrayal of intimacy, which resonates just as well with any two people struggling to find a balance in their romantic entanglement. Their heartaches feel incredibly personal in the cramped-up spaces they occupy.

The spaces gain importance in relation to the character’s mental state and paint their emotional canvas. While being visually timeless, contextually, and culturally relevant, the human story at its core takes the cake. A romance has never felt so poignant, the emotional upheaval never so primal. You cannot help but sob uncontrollably for these poor souls who are only trying to get a grip on their love life. Happy Together leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, where, just like me, you may find yourself smiling while tears roll down your cheeks.

Wong Kar-wai Links:  IMDb, MUBI

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