Anyone who knows the slightest thing about Asian cinema will most certainly have heard of Wong Kar-wai. The director is probably Hong Kong’s most famous filmmaker, with several internationally awarded and critically acclaimed movies under his belt. Watching a Wong Kar-wai film is like immersing yourself into a gritty, neon-drenched world, full of saturated colours and unrequited love. Everything is aesthetically pleasing, and everything is also melancholy.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, then you need to check out Wong Kar-wai’s films and get acquainted with some of Hong Kong’s greatest artistic works. Sorted by date of release instead of ranked by preference, here is a breakdown of Wong Kar-wai’s filmography.
Around the mid-1980s, Hong Kong’s crime and gangster films hit their peak, thanks in no small part to the heroic bloodshed genre such as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Wong, who had been doing screenwriting, followed this trend with his first film As Tears Go By.
The plot follows Wah (played by Andy Lau), a small-time gangster, who is troubled by constantly having to keep his friend and subordinate Fly (played by Jacky Cheung) out of trouble. This differs from the other cop and triad movies of the time because the focus is centred on two low-ranking gangsters and their relatively petty squabbles and trials. Wah also gets involved in a brooding romance with Ngor (played by Maggie Cheung), but the plot and drama are less the true focus of this film than its dreamy tone and fatalistic themes.
Wong was still developing his style and vision at this point, but that certainly doesn’t mean As Tears Go By was not a good film in its own right. In fact, it achieved critical success for standing out from the slew of convention crime films.
Because Wong didn’t particularly care for the crime genre, he chose to ride on the success of his first work and moved away from this mainstream genre to create something more different. Days of Being Wild was definitely a more personal film for Wong to make, as he chose to set it in the 1960s, an era for which he has admitted to having special feelings.
Yuddy (played by Leslie Cheung) is a self-centred playboy who is the epitome of the disaffected youth. Despite his callous disregard for the fair sex, he seems—ironically—to mainly be surrounded by women. There’s the innocent Su Lizhen (played by Maggie Cheung); the more vivacious and sophisticated Lulu (played by Carina Lau), who Yuddy leaves Lizhen to pursue; and also the prostitute who raised him. When Yuddy finds out the truth about his parentage, he sets out to the Philippines on a journey of self-discovery.
Dark and dreamy, Days of Being Wild is more of a character piece than a cohesive narrative. This also marks the beginning of Wong’s long-standing collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, further cementing his distinctive film style.
In order to drum up support and financial backing, Wong agreed to make a wuxia martial arts film in 1992. What ended up transpiring was that he very loosely based his work off of Jin Yong’s popular novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes, only taking three characters from the book and weaving the narrative freely into a sprawling, complex tapestry of character threads.
Set during the Song dynasty, Ouyang Feng (played by Leslie Cheung), is a heartbroken assassin in exile. A range of characters (starring Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and Carina Lau) visit to engage his services, though Ouyang prefers outsourcing the act of killing itself. As a prelude to The Legend of the Condor Heroes, this movie depicts the events that contributed to Ouyang Feng’s path to villainy, eventually becoming known as the Western Venom.
Ever the master of distractions and tangents, this plot is famously difficult to follow and the focus is instead on posing bodies, close-ups on faces, and stunning imagery. It’s certainly impressive how Wong presented the idea of a dystopian world even in a period setting, transforming a simple desert into somewhere blisteringly warm-hued that wouldn’t look out of place on another planet. This is a wuxia film unlike any others in the genre and is worth watching for that reason alone.
Ashes of Time was a taxing project with a difficult and lengthy production period, during which Wong was under considerable pressure and worries. To get himself comfortable with his craft again, he decided to start a new project which he claims to have made “like a student film.” The time between conception and completion took merely six weeks, and Chungking Express ended up being released two months ahead of Ashes of Time.
The plot is split between two vaguely paralleled but ultimately unrelated stories. The first features police officer No. 233 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) who is still pining over his ex, though he sets himself a cut-off date for his emotions. His moping is disturbed when he meets a woman who seems to be caught up in a drug ring. The second narrative focuses on another policeman, No. 663 (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who visits a restaurant and causes the waitress Faye (played by Faye Wong) to fall in love with him. He seems disinterested, but she is persistent, even secretly sneaking into his apartment to clean it.
A reflection of Wong’s largely improvisatory methods for this project—he would write sections of the script during the day then shoot them that very night—Chungking Express is lively, unbounded by restrictions, and at times even screwball humorous. Though more lighthearted than Wong’s other works, it nevertheless still conveys a sense of melancholic loneliness in a range of confused, quirky characters, and accurately depicts what it’s like to only catch a passing snippet of someone before their stories ambiguously fade away.
Wong’s original plan for Chungking Express consisted of three stories, but production time ran out before he got round to finishing the third, so he did what any storyteller would: packaged the remaining plot into a project of its own. The themes of loneliness and alienation in young adults in Hong Kong were carried over from the previous film; in fact, Wong later said in an interview that, “To me, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long.”
As ever, there is little concrete narrative structure, but rather, the film feels like it’s been stitched together from a collection of stunning snapshots that are the distillation of the characters. An unnamed killer for hire (played by Leon Lai) and his handling agent (played by Michelle Reis) have worked together for years but never met. Yet, when he wishes to quit the business, she is devastated by the news. Elsewhere, a minor criminal (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) spends his nights breaking into different businesses and coercing the night prowlers of the city into giving him their custom.
This film mirrors its predecessor in that it also involves two vaguely overlapping narratives, but while Chungking Express is more exuberant and sweet, Fallen Angels explores the opposite, darker side of the city. In retrospect, although both films contain similar elements like a mysterious woman in a blond wig, a neon-drenched city, and expired tins of fruit, it is definitely for the better that the darker violence and swooning ennui of Fallen Angels has been classed as a tour de force of its own.
Wong’s works and name grew in reputation over the 1990s, and Happy Together was the film that firmly cemented him as an outstanding auteur with internationally recognised standing. Influenced by the eminent Hong Kong handover of 1997, Wong focused on a romantic relationship between two men, knowing that the expression of homosexuality would be in murky waters after the city’s return to mainland Chinese sovereignty.
Lai Yiu-fai (played by Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are an on-and-off couple who take a trip to Argentina in the hopes of salvaging and rekindling their relationship. But their emotional baggage has also been brought along to weigh down this new scenery, and the co-dependent pair go in circles of making and breaking up as Ho fails to reign in his flights of promiscuity and Lai fails to be strong-willed enough to turn him away.
Witnessing the bitter and inevitable breakdown of this relationship is torturous, but Wong nevertheless manages to express the rush and beauty of romantic longing, regret, tension, and ultimate renewal with his visually rhythmic style. Happy Together was also the film that made Wong the first in Hong Kong to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.
Undoubtedly the most famous of Wong Kar-wai’s films, In the Mood for Love is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the director’s cinematic art, as well as one of the best Asian movies of all time. Some see this as a sequel of sorts to Days of Being Wild, as Wong returns to the 1960s era and his own background as a Shanghainese immigrant.
Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (played by Maggie Cheung) are next-door neighbours who suspect their respective spouses are cheating on them with each other. Through small intersections in their daily lives—bumping into each other on the stairwell, going to the same noodle stall—and heavier interactions—re-enacting how their spouses may have begun their infidelity, working together in a hotel room away from prying eyes—the two eventually fall in love. Though both acknowledge their shared feelings for the other, neither act on it as there is an unspoken agreement they will not stoop to their partners’ level.
Though it may seem frustrating or baffling to Western audiences more accustomed to Hollywood-style happy endings, In the Mood for Love is an achingly beautiful look into the socially conservative Hong Kong of the 1960s, Chinese reticence, and painfully repressed desire when love is not unrequited but cannot be acted upon. The camerawork—always lurking and spying—is employed cleverly, music is used to brilliant effect, and, of course, the costumes have gone down in history to make Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung one of the most beautiful and arresting couples to ever grace the silver screen.
Completing the unofficial trilogy is 2046, a sequel of sorts of In the Mood for Love. The numbers are a reference to the year when Hong Kong is due to be fully absorbed back into the folds of mainland China, though whether there are subtle parallels about the city itself is unclear.
Set over approximately three years, the film follows the recurring character of Chow Mo-wan (played again by Tony Leung) after he loses Su Li-zhen and the events that occur as he moves into the Oriental Hotel, as well as the various women he encounters there. Lulu from Days of Being Wild turns out to be an old flame of his and moves into the room next to his, number 2046. She winds up disappearing, and Chow gets involved with the occupants that follow after.
Another arc of the film is set within a fictional dystopia from a work of science fiction that Chow is writing, named 2046. The lonely souls from this world want to journey to a place called 2046 to recapture their lost loves. No one has ever returned from this place, except for Tak (played by Takuya Kimura), shown on a long train journey back to reality.
If this all sounds confusing, well, are you still surprised about the rambling, disjointed nature of a Wong Kar-wai film at this point? As ever, there is an all-pervading sense of melancholy, intense urgency, and unvoiced truths, compounded by much of the drama unfolding in the claustrophobic spaces of cramped hallways and furtive rented rooms.
2046 was a behemoth of a production, and one which was famously difficult; Wong was continuously editing it even after its submission and premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. As is his modus operandi, Wong then began working on something different, this time an English film set in America, which was a refreshing change for the director.
Elizabeth (played by jazz-pop singer Norah Jones) discovers her boyfriend has been cheating on her and spends a night gorging on blueberry pie at a homey New York diner run by Jeremy (played by Jude Law). She leaves her key in a fishbowl filled with old keys from other patrons and disappears on a journey to forget and discover, and meets a range of characters with problems of their own (played by David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman).
Though many have criticised My Blueberry Nights for falling into the trap of featuring too many stereotypical Americanisms, its visual style has remained the same as Wong’s other offerings: a dizzying swirl of open freeways, smokey bars, and close-ups of pretty faces, lit by the dim glow of a diner jukebox.
It was a good five years or so after the relative commercial failure of My Blueberry Nights before Wong’s next production. The Grandmaster is a biopic of the legendary martial artist Ip Man, famous for his Wing Chun style of kung fu and for being Bruce Lee’s master. If you assume this film is comparable to the various others made about Ip Man, you’d be wrong.
Only lightly skimming the surface of biographical facts, The Grandmaster instead focuses on the world of martial arts, those who inhabit it, and the regrets and desires of those who live under its hierarchy and rules. Ip Man (played by Tony Leung) is chosen to represent the kung fu masters of southern China when their Northern counterparts come challenging. Throughout the years, he repeatedly encounters Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the northern grandmaster, and the two maintain a friendly rivalry.
Further compounding its distance from the rest of its genre, The Grandmaster doesn’t even feature the typical culminating OTT fight scene, though the action sequences that are present are brilliantly choreographed. Its dazzling visuals and intensely saturated melodrama may be unconventional, but makes this movie every bit the sweeping martial arts epic that it is, and more besides.