Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual retrospective World of Wong Kar-wai presents every feature film by one of our greatest directors (many of them newly restored), in the process offering the opportunity to check out some of his lesser-seen works. Titles like In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express are rightfully regarded as masterpieces, but I would assert that every single one of Wong’s movies are essential — even his much-maligned US production My Blueberry Nights. Along with the canonical entries, here are some other films in the program that you should watch, both for their places in Wong’s career and how they’re presented here.
In 1988, Wong made his international breakthrough with the 1960s-set Days of Being Wild, tracking the lives of young people and their romantic entanglements and capricious whims. They’re played by a who’s who of great Hong Kong actors, including Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau, and Jacky Cheung. It is perhaps Wong’s greatest achievement in illustrating the relationship between Hong Kong and its denizens, a theme that runs through most of his films. The accumulating loneliness of the city seems etched into the spaces that surround these wounded souls. Though Leslie Cheung’s Yuddy is the focal point, with all the other characters falling into his orbit at one point or another, this is a true ensemble effort. The memories and piercing pain of each character seem to be absorbed into a collective, a statement about youth in this specific place and time. And it’s capped off by possibly the greatest, most mysterious cameo in cinema history.
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One of Wong’s least-seen efforts is The Hand, his contribution to the 2004 triptych film Eros, (which also features segments by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni). Originally running a little over 40 minutes, it’s presented here in an extended cut that’s just under an hour. Like In the Mood for Love, it is a 1960s romantic pas de deux, this one between Chang Chen as a novice tailor and Gong Li as his client, a high-class call girl. As the anthology’s title suggests, this is his most forthrightly erotic work, and its impact is only sharpened by the story’s decade-long timespan. It’s a concatenation of visits, changes in appearances, and above all longings, conveyed through touch and the sensation of beautiful clothes and the things needed to craft them.
Wong’s most recent feature, The Grandmaster, was mutilated by the Weinstein Company upon its initial 2013 US release, but thankfully is available here in its original 130-minute Hong Kong cut (be sure to select this one, and not the 108-minute US version). It tells the story of revered kung fu master Ip Man (Tony Leung), Bruce Lee’s teacher, but is far different from most martial arts films. Compare it to the recent tetralogy of Ip Man movies directed by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen, or even to Wong’s own 1994 action film Ashes of Time. Rather than invoking the nationalism of the former or the hazy memory landscape of the latter, Wong firmly situates Ip within the shifting cultural and political mores of his time. It incorporates both the encroaching Japanese invasion of China and the struggle between various kung fu schools. Crucially, Ip is not the main character for large swaths of the story. Many grandmasters, Gong Er (a magisterial Zhang Ziyi) foremost among them, form a great tapestry of skill and history that this film rests upon.
These are just three of the highlights, but all of Wong’s films are must-sees, and constitute one of the most pleasurable and achingly beautiful bodies of work in cinema.
World of Wong Kar-wai runs online via Film at Lincoln Center through January 1.