​in the mood for love: a brief guide to the films of wong kar-wai

With the Hong Kong director's new film The Grandmaster out now in England, we celebrate the work of the iconic auteur.

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Dec 11 2014, 1:10pm

Well, we thought he might try. In his new film The Grandmaster, the renowned Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai has somehow managed to sneak in another doomed love story in a film that seems, on the surface, to be about fighting. The film, which came out this week in the UK, represents another period arts piece that picks apart the genre. This time round, Kar-Wai is playing with the martial arts film, in an epic story that follows the career of Bruce Lee's legendary teacher Ip Man (played by Tony Leung). Set in the 30s, the film is more focused on the details of time and place, and a hopeless and unsubstantiated love affair, than it is engaged in the violence of fighting. A brooding, beautifully shot epic, it also represents something of a return to form for its director. His last release, and his first Hollywood film, My Blueberry Nights lacked critical success, and failed to enrapture audiences with its coy, flat dialogue. It's quite another story with his earlier films, which are arthouse favourites for their dangerously romantic, swoony interpretations of inner-city alienation and unspoken desires. His films present raging passions with a slow-burning intensity. In light of the release of The Grandmaster, we look at some aspects of the legendary Chinese director's style and collaborations.

Jump cuts and freeze frames
Wong Kar-Wai's filmed are often characterised by a slow, languorous aesthetic, in which nothing very much seems to be happening. He developed this iconic visual style with a cinematic legend, the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Stop-motion street scenes and that oversaturation of colour that we've come to associate with Kar-Wai's films became their stock in trade: a distinct visual style involving jump cuts, freeze frames, and an intense, roving street camera. (Wong claims that this non-linear shooting style was inspired by the novel The Buenos Aires Affair by the Argentinian Manuel Puig.) Combined with a taste for iconic pop songs and the drifting music of a radio left on in the room, Doyle and Kar-Wai created the perfect visual standpoint for these cinematic tales of doomed love. They haven't, however, collaborated since 2046 - it's rumoured to be on account of Kar-Wai's more structured and deliberate change of direction. Whatever the reason, it's time to get back together, fellas.

Time goes by so slowly so slowly
Kar-Wai may well be one of the masters of showing time on screen. Whether referencing objects and styles of times long gone (with more than just a hint of nostalgia), or relationships between people across the divides of an unruly era (The Grandmaster is the most recent example), his films are infused with a sense of loss, and a bittersweet aftertaste of hope for the future. In The Grandmaster, time stretches out across decades and ruling martial arts traditions: the sections set in Hong Kong in the 50s are conjured up by posters and peppered with newsreel footage. But he also likes to keep us waiting for the films. 2046 famously screened at Cannes only hours after Wong had finally finished editing it. He still recut it after the film's premiere. The Grandmaster took many years to be finished, and appeared in a longer cut at the Berlin Film festival.

Eye for style
Costume plays an important role in creating atmosphere and a strong sense of time in Kar-Wai's films. Costumes are often poppy, bright and combine both Western and Eastern influences in a timeless style. Whether it's the blue heart worn by the lonely waitress in Chungking Express, or most recently, the massive fur coat worn by the beautiful daughter of the martial arts "grandmaster" Gong Yutian, they become iconic fixtures of the film's visual imagery. Gong's hard-fighting (and glamorous) daughter Gong Er even manages to pull off a perfect kung fu battle, decked in a luxurious fur coat, in the middle of a snowstorm. That perfect red lipstick isn't even smudged.

The designer William Chang Suk-ping is another of Kar-Wai's legendary collaborators. Ever-multitasking, Mr. Chang has art-directed, designed costumes for, and edited all of Mr. Wong's feature films, alongside working with almost every major Chinese director alive. He was nominated for an award for the costumes in The Grandmaster, which reflect his impeccable eye for period detail.

California Dreamin'
Kar-Wai's characters are often dreamers and drifters with a strong sense of urban alienation and social dislocation. Many have noted that this might be a reflection of the director's own dislocated background. Born in Shanghai in 1958, Kar-Wai's family moved to Hong Kong five years later without his brother and sister. The director wouldn't see that part of his family again for ten years. Cop 663 (played by Kar Wai's muse Tony Leung) has been dumped by his stewardess girlfriend and comes in nightly to the Midnight Express sandwich bar, where the kooky waitress (Faye Wong) works. Though Cop 663 drifts in every night in a state of romantic yearning, their conversation remains non-existent. Some see his films as expressions of urban dislocation in the teeming metropolis of Hong Kong. But dig a little deeper, and you start to wonder why these characters lack a backstory. What are they running from? And where do they come from? Kar-Wai's films can be seen to reflect Hong Kong's political and social insecurity in the face of China's troubled history, a situation so very prevalent today in student protests that have come to be characterised by the image of the umbrella.

Quizas, Quizas, Quizas
Doomy pop tunes are one of the director's trademark styles. Whether drifting out from smoky bars, or overlapping with street noises on the radio, Kar-Wai's films have a strong musical sensibility. Think of Nat King Cole's Quizas, Quizas, Quizas in In The Mood For Love, for example. In Chungking Express the young waitress dreams of California while putting in time at the sandwich bar. It doesn't matter how much she listens to the song, she's stuck in a diner listening to the Mamas and the Papas' classic California Dreamin'. Woozy Western pop songs, or their evocative Eastern interpretations often function as a way of referencing what's been left unsaid, important signifiers of his characters' rich inner lives.

He also shoots fashion commercials
Kar-Wai has directed commercials for BMW (The Follow) and Chivas Regal, to name a few. The latter is a better example of a good-looking mood piece, but it still feels a bit like he's made a pact with the devil. Starring the famous actor Chang Chen and supermodel Du Juan, the film was shot at the majestic Umaid Bhawan Palace in India. (We know, we know: Kenneth Anger shoots Missoni ads and David Lynch does the odd job. We know it's been done before…)

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Text Sophia Satchell Baeza