Live from Planet Hong Kong: David Bordwell on Wong Kar-Wai
The man who wrote the book on Hong Kong cinema assesses its most acclaimed export.
The 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival is well underway; as usual, some of the liveliest reporting of the proceedings is being provided by the man who literally wrote the book on Hong Kong cinema. David Bordwell, author of Planet Hong Kong, has been attending HKIFF regularly since 1995; so far for this year’s edition he’s offered reports on several new films, including the Chinese all-time top grossing blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s romantic genre pic Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and Hungarian master Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse.
I’ve been meaning for some time to mention the newly expanded digital edition of Planet Hong Kong ever since I had the pleasure of hearing Bordwell discuss Hong Kong cinema at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas last January. Those who’ve read the earlier edition know that it’s a vivid study of how the tiny shoreline colony cultivated its own brand of popular cinema, one whose kinetic artistry had a rippling influence around the world, especially for 1990s Hollywood action cinema. Bordwell’s writing is exhaustively researched yet compulsively readable; he’s a scholar who knows how to tie complex film theories and techniques into clear, accessible prose. Best of all, this new digital edition comes with glorious color stills replacing the black-and-whites of the original print edition. As you can see, the results are eye-popping, if not mouth-watering:
Bordwell spent several years traveling to Hong Kong to uncover its cinematic history, interviewing directors, actors, producers and other key figures, the majority of whom proved to be remarkably accessible, even grateful that a world-class film scholar would take their work seriously. One glaring exception: Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s designated arthouse darling, who proved as elusive to Bordwell’s efforts to track him down as his moody, enigmatic films would suggest. Bordwell managed to work around the director-diva’s absence with behind-the-scenes accounts by Wong’s longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle and other cast and crew associated with Wong’s productions. Thus Bordwell manages to get an inside look at Wong’s tumultuous working process:
“Wong’s production methods push to a limit the local custom of day-by-day creation. He typically starts shooting without a ﬁnished script. He arrives at the set early and decides on the camera positions, then gives actors their dialogue, which he has usually composed a few hours before. Christopher Doyle notes: ‘Each ﬁlm I see less and less written down.’ Wong is fond of many retakes, allowing actors to ﬁnd the rhythm of their part slowly—because, he says, most Hong Kong stars have fallen into bad habits by working so fast. Like a silent-ﬁlm director, he plays music during ﬁlming to enhance the mood. Thousands of feet of footage go unused. None of the two weeks’ worth of material shot in Brigitte Lin’s home made it into Chungking Express, and the pop singer Shirley Kwan, brought to Buenos Aires for a major role in Happy Together, was dropped from the ﬁnal cut. On the latter project, Chris Doyle ﬁlmed at the magniﬁcent Iguaçu falls while the director was in a coffee shop far away: ‘We’re on our own again today,’ Doyle noted in his diary. ‘Wong’s still working out whether this is a ﬂash-forward dream sequence or the last stop on Tony [Leung Chiu-wai]’s physical and spiritual journey and another possible ending for the ﬁlm. We shoot it both ways.’”
Watch Happy Together on Fandor.
Bordwell’s coverage of Wong Kar-Wai in the original Planet Hong Kong was already extensive, the last stretch of the first edition concerns Wong’s significance in advancing Hong Kong pop cinema into the arthouse realm, with special consideration towards Chungking Express as a lynchpin connecting the two sensibilities. The new edition goes further to account for Wong’s continuation as an internationally renowned filmmaker during the 2000s with his films In the Mood for Love, 2046 and My Blueberry Nights. Bordwell hits upon visual and narrative style as key hallmarks of Wong’s restless progression from film to film:
“’Each ﬁlm has to be ‘different,” notes cinematographer Doyle. ‘In narrative style, in structure. In its so-called ‘look.’’ Wong is proudly polystylistic. As Tears Go By is ﬁlmed in hard blocks of red, ultramarine, and orange, all pierced by solid black shadows; silhouettes and unexpected angles are linked by restless cutting. Days of Being Wild has a more languid rhythm, with softer lighting and much longer takes. Ashes of Time, shufﬂing back and forth in time, charts the changes in the desert from brilliant ochre to thick, shadowy brown. Chungking Express is all high-key available-light shooting, while Happy Together presents grimy, bleached colors. Fallen Angels indulges in an almost unprecedented visual grotesquerie in performance and camerawork: not only are the characters always shrieking or brooding, but the outrageous wide-angle shooting turns them into gargoyles.”
Watch Fallen Angels on Fandor.
Beyond offering production anecdotes and stylistic categorizing, Bordwell builds these observations into an account of the aesthetic experience of watching these films, and what it suggests about Wong’s artistic vision. For Bordwell, the latter isn’t set in stone (an important point given the mercurial nature of Wong’s films), but merely suggested through subjective accounts of the films, both in their distinct, isolated effects and discernible recurring patterns:
“Central to Wong Kar-wai’s work, critics agree, is the theme of time. It appears in many guises— the mysteries of change, the ephemerality of the present, the secret afﬁnities among simultaneous incidents, the longings created by memory and nostalgia. The characters are constantly watching the clock, laboring under due dates or meditating on missed chances and mistaken choices. “They are all trying to master the unbearable lightness of the present moment,” writes Larry Gross, “to possess what can’t be possessed, the passing of beauty and successful emotional expression…
Within all this ﬂux, there must be moments that crystallize into shining clarity, or, as the Chinese title of Happy Together puts it: “Spring Brilliance Suddenly Pours Out.” The ﬁlm presents a crescendo of epiphanies. There is one when Lai Yiu-fai stands before the Iguaçu falls, letting the spray blast him; at the same moment Ho Po-wing, idling in Yiu-fai’s apartment, toys with the lamp representing the falls and then bursts into tears. At the ﬁlm’s close a pensive Yiu-fai is carried by a nighttime Taipei train into a cataract of speed and light. Such bursts of brilliance function as dramatic climaxes in Wong’s ﬁlms.”
Planet Hong Kong is a brilliant work of film scholarship in the way it weaves together a variety of approaches to film scholarship: filmic analysis and stylistic appreciation share equal time with box-office figures and socio-political movements, and auteurist visions are informed by the everyday working realities of Hong Kong filmmaking.
More information on Planet Hong Kong at David Bordwell’s website.
Related Reading/ Pictorial: Delirious Detritus: Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels.