Given Wong Kar-Wai’s position as darling of the arthouse circuit it is surprising that there isn’t more work out there focussing on his whole career. Individual films are discussed at length and there are more academic papers than you can shake a stick at, but Teo’s book is the first to offer a unified overview that includes his more recent works (though there are a number of others in the pipeline) . Teo goes some way to explaining this situation, pointing out Wong Kar-Wai’s apparently effortless technique as a visual stylist which often precludes in-depth research (which is, contradictorily, the basis for individual film analysis). While this is perhaps a debatable position, much is made of Wong’s films stemming from a literary heritage rather than a specifically cinematic one. There are comparisons with the cinema of Scorsese (an influence on As Tears Go By (1988) – often tagged as a Hong Kong Mean Streets) or the French New Wave movement (Days of Being Wild (1991), In The Mood For Love ) and Teo finds much of Wong’s work steeped in Chinese film heritage, particularly late 50’s/early 60’s dramas and in genre films.
According to the book, what sets his films apart are their subversion and extension of genre conventions. As Tears Go By is ostensibly a Triad/gangster film but is infused with a camaraderie that goes beyond gang loyalty and develops complex relationships. Ashes of Time (1994) turns the wu xia film into a meditation on time and fractured reality by its elliptical (and, Teo argues, literary) structure – a bold film that at once alienates art-house viewers and genre aficionados (but enthralls those who happen to be both). Chungking Express (1994) takes its roots in noir film but infuses it with characters whose alienation allows them to emote to, say, a can of pineapples with the right sell-by date rather than to people.
Ultimately it is suggested that this subversion of genre comes as a result of Wong Kar-Wai’s intent on making literary films – particularly those in response to writer Manuel Puig whose work is a direct influence on Happy Together (along with Cortázar) and has a tangential effect on most of his other work. (Apparently Jeff Lau, long time collaborator and director of the Ashes of Time companion piece, the astonishingly insane The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), lent him some of Puig’s works early in Wong’s career). Haruki Murakami is shown to be the inspiration for Chungking Express along with Raymond Chandler. Interestingly Teo makes comparisons with Hitchcock in Wong’s use of tension, particularly respects to In The Mood For Love, an amalgam of Vertigo and David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
The book offers particular interest to non-Chinese-speaking readers with its analysis of certain words and phrases that can be difficult to translate succinctly on subtitled prints or even impart a different emphasis on the meaning of a film’s title (it is important to note that Hong Kong films generally have an official English title as well as a Chinese one). Similarly the impact of the 1997 handover of the territories to mainland China is seen as a distinct influence on the alienation of Chinese exiles in Happy Together (where Tony Leung returns to Hong Kong at the film’s close, the bond is too great to sever) and more directly in the modernist 2046 (the date when Hong Kong relinquishes its transitional freedoms to China). In addition there is plenty of fascinating detail about the making of the films and their often punishingly long shoots and post-production processes. Ashes of Time was over two years in the making and 2046 (2004) took close on five years from inception to release – almost unheard of in Hong Kong cinema where fast shoots are the norm and a successful film can breed sequels in the same year once its box office is proven. This is what makes his films so special: the attention to detail and the longevity of gestation, although a possible exception is the classic Chungking Express – guerrilla film-making at its finest.
Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time is a long overdue analysis of one of world cinema’s most acclaimed, eclectic and exacting auteurs, providing an insight into his films that enhances the understanding of both the texts and the cultural context of his work. It covers both the visual style and the literary heritage of the films, has plenty of background anecdote and a wider look at the Wong Kar-Wai ‘team’ of collaborators. As such it is an invaluable work on one of the most exciting talents working today. Where it is of less depth, however, is in the discussion of pre-cinema works, screenplays and supervised projects (particularly considering that his advertising/pop-video work is discussed). Also the index has several omissions and incorrect page references, which is annoying, but overall these are minor quibbles to what is an essential purchase for anyone interested in Hong Kong or world cinema.