Wong Kar Wai, in the mood for conversation at MoMA
As part of its ongoing "Modern Mondays" series, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted an evening with Wong Kar Wai, a writer and director who helped define modern Hong Kong cinema.
Wong was joined by moderator La Frances Hui, associate curator, Department of Film, and by John Powers, film critic at Vogue, a critic at large for NPR and author of the “Open City” column for Los Angeles magazine. Powers co-wrote with Wong a lavish new book from Rizzoli, WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai.
The wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation covered Wong's movies, his writing and directing processes, and his longtime collaborators. Famously enigmatic, he teased and bantered with Hui and Powers, answering questions with questions and commenting on the selection of clips.
But Wong also leaned forward to explain what inspires and drives him as a filmmaker. That ecstatic kiss between Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in As Tears Go By? Wong recalled how nervous Cheung was (it was her first screen kiss), which is why the two performers tried to hide in a telephone booth. And he remembered the song that propelled the scene, Sandy Lam's version of "Take My Breath Away." And while he acknowledged the influence of films like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, he was also thinking of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.
Hui followed with a clip from In the Mood for Love, a scene in a rainy alleyway in which Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai meet and part to Shigeru Umebayashi's haunting "Yumeji's Theme." Powers noted the crucial role music plays in Wong's films.
"Film is like a dance, like a waltz," Wong said, pointing out how difficult it is to find the right rhythm for a film. "Film is like breathing," he added, saying that he often used music on set to help the actors.
Wong called his scripts "chapters" rather than short stories, and spoke of his productions as "organic." Which meant that sometimes plots and characters evolved during shooting. Maggie Cheung, "my first leading lady," gave him the confidence that he could direct "because she was not a trained actor and was not very interested in acting."
Instead of pushing her through a scene, Wong asked how her character would play it, learning that it was better to tailor roles for individuals rather than place stars into parts that were already written.
Powers pointed out that every one of Wong's films is rooted in his childhood—in the teeming, tourist-filled neighborhood known as Tsim Sha Tsui that he grew up in; in his father's job as a nightclub manager in the Chungking Mansions; in his exposure to foreigners, gangsters, show people, beggars.
"The first characters you write about are the people you know or the people who impressed you," Wong said, identifying the real-life equivalents to some of his roles. But once he "ran out" of those characters, he had to broaden his vision. Wong spent three years interviewing a hundred martial artists while working on the script for The Grandmaster.
Hui wondered how Wong adapted to the pressure of unfinished scripts and changing storylines. "Most filmmakers deal with it," he responded. "There's a breaking point—either you break or you move on."
What about his film's deleted scenes and multiple versions, she asked. "Each film has its own life," he replied. "The film will guide you: This is the only thing you want to tell."
Gar wai, as he is affectionately known, could still be evasive. When Hui asked about the preponderance of unhappy lovers and thwarted romances in his movies, he cited a shot of Anthony Quinn looking at Giulietta Masina in La Strada and realizing too late that he loved her.
When Powers brought up Wong's distinctive visual style, the director told jokes about his longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who loved talking so much that Wong often let him do his interviews.
Hui and Powers both brought up William Chang, who as production designer, costume designer, editor and occasional actor is one of Wong's most significant collaborators. Wong admitted that the two rarely talked to each other on set, to the consternation of onlookers. "We have the same background," Wong explained.
The director talked at length about how the swooningly romantic In the Mood for Love started out as two stories about food. "The rice cooker liberated women," he said with a deadpan face, adding that "instant noodles changed our way of life. Before everyone ate together, but now we could eat alone."
Joking aside, In the Mood for Love captured a moment when culture was shifting, when women's roles expanded before society could adjust. Similarly, Chungking Express dealt in part with immigrants from Mainland China just as the 1997 handover loomed.
"We thought of Mainland Chinese as sort of a joke," Wong said. "That's why I wanted to cast Faye Wong, a singer from Beijing, to show that they are perhaps smarter than we thought. The same with Leon Lai, also from Beijing, for Fallen Angels."
Wong credited Leslie Cheung's loyalty for continuing to work with him after their Days of Being Wild performed poorly at the box office. Cheung, a pop singer who became a major movie star in films like A Better Tomorrow and A Chinese Ghost Story, also starred in Wong's Ashes of Time and Happy Together. And Wong praised Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who has appeared in seven of his films, including The Grandmaster.
Wong recalled how his early screenwriting work shaped his career. His writing team was routinely assigned action movies and romances. As a junior writer (and someone who cleaned up the office), Wong had to continually solve the problem of saying something new in the same old formulas.
As a result, he insists that both his sex and action scenes also reveal something about his characters. A fight between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi in The Grandmaster is actually constructed as a flirtation.
From the handheld cameras and step-printing in Chungking Express to the wide-angle lenses in Fallen Angels and the classical, tripod-bound compositions of In the Mood for Love, Wong's films have a distinct look that is uniquely his own. The same can be said for his soundtracks, which mix Canto-pop with classical themes. His influence, in Hong Kong films but also in world cinema, has been pervasive. And as guarded as he is about his process, he has shown throughout his work an uncanny understanding for his lonely, heartbroken characters.