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  • John Parker

World of Wong Kar Wai: Criterion Collection Blu-ray review

Collecting seven of the most beloved films from his revered filmography, the ‘World of Wong Kar Wai’ special edition box set is arguably the most anticipated release from Criterion since they first landed in the UK five years ago. A stunning and gorgeously packaged celebration of the Hong Kong auteur, this collection presents pristine restorations of his iconic movies, most of which are making their UK blu-ray debut. It is truly a must have purchase for devoted fans and newcomers alike.

It must be noted however, this release has not arrived without some controversy. A few of the restorations have been met with horror from some cineastes, Wong Kar Wai purists, and certain corners of the internet. This is due to some marginal colour grading in a couple of the films as part of the 4K upgrading of the image. Some aspect ratios have also been returned to their original screen size, having been stretched into letterbox format for previous home video releases. A music cue and a voiceover have also been tinkered with. For what it’s worth, I barely even noticed. The pearl clutching on certain forums has been a little over the top. These miniscule tweaks are hardly Greedo shooting first.

So what do we talk about when we talk about Wong Kar Wai? Aesthetically his films flit between ultra-cool stylistic visuals—lots of slow-mo, step printing, kinetic camera work, slick editing, needle drops, and ultra-wide angle lens close ups—and the more sombre, ravishingly beautiful films, typified by hypnotic images, bathed in the neon glow of a teeming metropolis. His collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle have produced some of the most breathtaking visuals in modern cinema.

Then you have the gorgeous actors from his revolving repertory. Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau and others, all looking cooler and more beautiful than anyone has a right to. He bathes them in stunning light, dons them in magnificent outfits, surrounds them with the swirl of cigarette smoke, and inevitably leaves them yearning for a life or love they just can’t have. Nothing exemplifies the films of Wong Kar Wai more than emotionally detached people looking cool whilst smoking and feeling incredibly sad.

Disc One – As Tears Go By

This tragic crime thriller follows the exploits of low-level mob enforcer Wah (Andy Lau) as he falls in love with his beautiful cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), but must also try to keep his foolish and volatile friend Fly (Jacky Cheung) from getting himself killed. It’s all right here in his debut film from 1988. Gorgeous visuals, a hypnotic soundtrack, romance, drama, and lots of cool low frame rate slow motion. It doesn’t always work tonally, shifting from being a violent, Scorsese inspired thriller, to a very melodramatic, 80s power ballad romantic drama, but it remains a startling statement of intent from the young director.

The special features are quite light on this disc, offering up only a couple of alternate endings, one of which is so bizarre it seems to come from a different movie altogether. However, seeing the unrestored footage of the alternate endings provides an incredible glimpse into just how good these restorations are.

Disc Two – Days of Being Wild

Leslie Cheung plays Yuddy, a disaffected and emotionally dislocated young man, who makes women fall in love with him, before quickly losing interest and breaking their hearts. Thematically the first part of an informal trilogy along with ‘In the Mood for Love’ and ‘2046’, this hazy and hallucinatory trip through 60s Hong Kong and the Philippines, marks the director’s first collaboration with Christopher Doyle behind the lens. Narratively chaotic in places, ‘Days of Being Wild’ is more about mood, as the frame is flooded with hypnotic beauty and dreamy eroticism. The film also features wonderful, sympathetic performances from Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, and Andy Lau, but it is Leslie Cheung’s troubled Yuddy at the heart of the piece who steals the show. Keep your eyes peeled for Tony Leung in the film’s famously enigmatic ending.

The disc comes with an alternate version of the film. There is also a ten-minute conversation with Christopher Doyle at the National Film Theatre from 2005, talking about ‘Days of Being Wild’ and his collaborations with Wong. Also included is an audio interview with Maggie Cheung, and the theatrical trailer.

Disc Three – Chungking Express

Wong’s breakout international hit (thanks in part to the US distribution, championed by none other than Quentin Tarantino) and my personal favourite, ‘Chungking Express’ is just pure, heart-burstingly beautiful cinema. Riffing on the French New Wave, the film is split into two distinct stories, framed around the Midnight Express food stand. The stories each follow melancholy policeman falling in love with mysterious women.

The first story sees Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Cop 223—who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend—have a strange yet meaningful encounter with Brigitte Lin’s drug smuggler. The second sees Cop 663 (Tony Leung) form a friendship with Faye (Faye Wong) the beautiful and eccentric waitress from Midnight Express. Seeing how sad he is from the breakup of a recent relationship, she starts secretly letting herself into his apartment to tidy up, redecorate, and cheer him up.

‘Chungking Express’ is a seductive and charming film, full of style and wit and visual inventiveness. It also explores one of the key themes throughout all of Wong’s work, that of urban separation. The lack of human connection in a city of millions. Featuring some of the most iconic moments from his career (the 0.01cm freeze frame / 663 drinking coffee whilst Faye watches him in slow motion) this is a glorious and energetic film, the kind that leaves you with a beaming smile on your face. Having been so difficult to get hold of in the UK for so many years, it is wonderful to see it again in such stunning condition.

The disc comes with another interview from Christopher Doyle, this one from 2002. There is an episode of Moving Pictures, featuring Wong and Doyle discussing the aesthetics of ‘Chungking Express’. There are three deleted scenes with accompanying interviews with Wong, and also the theatrical trailer.

Disc Four – Fallen Angels

If you’re expecting more of the same, ‘Fallen Angels’ will come as quite a shock to the senses. Ostensibly a companion piece to ‘Chungking Express’ (Wong had originally planned to include part of this story in his previous film) and once again told in two interlinked strands, this film however is a much darker experience altogether.

‘Fallen Angels’ follows the fascinating relationship between a lazy and disaffected hitman (Leon Lai) and his handler (Michelle Reis). They have barely any contact with each other. She arranges his hits and cleans up after him. She is infatuated with him, but the feeling is not reciprocated. Meanwhile, one of her neighbours, the mute delinquent Ho Chi-Mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) wreaks havoc by breaking into people’s businesses at night and selling their goods to people whether they like it or not.

Dealing once again with the feeling of detachment, and the need for human connection, ‘Fallen Angels’ approaches this in a more nihilistic way than in his previous films. Kinetic and frenetic, the film takes his stylistic sensibilities to the extreme, and is arguably his most arthouse film. Once again working with Christopher Doyle behind the camera, they use ultra-wide angle lenses to emphasise or distort the landscape, whether it be the neon soaked streets of Hong Kong, or the faces of his actors in garish extreme close up.

The disc comes with a terrific featurette, Artist to Artist: 10 Questions for Wong Kar Wai. Made in 2020 this sees artists and filmmakers posing questions to Wong about his films. The interviewers include Sofia Coppola, Lisa Joy, Chloe Zhao, Rian Johnson, and cinematographer Bradford Young. There’s also another interview with Christopher Doyle, three deleted scenes with introductions from Wong, and the theatrical trailer.

Disc 5 – Happy Together

‘Happy Together’ sees Wong approaching his similar themes of longing and regret, in a much different way. Whilst exploring the nature of identity and cultural belonging, the film is also a political allegory. Leaving Hong Kong behind, the film tells the story of Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), a gay couple who move to Argentina to try and restore their relationship, only to drift further apart.

Made in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China, these were uncertain times for LGBTQ community. The instability of the central relationship reflects this, as does their feeling of otherness and marginalization in Buenos Aires. There’s a running motif of passports throughout the film, representing both the promise of home and the feeling of exile.

Leung and Cheung give fantastic performances, and at this point it should go without saying that the film is gorgeous and impressionistic. Shot in both black and white and vivid colour, there are moments of stunning beauty throughout, as Wong and Doyle explore a much different landscape to their usual Hong Kong. The disc comes with a documentary from 1999, Buenos Aires Zero Degree, which charts the making of the film, as well as the theatrical trailer.

Disc 6 – In the Mood for Love

Likely to be the first film people jump to when they open this set (though I would highly recommend going in chronological order) ‘In the Mood for Love’ is Wong’s most popular and beloved film. A stunningly gorgeous romantic drama set in early 60s Hong Kong, about the aching loneliness of a love that can never be fulfilled.

Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-shen (Maggie Cheung) rent adjacent rooms in a busy apartment building. They occasionally pass each other in the hall, and maintain a civil, neighbourly relationship. With their respective spouses away on business most of the time, they gradually begin to spend more time together, eventually discovering that their partners are having an affair.

They take comfort in each other, and a hesitant love affair blooms between the two, but they don’t want to be adulterers like their partners. Beautifully photographed, and breathtakingly romantic, ‘In the Mood for Love’ is a simply stunning piece of cinema. The sensual use of colour, Shigero Umebayashi’s beautiful theme music, the dreamy slow motion, Maggie Cheung seemingly floating in her exquisite cheongsam dresses, Tony Leung catching her eye for a moment as they pass on the stairs. It is rapturous, poetic cinema. Never has the simple act of going to get a thermos full of noodles been sexier.

The disc comes absolutely packed with extras too, including @ “In the Mood for Love”, a 50-minute documentary from 2001 produced by Wong. It features interviews with the two main actors, and charts the long development and production of the film, as it evolved from a flirty erotic drama to the subtle exploration of loneliness and desire it became. This documentary also includes the now famous dancing scene which was cut from the film.

Next on the disc is a short film made by Wong in 2000. There is a program from 2012 made by Criterion, featuring critic Tony Rayns discussing the soundtrack. From 2001, there is an interview with Wong from Cannes, as well as a discussion on cinema with Gilles Ciment. Also included is the press conference from Toronto, a music video, and a trailer for the restoration. There are also 4 deleted scenes, 3 of which are presented with accompanying commentary.

Disc 7 – 2046

Which brings us to the final film of this collection – ‘2046’ – the nexus point of the Wong Kar Wai cinematic universe. An extraordinary and fascinating film, shapeless, swirling, and enigmatic. A sort of sequel to ‘In the Mood for Love’, the film once again follows Tony Leung’s journalist Chow Mo-wan, a few years after his relationship with Su Li-shen, though he is still haunted by her memory.

‘2046’ is set a few years later, and Wong presents us with a fragmented picture of Chow’s subsequent relationships. First with a gambling woman, mysteriously named Su Li-shen (Gong Li), a beautiful prostitute played by Zhang Ziyi, giving arguably her greatest screen performance, and Faye Wong as Miss Wang, who like Su Li-shen before her, helps Chow with his writing.

Thrown into this complex, time-hopping narrative is the science fiction novel Chow is writing, about a time travelling train which transports people to the year 2046 where they can reclaim the memories they have lost. Wong visually represents this in bold, Blade Runner-esque sequences.

Calling back to characters, moments, places, and little musical cues from his previous films, this ultra-ambitious and haunting sci-fi drama makes for a rewarding (if challenging) viewing experience, especially if you have watched all the previous films in order. If this was the first Wong Kar Wai movie you have seen, I imagine that must have been quite a confounding experience.

As with ‘In the Mood for Love’ this is the disc most packed with bonus content, and includes ‘The Hand’ – the short film directed by Wong for the Eros anthology. It is presented here in its extended 56-minute format. The Making of ‘2046’ provides a comprehensive look behind the scenes of the movie, with interviews with all the main cast and crew.

There is a short montage of on-set footage featuring Zhang Ziyi filming some of her scenes. There are two deleted scenes, a music video, a promotional reel from 2003 with footage that didn’t make the final cut, and the theatrical trailer. Finally, there is the overall trailer for the ‘World of Wong Kar Wai’.

A truly sublime release.


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