Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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WONG KAR-WAI Retrospective at the Roxie Theater & BAMPFA
World of Wong Kar-wai

A virtual retrospective from BMAPFA and San Francisco's Roxie Theater (pay-for-view for all from Dec. 11, 2020) is a chance to review and talk about one of my favorite directors and my biggest movie discovery of the 1990's. Below is a publicity release from the Roxie to serve as an intro. NOTE: ASHES OF TIME (1994), Wong's costume martial arts/wuxia film, is omitted here, perhaps because it was elaborately redone as ASHES OF TIME REDUX in 2008, when it was shown at the New York Film Festival (and reviewed here) after premiering at Cannes. You can get ASHES OF TIME REDUX on Amazon Prime. And these six 4K restorations are available to all of you as a virtual online bonanza for the holiday season.


It's high time, no doubt, for a retrospective, because those with short memories or hitherto short lives have forgotten or may not yet have heard of Wong Kar-wai. Before Tarantino’s release of Chungking Express Americans had to go to Chinatown theaters or rent pirated videotapes to see his work; I saw Ashes of Time (1994) in San Francisco's Chinatown in a double bill with As Tears Go By (1988), a baffling but deeply intriguing experience, and then went to a specialized video rental shop to catch up on others over time. The pirated videos had weird subtitles in two kinds of Chinese and strange English that flashed on and rapidly disappeared.

A cinematic icon today, Wong Kar-wai didn't get full international recognition till 1997 at Cannes (for Happy Together), and the majority of US arthouse-goers didn't notice him till the theatrical release of In the Mood for Love (2000). Quentin Tarantino's Miramax-subsidiary Rolling Thunder Pictures limited-released Chungking Express in US theaters in 1996 and later issued a DVD. That was a moment. By 2008 when the NYFF featured Ashes of Time Redux, Wong was faded or fading as a creative genius. His epic 2046 (2004) was a hypertrophied maxi-version of all his themes. His 2007 English-language My Blueberry Nights was a critical failure. But in his 15-year creative heyday Wong produced this string of imperishable gems.

From the Roxie via Janus:

A virtual series of six restored classics from Hong Kong’s soulfully romantic cinematic sensualist, plus a new director’s cut of THE HAND. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, AS TEARS GO BY, DAYS OF BEING WILD, CHUNKING EXPRESS, FALLEN ANGELS & HAPPY TOGETHER. Presented in partnership with Janus Films.

4K restoration of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE to also screen at the
Fort Mason Flix Drive-In in San Francisco.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu-wai Leung in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE

Virtual Retrospective
Starts Friday, December 11
Roxie Virtual Cinema, San Francisco
BAMPFA, Berkeley

Drive-in Screening of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
Sunday, December 13 at 5:30p
Fort Mason Flix, San Francisco
(Blurbs courtesy of Roxie Theater. Thanks to the Roxie's excellent programmer Rick Norris for granting me prior access to these restorations! )

Andy Lau & Maggie Cheung in AS TEARS GO BY

Wong Kar-wai’s scintillating debut feature is a kinetic, hyper-cool crime thriller graced with flashes of the impressionistic, daydream visual style for which he would become renowned. Set amidst Hong Kong’s ruthless, neon-lit gangland underworld, this operatic saga of ambition, honor, and revenge stars Andy Lau as a small-time mob enforcer who finds himself torn between a burgeoning romance with his ailing cousin (Maggie Cheung, in the first of her iconic collaborations with the director) and his loyalty to his loose cannon partner in crime (Jacky Cheung) whose reckless attempts to make a name for himself unleash a spiral of violence. Marrying the pulp pleasures of the gritty Hong Kong action drama with hints of the head-rush romanticism Wong would push to intoxicating heights throughout the 1990s, As Tears Go By was a local box office smash that heralded the arrival of one of contemporary cinema’s most electrifying talents. Hong Kong. 1988. 102 min.

Tony Leung and Carina Lau in DAYS OF BEING WILD

Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough sophomore feature represents the first full flowering of his swooning signature style. The first film in a loosely connected, ongoing cycle that includes In the Mood for Love and 2046, this ravishing existential reverie is a dreamlike drift through the Hong Kong of the 1960s in which a band of wayward twenty-somethings—including a disaffected playboy (Leslie Cheung) searching for his birth mother, a lovelorn woman (Maggie Cheung) hopelessly enamored with him, and a policeman (Andy Lau) caught in the middle of their turbulent relationship—pull together and push apart in a cycle of frustrated desire. The director’s inaugural collaboration with both cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who lends the film its gorgeously gauzy, hallucinatory texture, and actor Tony Leung, who appears briefly in a tantalizing teaser for a never-realized sequel, Days of Being Wild is an exhilarating first expression of Wong’s trademark themes of time, longing, dislocation, and the restless search for connection. Hong Kong. 1990. 94 min.


The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ "California Dreamin'" into tokens of romantic longing. Hong Kong. 1994. 102 min. (For some important making-of information, see Quentin Tarantino's enthusiastic commentary on this movie on his Miramax/Rolling Thunder DVD edition of it.)

Charlie Yeung [!} and Takeshi Ianeshiro in FALLEN ANGELS

Lost souls reach out for human connection amidst the glimmering night world of Hong Kong in Wong Kar-wai’s hallucinatory, neon-soaked nocturne. Originally conceived as a segment of Chungking Express only to spin off on its own woozy axis, this hyper-cool head rush plays like the dark, moody flip side to Wong’s breakout feature as it charts the subtly interlacing fates of a handful of urban loners, including a coolly detached hitman (Leon Lai) looking to go straight, his business partner (Michelle Reis) who secretly yearns for him, and a mute delinquent (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who wreaks mischief by night. Swinging between hardboiled noir and slapstick lunacy with giddy abandon, Fallen Angels is both a dizzying, dazzling city symphony and a poignant meditation on love, loss, and longing in a metropolis that never sleeps. Black & White and Color. Hong Kong. 1995. 99 min.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in HAPPY TOGETHER

One of the most searing romances of the 1990s, Wong Kar-wai’s emotionally raw, lushly stylized portrait of a relationship in breakdown casts Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung as a couple traveling through Argentina and locked in a turbulent cycle of infatuation and destructive jealousy as they break up, make up, and fall apart again and again. Setting out to depict the dynamics of a queer relationship with empathy and complexity on the cusp of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong—when the country’s LGBT community suddenly faced an uncertain future—Wong crafts a feverish look at the life cycle of a love affair that’s by turns devastating and deliriously romantic. Shot by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle in both luminous monochrome and luscious saturated color, Happy Together is an intoxicating exploration of displacement and desire that swoons with the ache and exhilaration of love at its heart-tearing extremes. Black & White and Color. Hong Kong. 1997. 96 min.

Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE

Hong Kong, 1962: Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) move into neighboring apartments on the same day. Their encounters are formal and polite—until a discovery about their spouses creates an intimate bond between them. At once delicately mannered and visually extravagant, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a masterful evocation of romantic longing and fleeting moments. With its aching musical soundtrack and exquisitely abstract cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin, this film has been a major stylistic influence on the past decade of cinema, and is a milestone in Wong’s redoubtable career. Hong Kong. 2000. 98 min.

Also Screening at Fort Mason Flix Drive-in!
Sunday, December 13, 5:30pm


THE HAND (2004)
Like IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, The Hand is set in the hazy Hong Kong of the 1960s, but its characters couldn’t be more different from the earlier film’s restrained, haunted lovers. Originally conceived for the omnibus film EROS, the film—presented in this retrospective for the first time in its extended cut—tells the tale of Zhang (Chang Chen), a shy tailor’s assistant enraptured by a mysterious client, Miss Hua (Gong Li). A hypnotic tale of obsession, repression, and class divisions, THE HAND finds Wong Kar-wai continuing to transition from the frenetic, energized style of his earlier films into a register that is lush with romantic grandeur. Hong Kong. 2004. 56 min.

About The Roxie
The Roxie Theater, a San Francisco landmark in the Mission District, brings people together to meet and connect through distinctive cinematic experiences. Guided by the passionate belief that engaging with a movie doesn’t end with the credits, we invite filmmakers, curators, entertainers and educators to interact with our audiences. We provide inspiration and opportunity for the next generation, and serve as a forum for the independent film community reflecting the spirit of the diverse Bay Area population. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

An internationally recognized arts institution with deep roots in the Bay Area, the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is a forum for cultural experiences that transform individuals and advance the local, national, and global discourse on art and film. BAMPFA is UC Berkeley’s premier visual arts venue, presenting more than 450 film screenings, scores of public programs, and more than twenty exhibitions annually. With its vibrant and eclectic programming, BAMPFA inspires the imagination and ignites critical dialogue through art, film, and other forms of creative expression.

The institution’s collection of more than 28,000 works of art encompasses pieces dating from 3000 BCE to the present day and includes important holdings of Neolithic Chinese ceramics, Ming and Qing Dynasty Chinese painting, Old Master works on paper, Italian Baroque painting, early American painting, Abstract Expressionist painting, contemporary photography, and Conceptual art. BAMPFA’s collection also includes more than 18,000 films and videos, including the largest collection of Japanese cinema outside of Japan, impressive holdings of Soviet cinema, West Coast avant-garde film, and seminal video art, as well as hundreds of thousands of articles, reviews, posters, and other ephemera related to the history of film.

About Fort Mason Flix
Presented by and housed on Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC)’s historic waterfront campus, FORT MASON FLIX is a pop-up drive-in theater showing hit movies six days a week, from family favorites and cult classics to blockbusters and arthouse cinema.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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