The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (2023)

The Criterion Collection's World of Wong Kar Wai set offers a rare chance to get your hands around modern cinema's slipperiest body of work.

David Ehrlich

Mar 24, 2021 5:00 pm


The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (2)

Nothing lasts forever in the world of Wong Kar-wai. Not countries, not relationships, not cans of pineapples. “Like Hong Kong,” filmmaker Olivier Assayas observed in a speech honoring Wong at the 2017 Lumiere Film Festival:

Wong’s cinema is built upon the ephemeral: the ephemeral nature of exile coupled with the ephemeral identity and existence of a city set on the edge of a precipice, living in a constant state of uncertainty at the mercy of mainland China, which could swallow it any moment and wipe out everything it has built, from one day to the next. This is a fleeting world of which Wong has preserved fragments, conscious of cinema’s mysterious ability to freeze time and bear witness to that which other arts cannot capture.

In the context of such a slippery body of work, it’s a strange feeling to actually hold the Criterion Collection’s astonishing new “World of Wong Kar Wai” box set in your hands. It’s as if the ornate package — which folds eight of the “Chungking Express” director’s films into a delicate jigsaw puzzle that reflects the shifting and elusive nature of Wong’s storytelling — might dissolve into a memory at a moment’s notice. Even the films themselves aren’t quite how you remember them, as some of the Wong-supervised 4K restorations tweaked their source material and challenges fans to confront the rigid nostalgia that traps so many of his characters (stay tuned for more coverage about this later in the week).

Revisiting the likes of “In the Mood for Love,” “Days of Being Wild,” and “Happy Together,” viewers are liable to discover that their own feelings about these films have proven to be as fluid and unpredictable as the films themselves. Some may find that personal revisionism is at odds with a body of work that fixates on the past as the one thing that never changes.

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The beautiful people in Wong’s films twist and sway through the world like kites on a string, all of them so tethered to long-expired memories (which knot around food, kitsch, music, kung fu, and sometimes even the dreams of an imagined future) that they can only float through the present as tourists. They’re as much in exile from their heartbreak as Wong became from his birthplace of Shanghai when his family relocated to Hong Kong on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution, leaving two older siblings behind. On the other hand, watching so many of Wong’s movies in the context they lend to each other might also crystallize the same elusive wisdom that his characters struggled to internalize: Everything has an expiration date, even your most deeply held feelings.

Ranking works of art will always be a clumsy arrangement, but surrendering to the temptation can seem uniquely productive when it comes to the world of Wong Kar Wai (at least for the person ranking them, anyway). At the end of the director’s note included in the Criterion set, Wong writes: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. These are not the same films, and we are not the same audience.” In that spirit, you might find it eye-opening to look at these films anew and see if your own reflection has changed. Hypothetically speaking, if someone lives to regret arguing that neither “Chungking Express” nor “In the Mood for Love” is Wong’s greatest work? Well, to quote a line from the director’s most recent film: “How boring life would be without regrets.”

Here are all of Wong Kar Wai’s films, ranked from worst to best.

  • “You can’t blame the blueberry pie, just… no one wants it.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (3)

    11.) “My Blueberry Nights” (2007)

    “My Blueberry Nights” is not a bad film — in the rich canon of pie-based cinema, it falls somewhere between the sweet highs of “A Ghost Story” and the unsavory lows of “Labor Day.” And yet Wong’s English-language debut is still unforgivably flavorless for an itinerant slice of second-hand Americana that starts with Norah Jones as the long side of a New York love triangle with Jude Law and the great Chan “Cat Power” Marshall; travels south for a Tennessee Williams homage where David Strathairn’s alcoholic cop struggles to move on from a vampy Rachel Weisz; and then heads to heaven or Las Vegas to check in on Natalie Portman’s “Thelma & Louise” cosplay before looping back around to the Big Apple. As Jones’ wayward heroine wistfully sighs at one point: “Some things are just better on paper.”

    At the end of his Lumiere Festival speech, Assayas asked: “Can the style invented by Wong, so organically linked to its territory’s specific culture, be projected onto a universal scale without suffering collateral damage?” “Happy Together” survived by looking for Hong Kong in Argentina, but “My Blueberry Nights” slathers Wong’s style over the United States in a way that reaffirms its specificity because it tastes all wrong here, like mustard spread over the surface of a sheet cake or “The Grandmaster” recut for American palates. The tricks that reflect the fluidity of Kowloon in “Chungking Express” (e.g. a subway train cutting through a step-printed mirage of a city) seem forced here, and the characters don’t come off as new shades of familiar Wong archetypes so much as self-aware parodies. It’s another story of someone living in exile from their own memory, this one made all the more compelling by the fact that Jones’ beautiful drifter is only circling the country in order to make her way back to the very spot where her heart was broken, but the film stretches over too much square mileage for its intimate core to remain intact.

    What’s most frustrating about “My Blueberry Nights” is the ingredients of a great Wong Kar Wai movie are mixed into the batter. The performances are splendid, and then there’s that killer soundtrack. Ry Cooder, Cat Power, Otis Redding… if only trying a little tenderness were enough to guarantee that it would take. Much as the film tries to dilute it, there’s also something enduringly poignant about how Jones’ character — stuck in her sadness, and too scared to walk the 20 feet required to start something new with Law — embarks on a 5,000-mile tour of other people’s loneliness just to find the courage she needs to cross the street. “How do you say goodbye to someone you can’t imagine living without?,” she wonders, plainly articulating why love is often lined with grief in Wong’s films, and why so many of the people in them tend to disappear without saying a word. In “My Blueberry Nights,” they never seem to be there in the first place; the movie is all aftertaste and empty stomachs.

  • “Without a past, every day would be a new beginning. Wouldn’t that be great?”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (4)

    10. “Ashes of Time” (1994)

    In hindsight, it’s so perfectly on-brand: The big-budget martial arts epic that was supposed to launch Wong Kar Wai into the highest echelons of commercial Hong Kong directors turned out to be so inscrutable that even some of his most dedicated fans struggle to make sense of it (this critic included, though I’ll try my best). A sandy and overcranked wuxia soap opera that cobbles together so many different stories it ends up feeling more like an exquisite corpse of old suds, “Ashes of Time” unfolds as if Wong put all of his pet obsessions into a blender and let the blades puree them into a strange kind of mystery pulp.

    In essence, the film is a prequel to a beloved 1957 novel called “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” Wong reimagines the book’s medieval lead characters as younger men in the midst of the losses that will define them later. Leslie Cheung plays the Western Venom, a dangerous bloke who lives way out in the Gobi Desert and spends all year waiting for his buddy the Eastern Heretic (Tony Leung Ka-fai) to come by for a visit. Sounds simple (and sweet) enough. But then the Eastern Heretic swigs from a bottle of a memory-erasing wine known as “Drunken Alive, Perish in Dreams,” and everything goes sideways in a hurry. Before you know it, Huang is going blind and getting mixed up with a pair of twins named Yin and Yang who may in fact be the same person, Brigitte Lin is sword-fighting the pool of water in an oasis, Feng is falling head over heels for his own sister-in-law (Maggie Cheung, whose beauty Christopher Doyle shoots as a subplot unto itself), flashbacks are melting into each other like mirages, and bandits’ heads are falling off by the dozen.

    Described by Wong as “Shakespeare meets Sergio Leone in Chinese,” “Ashes of Time” (and the cleaned up “Ashes of Time Redux,” which is essentially the same movie) feels like a recurring fever dream that suffocates all logic in an effort to reach the things that might float to the surface in its absence. Shot to look as subjective and unclear as the Heretic’s fading vision, the film is a hallucinatory look backward through the eyes of characters preoccupied with their pasts several decades before they appear in the stories that make them legends. No matter how far back you go, there’s always room for regret.

    In its own way, this is the truest dry — or arid — run for the rest of Wong’s filmography, and there’s something incredibly cool/dementedly overconfident that he stranded half of Asia’s most famous movie stars in the middle of the desert while he shadowboxed his artistic worldview. You can feel the Gobi heat melding Wong and Doyle toward a shared vision, like two lenses soldered into a single pair of sunglasses (Doyle’s camera moves like a martial-arts master, rendering actual combat almost redundant), and even the most incoherent fight scenes reflect the pleasure of bringing a CGI-like imagination to practical effects. But while “the turmoil of man” teased in the opening crawl is there on the screen, chaos soon reigns over everything else. Past and present merge into a hyper-saturated sludge that leaves you begging for the future to start. Lucky for us, Wong grew similarly impatient along the way.

  • “I used to think a minute could pass so quickly. But actually, it can take forever.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (5)

    9. “Days of Being Wild” (1990)

    The Big Bang of the Wong Kar Wai Cinematic Universe (WKWCU), “Days of Being Wild” sketches so many of the elements that became signatures. It starts with the people: Carina Lau’s Mimi/Lulu, Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-wan (introduced primping himself in the film’s ecstatically uncontextualized final shot like a glimpse of the future), and Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen, but a different Su Li-zhen than the one she’d play in “In the Mood for Love” a decade later (or maybe the same woman, snow-globed inside the Hong Kong of the early ’60s as the rest world spins forward without her). Most unvarnished and bittersweet of all is Leslie Cheung as Yuddy, the late queer actor carving the prototype for so many of Wong’s male leads as a restless womanizer who’s in exile from his past and likens himself to a bird with no legs: “All it can do is fly and fly.”

    Yuddy is a heartless backhand of a character — a reminder that the romance around them soften Wong’s protagonists in our memories. This apolitical sketch of a bitterly diasporal man struggling with his own dislocation (“If you could fly, you wouldn’t have to be here,” someone cuts him down) is only one thread of a movie that flirts with the kind of associative storytelling that would go on to define the likes of “Chungking Express.” Cheung’s plot — another of Wong’s almost-romances — finds her making midnight conversation with Andy Lau’s sympathetic cop under the glow of aquamarine lighting so deep that the whole movie feels like it’s swimming. Soon-to-be-legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle made his presence felt right out of the gate.

    These Shanghainese characters are locked into their own orbits and held together by mutual distrust in the idea that any of them will still be there tomorrow. Finding love is one thing in a cast where everyone is this beautiful, but how can anyone hope to hold on to it when they can’t even keep their feet on the ground? Of course, that lack of gravity doesn’t stop them from colliding with each other in typical Wong fashion, as the film’s heartless violence and hesitant sensuality double helix around each other like they’re slow dancing to the Latin sounds of Xavier Cugat.

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    Yuddy is Wong’s most abusive lead (an early scene with a hammer in a bathroom feels like it was cut from “Oldboy”), but also perhaps his most self-actualized. Or maybe just the coldest. “I can’t know how many women I’ll love in my life,” he says in response to a leading question. “I won’t know which I loved most until the end of my life.” The end comes sooner than he might think, but Yuddy’s certainty —what he knows he doesn’t know —peels away the soft layer of longing that makes the rest of Wong’s male characters so tender despite themselves. Yuddy’s nostalgia reaches all the way back to the moment he was born, to a birth story instead of a breakup, and so he doesn’t have a romantic memory to yearn for or some distant idyll he can no longer picture in his mind’s eye. As Assayas described Wong’s characters in that same address at the Lumiere Festival: “They are beings haunted by the nostalgia of what they have not known.” After Yuddy, they would tend to know a bit more, and be haunted a bit less. A wise course-correction, it turns out.

  • “None of us knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, right? Let’s eat.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (6)

    8. “As Tears Go By” (1988)

    It began, as all great careers should, with Maggie Cheung showing up on Andy Lau’s doorstep in a cotton face mask —and what better to set the tone for Wong Kar Wai’s filmography than a little social distancing?

    It’s easy to understand why people are quick to dismiss Wong’s debut as a foot-in-the-door movie beholden to the conventions of ‘80s Hong Kong crime thrillers (the film’s plot invites “Mean Streets” comparisons that haven’t extended to its place in the canon). “As Tears Go By” remains a fascinating document of a young artist trying to articulate his own identity through a language that lacked the vocabulary he needed — a language that he would ultimately have to invent. Tentative and brash in equal measure, it tells the story of mob enforcer Wah (Lau) and the delinquent best friend Fly (Jacky Cheung, a rolling wave of destructive id in the Robert De Niro role) who keeps threatening to get them both killed by the rest of the triads.

    The ins and outs of it are a little more complicated, but Wong can’t be bothered to sweat the details; he’s more interested in the rush of a camera through a snooker hall chase sequence, the “what might have been” that Cheung’s character offers from her seaside perch on Lantau Island, and the melted cheese of the Cantopop soundtrack that’s gooey enough to take your breath away. The gunplay and its attendant nihilism seem like afterthoughts compared to, say, the match-cut that transforms a paper airplane into a commercial airliner, or a gang fight that’s step-printed to abstraction. Many of the shot compositions in “As Tears Go By” reflect a conventionality that would soon disappear from Wong’s lexicon, and the broad melodrama they support (“I destroyed your baby!” a woman yells while thunder claps in the background) would mercifully dissolve into the atmosphere by the time the sun rose on “Days of Being Wild.” The haunted essence of Wong’s cinema — the sense of letting another life slip through your fingers — is here on full display.

    It’s possible that “As Tears Go By” is more rewarding to excavate than it is to watch (or perhaps it’s simply impossible to see outside of the context of its director’s career), even if Wong’s lifelong refusal to judge his characters whether they’re mob goons or cops or hitmen or home invaders or belligerently drunk David Strathairns adds a rich new wrinkle to a genre that’s long on blood and short on heart. It’s understandable that “Days of Being Wild” is seen as the birth of the Wong Kar Wai we’ve all come to know, that view unfairly dismisses the work he did to get there. In hindsight, it’s even more fascinating to see Wong find his rhythm amidst the noise of mainstream cinema than it is to see him conduct on his own terms for the first time.

  • “Never touched a woman before? Then how can you be a tailor?”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (7)

    7. “The Hand” (2004)

    Wong Kar Wai’s “Phantom Thread” (how’s that for a hook?), “The Hand” has long been disregarded as a curio due to the circumstances of its creation: It was conceived as one of three segments in the omnibus film “Eros,” which collected shorts original by Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh, and Wong into a triptych of love and sexual desire. Two of the shorts were forgettable, to put it kindly. The other is just about perfect. And why shouldn’t it be? Not only was Wong unfairly well-suited for the assignment, he’s also been making crystalline short films for his entire career —but smeared into each other in ways that allow them to overwhelm us.

    “The Hand” doesn’t overwhelm, but its touch is shattering all the same. Set in Hong Kong circa the early ’60s (a huge surprise), the diorama-like duet casts Chang Chen against type as a shy and virginal tailor’s assistant named Zhang. Chang is Wong’s go-to actor whenever the filmmaker requires a razor-sharp beauty to slice through a story and open it up in unexpected ways, and for all of his uncustomary bashfulness that’s still exactly what he does here Zhang pays a house call to a high-end prostitute (Gong Li, a tragic vision as Miss Hua) whose beauty —the film asks us to believe —is fading in time with that of the city around her. Zhang supplies Miss Hua with new threads as she threatens to unravel, and in return Miss Hua gives Zhang… inspiration. Like any of Wong’s accidental lovers who are misfortunate enough to know a moment of shared bliss, these two are headed in opposite directions, but the hold they have over one another perseveres in memory.

    Set against a backdrop of sickness and shot at the height of the SARS pandemic, “The Hand” is a refreshingly contained riff on the usual Wong tropes — even the far-superior extended version found on the Criterion box set doesn’t include a single moment that isn’t laser-focused on the central romance. As a result, Wong is free to slow down and indulge in some of the details that tend to blur on by in his longer work: The mechanics of sex (hands are rendered with the compulsively recurring purpose that Wong once reserved for pop songs), the blunt physicality of a film without the interiority of voiceover, and also the distance of class, which separates these characters in much the same way that time would in another of the director’s love stories. The result is a cramped melodrama writ small —a flawless ornament of a thing that makes up in density what it lacks in sweep, and contains a small hand-ful of Wong’s most evocative moments. Gong Li on the phone with her wealthy ex-lover while Chang Chen’s fingers size her up for a dress…the past on her mind as the present literally breathes down her neck… this isn’t a bonus feature (you’ll find it hiding on the “2046” disc), it’s one of Wong’s defining fashion statements.

  • “It turns out lonely people are all the same.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (8)

    6. “Happy Together” (1997)

    “We’re going to shoot a road movie in Argentina,” Wong Kar Wai told his cast and crew before they boarded the plane that would take them to the next year or two of their lives. “From where to where I don’t know yet.”

    While the film world was still recovering from the one-two punch of “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels,” Wong sought to make something that would recapture the magic while keeping his audience on their heels. The result is a movie that’s as much the flipside to that couplet as “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels” were to each other — an antipodean love story that cemented Wong’s auteur status by turning the world upside down and seeing his signature tropes in a sun-baked new light.

    Everything about “Happy Together” is familiar to fans of Wong’s earlier films, and yet everything is also different. The day-dreaming Lai Yiu-Fai and the more volatile Ho Po-Wing are typical Wong archetypes; the actors who embody them (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung) are as synonymous with his work as step-printing and “California Dreamin’;” and the way they’re both desperately alone save for their moments of shared collision is true to Wong’s stance that love is better remembered than kept.

    Here, however, the lovers are both men, their relationship is carnal rather than coquettish (the film opens with the most explicit sex scene that Wong has ever permitted Christopher Doyle to shoot), and the story of how they repeatedly break up and careen back into each other is as straightforward as “Ashes of Time” was non-linear. Wong wanted to make a gay romance that was as raw and grounded as hetero love stories were allowed to be lighter than air, and it remains fascinating to watch him bend his poetic flourishes in service of something so bitter and physical. Certain moments feel as if they could’ve been adopted from Fassbinder.

    And then there’s the Argentina of it all, which allows Wong to explore the personal nature of exile and the parts of themselves that people can’t help but bring with them wherever they go. “To me,” Wong has said, “‘Happy Together’ applies not only to the relationship between two persons, but also the relationship between one person and his past. If people are at peace with themselves and their past, this is the start of being able to be happy with somebody else.” Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing are so determined to run away from themselves that they can’t help but collide into each other over and over again, each “new start” actually betraying their mutual inability to begin anew. It’s only when Yiu-Fai is able to peel his memories away like the bark from a tree and transmute his love for Po-Wing into something tactile — say, a tchotchke-sized lamp embossed with an image of the Iguazu Falls — that he’s able to reconcile himself to his home and achieve the same freedom he once tried to find by leaving it behind.

    Like the couple it depicts, “Happy Together” is a film that works best during individual moments; it burns with a frustrated, implosive energy that can make the chatty interstitial stretches feel like Wong is just waiting for the inevitable detonation. While there’s something transcendent about how it crystallizes the searching nature of its own conception, the movie also finds Wong hitting upon ideas that find more poignant homes in his later work (e.g. the lighthouse where Chang Chen leaves his sadness behind as a first draft for the tree hole at the end of “In the Mood for Love”). But Cheung and Leung are magnificently combustible from start to finish, and those individual moments are the stuff that other filmmakers would be lucky to have in their best films. The kitchen tango, Hong Kong literally turned on its head, the climactic submersion into the Falls… we may never see anything so beautiful again, but at least we know where to go looking for it.

  • “The night’s full of weirdos.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (9)

    5. “Fallen Angels” (1995)

    A weird and jagged film that was conceived alongside “Chungking Express” but came into the world a year after Wong’s international breakthrough, “Fallen Angels” is effectively the evil twin to “Chungking Express,” the “Amnesiac” to its “Kid A,” the Tartan Extreme version of an urban fairy tale that was almost a bit too cuddly for its own good. It’s another dyad about unexpected collisions between lost souls in the restless hustle of pre-handover Hong Kong — but this one sinks into a midnight glimmer where its predecessor found sunshine, it’s murderous where Wong’s previous movie was sweet, and above all, it’s moribund where “Chungking Express” was bursting at the seams with life.

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    That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is, to put it in the most regrettable terms, a certain “poptimism” to “Chungking Express” that balances the damnation of Brigitte Lin’s plot with the expectant hope for a better tomorrow. The film’s characters are free to roam if they want to, whether that means sneaking into a stranger’s apartment, floating off to California, or smuggling cocaine (that one doesn’t work out too hot, but at least they give it a go).

    The opposite is true of the crepuscular “Fallen Angels,” where Kowloon is draped in a purgatorial darkness so complete that the people who landed there seem to have lost hope of finding the light. Christopher Doyle’s close-up CinemaScope lensing flattens every frame into its own kind of prison cell; these characters can’t even grab a bite at a fast-food restaurant without it feeling like they might be stuck there forever. Even their pleasure is easily mistaken for pain, as we see in the opening images where an unnamed hitman’s assistant — again with the assassin brokers! — writhes on her bed while she masturbates to her partner’s memory. She’s played by the enigmatic Michelle Reis, while her dour triggerman is Leon Lai, two Wong one-offs whose presence fortifies this movie’s reputation as an outlier that could only appeal to completists.

    It’s true that “Fallen Angels” offers some deeps cuts to fans who see it in the wider context of Wong’s body of work. Kaneshiro Takeshi’s Ho Chi-mo goes mute after eating a can of expired pineapples, echoing the softer character he played in “Chungking Express;” Chi-mo’s dad is played by the manager of the actual Chungking Mansions. It’s cute that Wong’s characters — always communicating through objects — have finally discovered the magic of the fax machine.

    But the aspects of “Fallen Angels” that really make it sing don’t require any homework. For one thing, it might be Wong’s funniest movie; the guy isn’t known for his sense of humor, but the scene where Lai’s hitman encounters a buffoonish old classmate on his way home from committing an act of mass murder epitomizes the droll comedy of a city where life and death ride the same bus.

    The film leverages the liminality of its setting into a universally accessible pair of sloppily threaded stories about people in need of salvation at the end of the world. Their mutual resignation reflects Wong’s general distrust of destination-minded thinking, and — with a last-minute burst of emotional poignancy — only move foreard when they embrace the kind of freedom that has to be rented from other people. (“Are you borrowing me, or am I borrowing you?” someone would eventually ask in a different Wong film nine years later, as if the director had been searching for the answer to his own question ever since.)

    In the end, the fraying messiness of “Fallen Angels” becomes what’s most fulfilling; the film’s tangled chaos allows its survivors to find a sense of possibility in each other. Nothing lasts forever, not a job or a partnership or a city, and especially not a point in time. “For her,” the assassin concludes about a girl he’s dumped, “I’m just a stopover on the journey of her life.” But maybe, the last shot appears to suggest, it’s people who are life’s journeys, and the stopovers just where we wait for the next one to start.

  • “We’re all unlucky in love sometimes.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (10)

    4. “Chungking Express” (1994)

    Frustrated by the interminable post-production of “Ashes of Time” and itching to get out of the editing room, Wong Kar Wai hit the streets of Hong Kong and — in a blitz of pent-up creativity — slapped together one of the most earthshaking movies of its decade in less than two months. No wonder it moves in such a hurry. Is any other film so captivating so fast?

    Lightning in a bottle, “Chungking Express” bolts out of the darkness to the queasy sounds of Michael Galasso’s organ-grinder soundtrack. A blonde-wigged Brigitte Lin speeds through the bowels of Kowloon’s Chungking Mansions, the world streaking around her, life always in media res. By the time the title card arrives a few seconds later in a hail of bullets, it’s clear you’re watching sui generis cinema that can only be made in a melting pot as it threatens to bubble over. Today, when it’s steeped in nostalgia for the freedoms of a pre-handover Hong Kong (and inextricable from whatever flashbulb memories you might have about who you were when you first discovered it), “Chungking Express” still feels new.

    The second part of the movie is so iconic that people tend to sleep on the first, but their lack of overlap makes it easy to forget that neither would be so electrifying without the other. ”Chungking Express” requires both of its uneven halves to forge a complete portrait of a city in which people can be close enough to feel like home but still too far away to touch.

    The neon-lit first part, with Kaneshiro Takeshi’s handsome pineapple obsessive crossing paths with Lin’s homicidal cocaine-runner, drops us into a romantic underworld in which starry-eyed longing and sociopathic violence brush within centimeters of each other and lose themselves in the same tune that’s playing on the jukebox. The intimacy of the voiceover harmonizes with the indifference until everyone feels alone together. It’s sad and wonderful at the same time.

    The ultra-shy connection that blossoms between Tony Leung’s beat cop and Faye Wong’s proto-Amélie manic pixie dream waitress becomes a Wong signature love story. They find romance in the strangest of things: home invasions; the sense memory of certain music; the echoes that someone leaves behind that can seem more real than the person themselves. The most routine objects that Faye discovers in Cop 663’s apartment become imbued with a holy power, like totems that she carries to remind herself that he isn’t just a dream — or because she’s afraid to risk him becoming anything more.

    The preciousness of this storyline doesn’t play as well now that it’s been thoroughly weaponized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and various lesser talents who tried to bend that kind of quirk towards their own purposes (Leung is maybe the only person alive who can sell a line like “Did I leave the tap running, or is the apartment getting more tearful?,” and even he barely squeaks it out). It’s also true that Wong’s delirious style is dependent on his sincerity, and a film like “Chungking Express” wouldn’t fly without scraping back the topsoil of modern life and exposing the sensitive layers we all hide just below. In a world that streaks by so fast, nothing could be more valuable than a concrete offer to share the same future — even if that offer is written on a napkin.

  • “All encounters in this world are a kind of reunion.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (11)

    3. “The Grandmaster” (2013)

    If Wong Kar Wai’s films suggest the detail and potency of a short story writer, Ip Man biopic “The Grandmaster” is his one true crack at an epic. To call this achingly sad Kung Fu saga a biopic would be misleading in the extreme: For one thing, that suggests the kind of dull linearity that Wong couldn’t do with a gun to his head. For another, “The Grandmaster” is less a focused story about the Foshan-born man who eventually found his way to Hong Kong and became Bruce Lee’s teacher than it is a bittersweet mural that depicts the emotional timbre of an entire migration.

    The only Wong film that starts with its hero in a loving marriage, “The Grandmaster” is split down the middle (and therefore still divided into segments) by the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the spring of Ip’s life, Tony Leung plays the title character with the cockiness of someone who possesses such precise control over his body that he can’t understand that some things are out of his hands. He will.

    First comes desire, as Ip spars with Kung Fu heiress Gong Er (an indomitably vulnerable Zhang Ziyi) in a series of spellbinding fight scenes that invert the choreographed longing of “In the Mood for Love,” finding the same romantic friction in hand-to-hand combat.Then comes devastation, as Ip loses his family in the war, Gong’s martial arts school is stolen from her family by collaborators, and the millions of Chinese people who flee to Hong Kong are forced to sacrifice one era at the altar of another.

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    All Wong Kar Wai films are haunted by the past, but only “The Grandmaster” is so loudly concerned with the weight of legacy, and attends to the dislocation of exile like an open wound (one that becomes the source of Wong’s scars). This is his first movie about a historical figure, but in some respects it feels like the most personal thing he’s ever made; bruised and wistful even by his own unimpeachable standard. Umebayashi Shigeru gets a lot of well-deserved credit for “Yumeji’s Theme” from “In the Mood for Love,” but the gut-wrenchingly elegiac score he contributes to “The Grandmaster” is just as powerful. “The times make us what we are,” indeed.

    Comparing the mythic beauty of “The Grandmaster” to the operatic lavishness of “2046” or the pop rush of “Chungking Express” is like comparing Brueghel to Renoir or Basquiat, but Wong shot the living shit out of this thing. He restores all the classical wuxia splendor that he smudged beyond recognition in “Ashes of Time” with Philippe Le Sourd’s lush cinematography, William Chang’s impeccable art design, and heightened sound design that makes drops of rain squelch like broken bones. The film transposes the tension between looking back and moving forward into a veritable symphony that crescendos into one of the most awe-inspiring action scenes in the history of cinema: Gong’s fight to preserve her past at the expense of her future allows Wong to arrive at the ultimate harmony between poetry and violence. Her victory may be short-lived, but in the world of Wong Kar Wai, looking back is the only way to reliably find a path forward.

    Of note: Despite being overseen by Wong, the 108-minute American cut is a pale imitation of the 130-minute Chinese version. The latter is hard to find, but worth the effort.

  • “It is a restless moment…”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (12)

    2. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

    Writing about “In the Mood for Love” has always been a bit like dancing about architecture. “If we could tell a film,” a frustrated Jafar Panahi once raged under house arrest, “then why make a film?” If we could express in words the heartstopping beauty of Wong Kar Wai’s sensually choreographed shadow tango (or bottle the shudder of feeling that runs up our spines at the first strains of “Yumeji’s Theme”), he wouldn’t have felt compelled to shoot it. For 15 months straight. To an extent that’s true of all Wong’s work, which is singularly cinematic even in its shortcomings. But the feeling is perhaps most palpable with “In the Mood for Love,” which was hardly the first of his movies to focus on the space between people, but remains one of the only movies — by Wong or anyone else — to capture that space on camera as if it were as tactile as anything else.

    For 98 minutes, the figure-ground confusion is so intense that you can actually see the longing between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s would-be lovers take shape on screen like a Rubin’s vase in motion. You can feel the Shanghainese-accented rift between these characters’ origins in mainland China and their exile to 1962 Hong Kong, where they collide amidst an insular community that isn’t defined by one place or the other so much as the infidelity of belonging to both at once.

    Extrapolated from a planned triptych that Wong had intended to call “A Story of Food,” “In the Mood for Love” is nothing if not a gratuitous feast for the eyes. The most indelible aspects of the film’s visual resplendence — the transportive wizardry of William Chang’s cluttered production design, the 20 different cheongsam dresses that Cheung wears like mirages to obscure her underlying desire, the chiaroscuro halos that cinematographers Mark Lee Ping Bing and Christopher Doyle carve from the darkness of a rainswept alleyway where Leung waits for her under a streetlamp — are so effective because of what they hide from us.

    This is a movie about a potential affair between two neighbors who learn that their respective spouses are sleeping together. But it’s also, and perhaps more pointedly, a movie about the afterimage of an affair that’s already happened, and continues to happen off-screen (where Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan’s partners are confined at all times, sometimes hovering just out of frame like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon). We don’t need to see them to trust that they’re real. Likewise, Li-zhen and Mo-wan don’t need to fuck in order for it to feel like they’re cheating. Some cab rides can be more intimate than entire marriages; a lipstick-stained cigarette butt left behind by an unseen intruder can say more than a kiss; a shared desire can be more transgressive than any tryst.

    Touch is finite. Scientific. Touch is fleeting, and there’s no present tense in the world of Wong Kar Wai — the only valuable currency in his movies is the memory of what might have been. Like amateur videographer Ho Chi-mo in “Fallen Angels” or so many of Wong’s other characters in less literal ways, Mo-wan collects images and slivers and song cues that he can cut together in his mind. He whispers them into the hole of a temple wall at Angkor Wat for safekeeping. “The past is something he could see, but not touch,” reads the closing title card. “In the Mood for Love” tells us that Mo-wan is a writer of fiction — Wong Kar Wai shows us that Mo-wan is a filmmaker. Here, his past is so vividly projected that it can feel more real to us than some parts of our own lives.

  • “Nothing lasts forever, anyway.”

    The Movies of Wong Kar Wai, Ranked from Worst to Best (13)

    1. “2046” (2004)

    Wong Kar Wai’s only direct sequel is also his single greatest film, although calling “2046” a direct anything could be a misrepresentation of how scrambled this inwardly spiraling epic can feel the first time through. Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-wan — now a divorced, mustached, proto-Don Draper type who lives in a Hong Kong hotel and files garbage journalism whenever he isn’t busy negging on showgirls — tries to write his way out of the love story he continues to tell himself about his time with Su Li-zhen.

    That process is discursive and impressionistic, even by Wong’s usual standards; if “In the Mood for Love” flirted with symptoms of “Vertigo,” “2046” is so dizzying that it can leave you feeling a little seasick. Points of interest include a rotating cast of beautiful women (including Gong Li as Maggie Cheung’s doppelganger), a timeline that loops around on itself with little warning, and even a glimpse at an imagined future where people can take a train to 2046 in order to recapture their lost memories. No one has ever come back. 2046 is a date, a place, the number of the second-floor room next to Mo-wan’s, and of course the final year of the self-regulated status that China promised Hong Kong at the time of the 1997 handover, but here it always represents a kind of oblivion — a point of no return that forever divides what is from what once was.

    2046 is the place beyond the mountain in “Ashes of Time,” it’s the infinite minute in “Days of Being Wild,” it’s the lighthouse at the end of the world in “Happy Together” and the destination where Faye offers to fly Cop 663 at the end of “Chungking Express.” It’s where all of Wong’s characters have been hoping to go, and so it’s no wonder that we encounter so many of them on the way there. “2046” is effectively “The Avengers” of the WKWCU, with Leung and the leftover traces of Cheung (excerpted from “In the Mood for Love”) giving way to the reappearances of Carina Lau (reprising her role as Mimi/Lulu from “Days of Being Wild”), Chang Chen, and Faye Wong, the latter three of whom play double roles in a way that acknowledges their dual existences in this film and in our memory.

    It’s a dense ride, and its emotional tempos are certainly easier to appreciate for Wong diehards, but while “2046” depends on its director’s previous work in a way that his other films do not, it would be a grave mistake to write it off as bizarro fan service or the stuff of artistic indulgence. The forward-thinking nature of Wong’s cinema can disguise how looking backward is what it’s always done best, and from a certain perspective “In the Mood for Love” — for all of its ravishing beauty — is more powerful to reflect upon than to watch. It would almost be a waste of time for Wong to design that pit of quicksand in such granular detail if he never returned to see Mo-wan sink deeper as he flails around in search of his past.

    Operatic and sprawling where the similarly unkind “Fallen Angels” was punkish and serrated, “2046” isn’t a cold film so much as it’s attuned to the absence of warmth. The surreal and purposely retro-futuristic sci-fi sequences contrast with the airless elegance of the Hong Kong timeline, and Zhang Ziyi delivers one of the greatest Wong performances as a sharp-tongued prostitute whose look took six hours to apply every day, and stays mostly intact even as she follows Mo-wan into the abyss. Wong’s filmmaking reaches mesmerizing new heights as it forges the conflict that sparks between these parallel stories into the key that Mo-wan has presumably been looking for ever since his silent cameo at the end of “Days of Being Wild.” It’s a key that locks the past in place and opens Mo-wan to the possibility that memory is so valuable to keep because people can only be borrowed. It’s a key that allows him to see that nothing can ever be exactly as it was, even (or especially) if it was never that way in the first place. It’s a key that bears the number 2046.

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This Article is related to: Film and tagged In The Mood For Love, ranked, The Criterion Collection, Wong Kar-Wai

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