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Hong Kong Dreamin': World of Wong Kar Wai on Blu-ray

  The films of Wong Kar Wai (1956- ) began to pick up international momentum in the nineteen-nineties, having first arrived on the scene in the late eighties with As Tears Go By (1988) with one of those typical Hong Kong crime melodramas so beloved of the region. He progressed to hits such as Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), then on to garner more praise and awards with In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), all filmed in his dreamy style that emphasised feelings of romantic longing over the importance of plots. With an audience ready-made to watch anything he does, The Criterion Collection will service that interest with their Blu-ray box set World of Wong Kar Wai, which takes seven features and presents them fully restored and with a wealth of extra features for fans to indulge their interest with.

Disc One starts at the beginning of Wong's directorial career with As Tears Go By; he had entered the Hong Kong film industry after taking a screenwriting course and was soon concocting screenplays for directors of the eighties, building up a body of work that made it clear he was keen to helm his own projects. This one, while not perfect and far too tied to the cliches of the melodrama that was prevalent in the city's entertainment of the day, indicated that he had some strong views about how his films should be, including elements that would become signifying features, from the love story being central to what storyline there was (with maximum yearning) to the use of pop songs on the soundtrack. Here that was a Cantopop cover of Berlin's theme from Top Gun most standing out to represent the power of the doomed love between Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung, two distant cousins whose chance meeting leads to heartache and gangster shootings triggered by Lau's Mean Streets-style relationship with Jacky Cheung who has spelled trouble for them all should he pursue his grudge. After this, Wong would eschew the screenplays.

Meaning his work from now on would be partly improvised to a set of ideas he had about the direction the films should go in, a technique that served him well, though it did tend to relegate him to the arthouse. Days of Being Wild (1990), the film on Disc Two, is also the first "true" Wong project, using all his distinctive traits to create one of his love stories which criss-crossed a selection of characters, none of whom are ever satisfied with each other. The blame appears to be on the central Leslie Cheung character who strings along both Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau, the former a shop attendant at a stadium and the latter a showgirl, and because of the heartache he spawns in them both, they pass that feeling onto others, including Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. You would see this set-up recurring over and over in Wong's work, that general dissatisfaction with love because nobody is ready at the right time for the person they should really be with, resulting in emotional car crashes; this film puts the blame on Cheung's adoptive mother (Rebecca Pan), which in turn places blame on his birth mother for giving him away, thus the cycle of hurt continues onwards.

Disc Three contains what most agree is Wong's masterpiece, and while there are those who will speak up for his later, more expensive films, it does seem in its haphazard, shot on the fly manner that Chungking Express represented the perfect combination of the director's style and obsessions. Set mostly in a rough district of Hong Kong, meaning filming had to be done quickly from sequence to sequence to avoid any unwanted attention from any undesirables in the vicinity, it told two linked love stories. Or rather, it told one story of love that never quite took, but left a memory of one night that would last a lifetime, and another of one love that seems destined never to get off the ground until the participants get their act together and maybe, just maybe, find satisfaction for their trademark Wong romantic yearning. Containing one of the greatest final lines of all time, the key to this was repetition, listening to the same song over and over or going through the same routines day to day, until you manage to meet someone who can rock your world and lift you out of the doldrums. Brigitte Lin (in disguise) and Tony Leung led the cast, but lesser-known Faye Wong and Takeshi Kaneshiro shone too in a movie for those who wish life was more like the movies.

For Disc Four, what else but the follow-up to Chungking Express, Fallen Angels from 1995? This was originally intended to be part of that earlier film, but as it turned out there was not enough space for it once that two-story film had been edited, so Wong took Kaneshiro and cinematographer Christopher Doyle from that and used them for this project, expanded into a full-length feature. It's tempting to observe that they made the right decision, since Fallen Angels is the lesser of the two works; not that it's bad, just that it plays around with the tricks of the first film to diminishing effect. You could tell it was the product of the same people, there were near-constant callbacks to the previous effort from one character (Karen Mok) who sports a blonde wig to the overall lovelorn attitudes of the folk we followed, one a hitman (Leon Lai) and another a mute former criminal (Kaneshiro) who makes a living using shops that are closed for the day to open and sell stuff. There were quirks that had endearing elements, even moments of intentional comedy, but while Wong was of the opinion Fallen Angels perfectly complemented Chungking Express, you may disagree.

Happy Together graces Disc Five, a misnomer of a title if ever there was one as the plot told of two lovers, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung, who are stranded in Argentina, thousands of miles from their Hong Kong home, because they were having a holiday there and ran out of money. We see even their transport has let them down, and soon, they are letting each other down, so that promise of a gay couple in a contented relationship the title proposes flies out of the window before the first scene is over. Cheung was gay, of course, and it caused him a lot of emotional pain that led to his premature demise, but Hong Kong and China being what they were (this was made as the handover loomed) he was rarely going to be allowed to play a gay character, so this must have meant a lot to him. Alas, it is a tough watch as while their circumstances should bring them together, their relationship is borderine abusive and they argue more often than they have fun together, life just getting them down in general. As time goes by and they tear each other apart, they realise that no matter how much they love their boyfriend, they'll never make themselves happy, that's the irony.

More misery is in Disc Six with In the Mood for Love, Wong's tale of, you guessed it, romantic longing that is even crueller than in Happy Together for the potential lovers never even get together, not really. It was set in the early nineteen-sixties in Hong Kong, and by keeping his camera in close, the director managed to sustain the sense and look of a world from decades before the film was released, assisted by careful costuming and coiffuring. Maggie Cheung in particular looked at her best in a succession of vintage outfits, while her not quite partner Tony Leung sported a series of slightly crumpled suits as they essayed the roles of a housewife and a journalist who happened to live in adjacent apartments. They start suspecting their respective partners are conducting an affair, and seek solace with one another, yet because of social mores they decide they cannot act on their obvious attraction to one another and must stay separate, a little crying on their shoulders is all they allow themselves. If Chungking Express was Wong's cult classic, then this was his arthouse favourite as it garnered acclaim from the cognoscenti around the globe, exquisitely arranged and lonesome.

Another emotionally dissatisfied Leung character provided the heart and soul of 2046, the last film in the set. He played a writer in the mid-nineteen-sixties who struggles to find love, though seems to have little problem finding sex, as we saw, in Wong's longest work to that time, a parade of beautiful East Asian actresses for the menfolk depicted to fawn over. There were also extracts from the writer's scribblings, science fiction with a very sixties look and theme with helpful androids such as Faye Wong transformed into sexbots to keep the protagonist warm. This was met with a far more mixed reaction than the director's previous outings (though it had nothing on his next, The Grandmaster) and it is easy to see why as it came across like fragments of bigger ideas stitched together somewhat haphazardly, the lovely visuals helping paper over the cracks in the narrative, such as it was (or they were). Fans of Asian pulchritude could content themselves with drinking in idealised imagery of the likes of Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung popped in for a bit too, but any closer analysis threatened to expose that 2046 was a bit silly, and emotionally adolescent.

However, wasn't that Wong's nostalgic stock in trade all over? He did veer perilously towards the “love him or hate him” when it came to his output, yet when he got it right, as in Chungking Express, his delight in the medium could result in scenes and feelings no other filmmaker of his reputation would be able to match. This renders a set like Criterion's Blu-rays the ideal way to take in his movies outside of a cinematic experience in a dedicated season - and you would not get the extras there.

[And speaking of those extras, here they are in full:

New 4K digital restorations of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, approved by director Wong Kar Wai, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
New 4K digital restorations of As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
New program in which Wong answers questions submitted by authors André Aciman and Jonathan Lethem; filmmakers Sofia Coppola, Rian Johnson, Lisa Joy, and Chloé Zhao; cinematographers Philippe Le Sourd and Bradford Young; and filmmakers and founders/creative directors of Rodarte Kate and Laura Mulleavy
Alternate version of Days of Being Wild, on home video for the first time
Extended version of The Hand, a 2004 short film by Wong, available in the U.S. for the first time
Hua yang de nian hua, a 2000 short film by Wong
Interview and "cinema lesson" with Wong from 2001
Several programs featuring interviews with Wong; actors Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chang Chen, Faye Wong, and Ziyi Zhang; and others
Program from 2012 on In the Mood for Love's soundtrack
Deleted scenes, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes footage, a promo reel, music videos, and trailers
PLUS: Deluxe packaging, including a perfect-bound, French-fold book featuring lavish photography, an essay by critic John Powers, a director's note, and six collectible art prints.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018