New AFS Series More Than Simply Restores Wong Kar-wai's Work
The (almost) complete films of the Hong Kong filmmaker
Wong Kar-wai is inarguably one of the most influential directors of contemporary cinema. A filmmaker who never sees his work as complete, as well as one who openly admits to shooting full sequences of films that get thrown on the cutting room floor, Wong is the ideal candidate for a restoration because he won't hold his first completed project with nostalgic treasure. Starting this week, AFS Cinema's streaming platform AFS at Home presents redesigned, reedited, and revived versions of seven of his works, all in 4K, under the banner of World of Wong Kar-wai.
Wong has never been averse to revisiting and restructuring his work. Take Ashes of Time, a prequel to 1957 novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Upon release in 1994, the film was considered a flop: It wasn't in line with his romantic, youthful visions of Hong Kong, had totally flipped and reworked everything people loved about the original book, and above all was a mess of poetic musings that veered far from its wuxia origins. But when the original print was lost and Wong was given the opportunity to reedit and rescore the film in 2008 as Ashes of Time Redux, he did so with a thrill for opportunity. Shortening the film by seven minutes, he created a more comprehensive piece that he found to be an improvement on the original – although purists disagreed.
This new series allowed Wong to reappraise six of his first seven films – As Tears Go By, Happy Together, the interwoven Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, and the first two films in his 1960s Hong Kong trilogy, Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love – as well as The Hand, the extended short from the triptych Eros that he created with Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. With a majority of the restorations, changes like aspect ratio tweaking (to mirror the theatrical release) aren't that noticeable. However, with 1995's Fallen Angels, Wong was given an opportunity to finally complete a film he felt was unfinished. At the time the film was released, it was impossible (as Wong mentions in his director's statement) to shoot a film in standard format and release it in anamorphic, but technology today gave him the opportunity to finally fulfill his wish.
This, in addition to Wong's tweaks with Fallen Angels' color correction, could lead fans of his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle to riot. However, the shift from selective color to full black and white with the internal monologues of the Killer's Agent (Michelle Reis) is powerful, a doorway into her soul that's more exposed and vulnerable through the change.
Wong's sense of beauty in romance, no matter how dark or bright, makes for an intoxicating ride from As Tears Go By (1988) to The Hand (2004) – a swirling, smoldering myriad of lovers, broken hearts, and nostalgic heartstrings tugging. What's even more impressive is how he's able to explore these endless romantic themes without telling the same story twice. Take Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels: two films back-to-back in Wong's filmography that on the surface have a lot of crossover with and callback to one another (in fact, the latter was originally conceived as a plot strand in the former). Yet where Chungking Express explores two police officers in a sunshine-drenched and hopeful Hong Kong, Fallen Angels is an edgier, sinister twin, examining the city's depths.
Don't be mistaken: Wong's movies are always at their core about love – friendship, romantic, or otherwise. Passion flows through his characters, no matter if they're a mob enforcer in love with their cousin, or stuck at the end of the world in Buenos Aires with a broken heart. He never writes the same character twice, but each and every one has an intoxicating glamour to them, even those that are down on their luck and broke. They wash their sorrows in jukeboxes, show love by cleaning their crush's room. There always is a time limit to their connection, showcased by the looming, giant, glowing clocks that always seem to be found in the backdrop.
Wong's a director fueled by imagery, in large part because of his longtime collaboration with Doyle. Yet even before they first worked together on Chungking Express, it's clear from As Tears Go By that Doyle only enhances Wong's established vision with his skill set, rather than leading it. This is in large part due to another longtime collaborator, William Chang Suk-ping, who is not only an editor of his films but his production and costume designer. You have him to thank for the much-adored qipao – the signature body-hugging dresses that women in his films so often wear – from In the Mood for Love (2000). While it's understandable since those qipaos pale in comparison to the glamorous designs in The Hand, the cloth patterns are beautifully paired with the film's production design and overall Sixties aesthetic, giving the film a rich, textured look that inspired many, including Mad Men.
As lush and vibrant as ever, Wong's escapist, romantic fantasies are perfect for any time of the year, but especially so in the cold chill of an oncoming holiday season that might feel more lonely than those in the past.
World of Wong Kar-wai
As Tears Go By (1988)
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Chungking Express (1994)
Fallen Angels (1995)
Happy Together (1997)
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The Hand (2004)
Available via www.afsathome.org.