Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, the grandmaster of pulsating atmosphere and bittersweet romance in modern movies, stopped by New York’s Museum of Modern Art film center for a lively chat about his career. Wong, 57, was joined by La Frances Hui, associate curator in the museum’s film department, and Vogue and NPR contributor John Powers, author of the five-pound book WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai, which was released last month.
“I thought that once you have a book,” Wong remarked at the beginning of the evening, “you wouldn’t have to answer any more questions.”
Wearing his trademark sunglasses, along with jeans and sneakers, Wong was typically light and humorous during the 90-minute Q&A, often preferring quips and quick anecdotes to any deep examination of his work. And as a treat for the sold-out crowd in the museum’s 400-seat Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, clips were shown from seven of Wong’s 10 feature films — including Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995) and In the Mood for Love (2000) — affording the audience the rare opportunity to watch Wong Kar Wai watching Wong Kar Wai.
Below, some highlights from Wong’s talk and Q&A:
That kiss in As Tears Go By
Wong shared memories of making his first feature film, As Tears Go By (1988), when he was 29. Originally intended as a pure gangster movie — the preferred genre in Hong Kong at the time — he couldn’t resist pumping the story with a long romantic segue scored to Top Gun’s Oscar-winning pop ballad “Take My Breath Away” and one of the longest screen kisses ever, between Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung, in a phone booth, no less. (The man leaning against the pier halfway through the clip is Wong’s longtime editor and production designer William Chang, who stepped in for an absent actor, but asked only to be photographed at a distance.)
In the mood for… food
In the Mood for Love, Wong explained, began with his thoughts about food. “I wanted to say something about the rice cooker. Certain inventions in the 1960s changed the way we lived, and the rice cooker is one of them. In the film, our hero’s wife was a very capable writer and she wanted to work, but in those days, you have to stay at home and take care of the family and cook, which is very time-consuming. At the very beginning, he discovers the neighbor is a salesman selling these Japanese rice cookers, so he tries to get one for his wife, which allows her to work.” That sets the whole story — about a man (Tony Leung) and woman (Maggie Cheung) whose spouses are having an affair — in motion.
The second thought that occurred to Wong while conceiving the film had to do with instant noodles. “It used to be when you eat, you eat with people,” he said. “But instant noodles are so instant that people eat by themselves. And it’s a very convenient way of eating, but also a very lonely way of eating.” Both of the film’s leads are seen eating by themselves at the local noodle stand.
Those powerful cutaways
Powers addressed Wong’s capacity to envision multiple story threads for his movies, even while he’s shooting and editing them: “He often has 10 or 15 choices for how he’s going to end a film.”
“I think that’s life,” Wong replied.
Powers also praised the director’s knack for inserting an image that ostensibly takes us out of the story, but in fact refers to something bigger and more profound, putting the greater ideas in perspective. Case in point: a moment near the beginning of Wong’s 1997 masterpiece Happy Together, in which the central couple (played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung) break up on the side of a highway in Argentina — and the scene cuts to Iguazu Falls, backed by Caetano Veloso’s tearful rendition of “Cucurrucucu Paloma.”
On his shooting style with favored cinematographer Christopher Doyle: “For Chungking Express, the way we shot the film was all handheld and with all this existing light, and that became very popular. Everybody thought it was cool. So for the next film, Fallen Angles, we explored things that people normally wouldn’t do. We shot the entire film with an extremely wide lens. Normally people wouldn’t use that camera for close-ups, because it makes the face look strange. But when we shot with a wide angle, even though we were shooting in extremely small spaces, it looks huge. So even two people, when they’re standing close, still look like they’re at a distance — and I think that worked very well for the message of the film.”
On actor Leslie Cheung, whom he directed five times before Cheung’s suicide in 2003: “To work with Leslie is one of the highlights of my career. He always wanted to be a legend, but the way that he became a legend was so tragic.”
Wong has been much less prolific in the last decade, only releasing two movies (My Blueberry Nights and The Grandmaster) since 2007. But when La Frances Hui finished by asking when we could expect to see his next film, Wong replied with a smile and a word.