The Cinema of Wong Kar-Wai

By Chris Gallagher

Wong Kar-Wai is a visionary in the world of film. A filmmaker that continues to question boundaries of style and narrative, his films are a visceral experience with each frame filled with colour and texture.

Wong Kar-Wai is one of a few Chinese directors that have received International acclaim but whereas John Woo is known for his high-octane action films, Wong falls into the category of Post modernist.

Although Wong is a fan of Kung Fu and the martial arts genre, in his formative years he found an emotional disconnect when watching the martial arts films of the time. In fact during press for his most recent film Grandmaster, he was quoted in the Independent as saying he, “Always wanted to tell a story about the rich tradition of Chinese martial arts, rather than [using it] just as a vehicle for kicks and punches.

As an auteur in the tradition of European filmmakers of the French New Wave, Wong has taken influence from the likes of Truffaut and Godard. By incorporating ‘New Wave’ techniques like voiceover, (utilised in most of Wong’s films), deviating from the script to give a more natural performance and the use of jump cuts, he stands out as a thought provoking artist and filmmaker.

Wong uses his films to express his concerns of what is happening in the world, playing with conventions of narrative as he delivers his message in an unconventional way. The cinematography of a Wong Kar-Wai film is filled with angle changes, blurred images and a mix of long and short shots. You can freeze any frame from one of his films and have a beautiful piece of photography; such is the skill and craft of Wong and his Director of Photography, Christopher Doyle.

With his own distinct style that challenges traditional conventions of storytelling, Wong has been accused of creating vacuous films that are merely all style and no substance. These detractors are simply unable to pigeonhole him; frustrated at an artist that crosses boundaries of genre, style and form. Wong Kar-Wai is a Chinese filmmaker that takes on traits from other artistic forms (photography), blending different styles and cultures (European and Chinese Cinema). Something he should be heralded for.

Wong is a filmmaker that challenges his audience. There are no easy rides, no expository dialogue clarifying the complexity of the narrative and no end of existential themes of time and space. Much like his peers from the West, David Lynch and Werner Herzog, Wong is an acquired taste. He isn’t a box office draw and his films won’t appeal to the masses but like any true artist, all that matters is the art itself.

What does Wong Kar-Wai do for China? He dispels myths of a mystic orient, filled with magic and dragons. It’s not simply stories about Chinese dynasties and Kung Fu, though he has developed his own interpretation of both, its real people with real problems that inhabit Wong’s China. Dealing with themes of isolation and regret, Wong delivers them through a pastiche of genre, style and character.

Wong’s films transcend the idea of national cinema; they don’t fall into the stereotype of what people would consider a ‘Chinese’ film. It is for this reason that he should be considered groundbreaking and one of China’s best filmmakers. His mixing of East and West, creating a tableau of postmodern iconography, sets him out from his peers.

By challenging ideas of what ‘Chinese cinema’ is or should be, Wong Kar-Wai creates real Chinese characters, relatable to an International audience. His films are tinged with satire and irony but are never listless or cynical. A recurring cast and crew make every production seem familiar, whether set in ancient China or modern day Hong Kong. It’s this familiarity that comforts the viewer as they negotiate another of Wong’s abstract worlds.

Wong Kar-Wai is an innovative and crucial part of Chinese cinema and culture, a true Post-modernist, telling familiar stories in new and creative ways.

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