Wong Kar-Wai

(The Wong Kar-Wai interview/feature below appeared in issue 11 of Space Age Bachelor magazine. Along with director Wong Kar-Wai, his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle was interviewed. The transcript of the Doyle interview can be read here. In addition, Space Age Bachelor editor wrote a Wong Kar-Wai appreciation piece in issue 8, which can be read here. Finally, an article based on interviews with the Hong Kong movie stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung was to be included in the never-finished issue 14 of Space Age Bachelor; this can be read here.)

Wong Kar-Wai: On Happy Together

by Jason Anderson

 

Anguish and alienation have rarely seemed as attractive as they do in the films of Wong Kar Wai. In the Hong Kong director’s previous films of this decade—Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels—characters divulge their feelings only in voiceovers, remaining pensive, solitary and gorgeous to the end. Even the most ardent lovers rarely get to meet. Time and place conspire against everyone.  While they have the advantage of actually knowing each other, the lovers in Happy Together, Wong’s latest, are only marginally better off. The flighty Ho Po-Wing—played by Leslie Cheung, best known in the West for Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine—and the sullen Lai Yiu-Fat—Tony Leung of John Woo’s Hard Boiled and most of Wong’s previous films—make love only once, vigorously and in the first scene. They’ve come from Hong Kong to Argentina to “start over,” but instead everything quickly unravels. In Buenos Aires, Leslie becomes a hustler and Tony works as a doorman for a tango bar. Their relationship erodes in the worst possible environment— alienated in a foreign city and confined together in Tony’s tiny apartment while Leslie convalesces after being beaten by a trick, they are unable to tear away from each other so they can only tear AT each other.  Wong—who won Best Director in ‘97 at Cannes—and cinematographer Chris Doyle fill the film with images that are both sumptuous and lurid, graceful and hyperkinetic. Panoramic shots of a huge waterfall are counterpointed by Leung or Cheung staring into a tacky waterfall lamp in the apartment. The variable camera speeds allow Wong to quicken or freeze moments, hold them just a little longer like you sometimes wish you could in life, emphasizing the rhythms in the characters’ actions. With his handicam Doyle dances around the characters as they dance, continuing with Wong’s penchant for nimble-footed characters. (“I can’t dance,” he says, chuckling, “so I always want to have people dancing in my films.”) All this to a sumptuous score that combines the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzola and the piquant sleaze of early ‘70s Frank Zappa. If Happy Together is not as jaw-droppingly stylish as Fallen Angels nor as unconventional or lyrical in its narrative as Days of Being Wild, it is the most passionate of Wong’s films. It is not, however, a love story.

“To me the film is not a love story,” says Wong in a phone interview from New York late last year. “It’s something like a love story after. We started where a love story normally ended because I think most people would like to tell a story how these two guys met in Hong Kong and they fall in love and their problems living together so they run away from Hong Kong and they live happily together in Buenos Aires. So we try to start at this point. And to me the story is about how a person quits his habits. Just like a guy who smokes a lot and he knows it’s not good for his health but somehow he’s addicted to this habit, and when some force is joined in and he has enough energy to quit this habit.”

COLD, NOT HOT

What inspired Wong to come to Argentina to film Happy Together was not necessarily a quest for a more exotic setting than a Kowloon subway station but the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Manuel Puig. (The original title of Happy Together was Buenos Aires Affair, after a novel by Puig.) Wong is obviously sympathetic to the unorthodox narrative structures in South American lit, but he feels a deep connection to the writers’ thematic concerns as well.

“In Chinese literature,” says Wong, “the most important thing is the theme, what the story is about. But how to tell the story, I learned this form from Puig and Marquez because the form is sometimes very much related to the theme, and the theme can sometimes be the form and the form can sometimes be the theme.”

I would’ve guessed at his admiration for the more cryptic styles of Julio Cortazar or Jorge Luis Borges, but Wong did not encounter their writings until he was in South America. Nevertheless, he didn’t get what he read in the books.

“Because I’m very fond of South American writers, I think, well, I can make a film in South America because the people in South America in these books seem very much like Chinese, you know, regarding honour, passion, family value, everything. But when I got to Buenos Aires I realized it’s totally different. Because it’s not so South American to me—Buenos Aires is cold, freezing, and people are not so ‘hot.’ It’s more like a European country. So we had to start all over again, and I knew I couldn’t make a movie about Buenos Aires because I don’t know enough about this place. I will concentrate on these two guys from Hong Kong and in effect the only world that matters to them is in their room. We tried to create Hong Kong in Buenos Aires.”

And this is how a planned six-week shoot turned into four months and over 400,000 feet of footage, some of which may be reconfigured into a CD-ROM version of the film. The spontaneity in Wong’s films can mean that a production will become chaotic. In effect, Wong doesn’t really know what the movie’s about when it’s being made. Chris Doyle, an Australian ex-sailor, renowned cinematographer and Wong’s main collaborator, jokes in Frederic Dannen’s Hong Kong Babylon that he doesn’t bother reading Wong’s scripts: “I assume the film is going to be about time and space and identity and isolation.”

Says Wong, “Most of the time I think I don’t exactly know where we are heading but I am very sure about what we don’t want. So that whole process is trying to go away from thing we don’t want and go toward other possibilities. Later on, during editing, we know what happened exactly.”

DANGEROUS PLACEMENTS

With such an emphasis on working spontaneously, the process of filmmaking can bog down, and it seems to do so quite horrifically for some of Wong’s productions. Ashes of Time took two years to complete—Chungking Express was whipped off during a break from what became certainly the most pensive Hong Kong swordsman action movie ever made. Wong says it’s difficult to balance the demands placed upon him as writer, producer and director of his recent films. “This was tough,” he says of Happy Together, “but not as tough as Ashes of Time. After Ashes of Time, I thought, if I can make this film, then I can make anything.”

The risk of collapse is one he’s willing to take. (Contrast Wong with one of his most notable counterparts in Japan, the amazing Takeshi Kitano, whose planning is so rigorous for his films that he can edit a scene immediately after shooting it.)

“Some directors, like Hitchcock, know exactly what they want before they shoot the film. And then some directors just have an idea. I prefer to have only an idea before shooting because otherwise the whole process will be a drag—doing something that you know already.” It’s true. Wong’s pursuit of what he (and we) doesn’t know already has led to some of the most startling movies of the decade. In Happy Together, there is much that is unexpected, like how Taiwanese actor Zhang Zhen’s character, who Lai meets while working in a restaurant, affects the story—he brings with him an unsentimental optimism, the feeling that all of the trauma we’ve just witnessed may in fact have no bearing on future events. This is the Wong Kar Wai moment: a strange lightening of moods or opening of possibilities makes the viewer realize that the uncertainties of life may not always lead us to disaster (even if, like the heroes of Fallen Angels and Days of Being Wild, you’re about to be filled with many bullets).

Zhang Zhen’s character is not presented as a new suitor for Lai—though I’ve read literal-minded reviewers who can’t seem to understand that he’d be there for any other reason. After all, Lai’s still more apt to find sex with men in washrooms or movie theatres. (God knows where Shirley Kwan’s character, entirely cut from the film, would’ve been placed in this triangle—perhaps we’ll see in the CD-ROM.) One thing that’s obvious upon a second viewing of the film is that Lai and Ho still loved each other at the end, but they were bad habits for each other, and irreconcilable despite the pain both continue to suffer.

“Their relationship is like an airplane and an airport,” says Wong.  “Leslie’s the airplane—it’s the nature of his character to sometimes land and sometimes he has to take off. And Tony’s the airport. Somehow, one day the airport refuses to be an airport again, so there’s no place for the plane to land. And if there’s no airport there will be no plane. Of course they miss each other and that’s too bad. But that’s the nature of their relationship.”

HAVE BEEN IN YOU

Music is always a strong component in Wong’s films, and Happy Together has perhaps the most seemingly incongruous selection of music. Astor Piazzola, the late Argentinian musician who reinvented the tango and enjoyed wide success both as an entertainer and serious composer, is a natural fit for the film, and his music was used memorably in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.  Wong discovered Piazzola’s work at the onset of making Happy Together. Says Wong, “In fact, I did on my way to Buenos Aires. We had to transfer in the airport at Amsterdam, and my production manager bought two CDs by Piazzola.  And I liked the music very much—it is tango music, but it is more than that. It’s like the rhythm of the song is the rhythm of the city. Sometimes I would think it’s something like a human heart beating.” There is also a song, used very early in the film, sung by Brazilian tropicalismo singer Caetano Veloso, another hero of South American music.  More surprising is how Wong has used several tracks by Frank Zappa, focusing in on the exhilirating jazz-rock of the early ‘70s, typified by the title track to Chunga’s Revenge, and the lascivious ballad “I Have Been in You.” The discovery of Zappa was a fortuitous one.  “It was after Leslie had to go back to Hong Kong, because we intended to make the film in six weeks but somehow we had to stay for four months.  Leslie had committed to a concert tour before this project so he had to go and the film wasn’t complete yet. And we were also waiting for Zhang Zhen from Taiwan. If we make a film in Hong Kong, it’s very different because we can go back home after shooting. But in Buenos Aires I simply lived together with my crew in an apartment and I can tell they are very bored, and very much want to go home. And I’m very bored, too. I see there’s no point to stay in the apartment so I go out and walk around the city and I pick up the CDs of Frank Zappa in local record stores. And I hear the music has a certain kind of energy to help us break away from this boredom, and I think it is a good balance. The music of Frank Zappa is in the film against the music of Astor Piazzola, and it works in the end.” (Ironically enough, the one Zappa track that Wong could not license was “Happy Together,” which Zappa performed often when the Turtles’ singers Flo and Eddie were in his band. What you hear at the end of the film is a Hong Kong musician faking—complete with crowd noise—the version from Zappa’s Live at Fillmore East.)

GAY SEX IN THE CINEPLEX

Though having to suffer through his own hardships in order to raise funds for films, Wong has become one of the most celebrated directors on the planet and he still enjoys high visibility in Europe and the Far East. Yet he doesn’t think that there’s necessarily more of an appetite for art cinema in Asia than in other parts of the world (just as many screens are featuring romantic comedies starring George Clooney, one gathers).  Wong thinks whatever demand exists, exists “because there are so many cineplexes. And also I think the young audience isn’t only satisfied with the commercial, so-called mainstream films. And I think the film market is now more like the supermarket. We just walk in and can make a choice from everything. They can make the choice, instead of just sitting there and having people serve things to them.”

Happy Together is an endlessly interesting choice to make, and it’s unfortunate that it’s been notorious in some countries for its gay content.  Says Wong, “In fact, I don’t like people to see this film as a gay film.  It’s more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men. Normally I hate movies with labels like ‘gay film,’ ‘art film’ or ‘commercial film.’ There is only good film and bad film.”

Still, there has been controversy in the East over Wong’s casting of two big Asian stars as lovers—the film was banned in Malaysia and South Korea and was rated Category III in Hong Kong. He doesn’t think this has negatively impacted on the actors’ careers—ever since he cast all the top stars in Days of Being Wild, a film so existentially minded that some audiences threw food at the screen, he thinks the audience blames him for any excesses. (“They would say that they were cheated by this director,” says Wong. But in Doyle’s Happy Together diaries, Leung seems particularly shaken by the lovemaking. Again, the viewer can feel the spontaneity in the scene, feel that Leung and Cheung did not know how far they could go.  “I would say that they didn’t know,” says Wong, “and actually the first scene was shot on the first day, and Tony was very shocked. So I had to explain to him that if I can make him fall in love with a can of sardines in Chungking Express, why can I not make him fall in love with a man in this film?”

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