The Wonderful World of Wong Kar-Wai

U.S. debuts highlight a retrospective of the great filmmaker’s works

Wong Kar-Wai is one of our greatest living filmmakers. It’s been easy to forget that, since it’s been seven years since his last film, the Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster. Thankfully, with a virtual retrospective titled “World of Wong Kar-Wai,” Film at Lincoln Center and art-house distributor Janus Films is giving us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the cinematic oeuvre of our foremost poet of romantic yearning, moody alienation, and pained regret.

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All of his feature films are here, many presented in new 4K restorations supervised by Wong himself. There is In the Mood for Love (2001), the film many consider his masterpiece, and which could be considered the second installment of an unofficial historical trilogy (so far) that also includes Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2005). Back in the present day, there is his lightly comic Chungking Express (1994), probably his most accessible work, as well as its darker semi-sequel Fallen Angels (1995). And one cannot forget his Buenos Aires-set LGBTQ+ landmark Happy Together (1997), which proved that Wong could be just as lyrical and insightful about homosexual romantic relationships as he has been about heterosexual ones.

All of these, as well as his striking 1988 debut As Time Goes By and his much-maligned (not entirely justifiably) 2007 English-language effort My Blueberry Nights, have come out on home video previously (and will appear on Blu-ray in this recently announced Criterion Collection box set). But “World of Wong Kar-Wai” also features two films that are making their theatrical debuts in the United States: an extended cut of The Hand, his 2004 miniature originally featured alongside short films by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni in an omnibus called Eros; and the 130-minute Hong Kong version of The Grandmaster, which The Weinstein Company released in the US in a 108-minute version mandated by its distributor, though Wong at least supervised the hack job. The inclusion of these films are events in and of themselves. They are also among Wong’s greatest films.

The Hand
The Hand
Still from ‘The Hand,’ directed by Wong Kar-Wai.

Not that anyone has ever really considered The Hand a lesser work. But presented in isolation in a longer cut that brings it to almost-feature length (56 minutes), one can now more fully appreciate it as a fascinating variation on In the Mood for Love. As with the two lovers-by-proxy in the earlier film, The Hand centers on a romance that a tailor, Zhang (Chang Chen), and a courtesan, Miss Hua (Gong Li), never really consummate. One could consider it a coming-of-age tale of sorts, since Miss Hua gives the much younger Zhang his first taste of adult sexuality with an unprompted hand job early on in the film, leading Zhang to devote much of his fashion career to designing clothes just for her. But Wong contrasts Zhang’s ascension with Miss Hua’s decline.

As has been the case throughout his career, though, Wong is too sensitive to female agency and desire to make Miss Hua merely an object of pity as her clientele dissipates and her health begins to fail. The Hand is as much a study of Miss Hua’s shifting modes of control, self-awareness, and vulnerability as it is of the physical and emotional dynamics between her and the one man who remains faithful to her until the end. If anything, the short format forces Wong into an economy of formal gesture that makes even the smallest graze of the hand and caress of a piece of clothing feel like passionate expressions of devotion. Far more than just an also-ran to In the Mood for Love, we should consider The Hand its worthy equal in power and stature.

The Legend of Ip Man
Wong Kar-Wai
‘The Grandmaster,’ directed by Wong Kar-Wai.

Whereas The Hand is gorgeously intimate, The Grandmaster—which will be available to watch virtually at Film at Lincoln Center on Friday, December 18—is grandly expansive, not only in its broader view of human relationships, but in its philosophical reach. One may not necessarily grasp that latter quality in the shorter version that appeared in the U.S. back in 2014, also included in this retrospective. That version of the film was a tighter package that placed more of an emphasis on the high-flying martial-arts action, choreographed by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping, while making the historical elements more comprehensible for Western audiences. The more luxurious length of the Hong Kong version gives the film time and space to allow a profoundly melancholic feeling to wash over the viewer, appropriate for a film about people learning the value of standing back and embracing a longer view of life.

Perhaps the most subversive aspect of Wong’s take on Ip Man’s life story is that Ip Man himself is ultimately secondary to the film’s real protagonist: Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), who devotes her life to reclaiming her father’s honor, which eventually includes seeking vengeance for his murder at the hands of traitorous former student Ma San (Zhang Jin). In the process, however, she throws away any chance at having a normal life, and allows her father’s Baguazhang martial-arts tradition to die with her when she passes away in 1953.

In essence, she embodies the opposite of her father’s own signature move: “Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge,” characterized not by forward motion, but by looking back in reflection. As she expresses to Ip Man in a scene towards the end, Gong Er, looking heartbreakingly pale and worn down, only fully grasps the philosophical implications of this late in her life, long after she has become addicted to opium to deal with the lasting physical pain left by her showdown with Ma San.

Moving forward while also slowing down enough to reflect on one’s own previous experiences: That’s the balance that Ip Man himself has, in his own quietly observant way, tried to figure out in his own life. To a considerable degree, that conflict between looking ahead and looking back is the great running theme throughout Wong Kar-Wai’s entire filmography, not only in the kinds of stories he tells but also in the way he tells them: with a visual and aural style that vacillates between youthful bravura and mature rumination. The beauty of The Grandmaster is that, through Ip Man’s life story and the philosophy his Wing Chun style inhabits, Wong finds his most direct expression of that thematic obsession. Even more so than films like In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, The Grandmaster could be seen as a skeleton key to unlocking this great artist’s entire filmography.

Click here for more information on the “World of Wong Kar-Wai” series at Film at Lincoln Center.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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