WKW, Leslie Cheung and legless birds
By Yong Shu Hoong
"I've heard that there's a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that's when it dies."
This rather sobering quote is from Days of Being Wild, a 1990 film helmed by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai (also affectionately known as WKW). It is spoken by the character Yuddy (played by the late Leslie Cheung), a restless womaniser yearning to find his mother who abandoned him when he was young. This text is also laced with poignancy, considering the context that Cheung died in 2003 from suicide at the age of 46; he leapt from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong's Central district.
I've never met Cheung in real life – I don't think I'd ever seen him perform live in Singapore or anywhere else, though I've lapped up his Cantopop hits and many of his films, including those directed by Wong, John Woo (such as 1986's A Better Tomorrow) and Chen Kaige (1993's excellent Farewell My Concubine).
But five years before Cheung's death, I did get the chance to meet Wong in Singapore. At that time, I'd read that the respected filmmaker rarely attended film festivals. But he did travel to Singapore in 1998 to attend the screening of his film Happy Together as the closing film of that year's Singapore International Film Festival. Wong, accompanied by his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, even answered questions from the audience after the screening held at Capitol Theatre (before the extensive refurbishment of the landmark complex to its current form). Wong's reason for making such an exception was that this was a special one-time screening of Happy Together in Singapore (the movie was banned from commercial release here).
Before the screening on May 2, 1998, I remember being offered chewing gum by Wong when I interviewed him for BigO magazine in his hotel room. The following was the article I filed.
Some say the eyes are the windows to a person's soul. If this is really true, then you rarely get the chance to peek into the soul of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai.
"It's part of my uniform," the 40-year-old director quips about his trademark dark glasses that he is almost never seen without, "it reminds me that I'm working."
It seems that being interviewed by nosey reporters is, to him, also work. Especially the way he sometimes pauses for what feels like an eternity before answering a question, giving this interviewer the feeling that he is not too used to giving off-the-cuff replies.
Over the years, Wong has received much acclaim for his films in both Asia and the West – from his 1988 gangster romance, As Tears Go By, to the multi-layered love story, Days of Being Wild (1991), the kinetic Chungking Express (1994) and the art-house wuxia flick, Ashes of Time (1994).
Aside from winning the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival with Happy Together, Wong is perhaps most notorious for making American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino cry. Tarantino, whose company Rolling Thunder distributes Chungking Express in the United States, once admitted that he cried after watching the film.
"Well, you're always overwhelmed by people telling you that they cried after watching your films," says Wong. "I think it's very generous for Tarantino to say that in public because it is a very rare thing for directors to do."
While there isn't a very close relationship between Wong and Tarantino, there is definitely a sense of mutual respect for each other's work.
"Personally, I prefer Pulp Fiction to Reservoir Dogs. And after watching Jackie Brown last week, I think that I like it even more than Pulp Fiction. Tarantino makes his films with the heart of a movie fan. He's still a fan and he's not too conscious of his position in the film business."
Wong may have attracted hordes of faithful followers with his films' interweaving story structure, fancy lens work by award-winning cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and the reiterated theme of being lost in love. But there are also detractors who criticised the director for emphasising style over substance. Wong's defence is that he doesn't think of style at all when he begins making a film.
"I believe that style will come out of the work naturally," he says. "I know there are labels being put on my films, like 'hip', 'trendy' and 'fashionable', but there's really nothing I can do about the hype. People may say that my films are hip, but that doesn't necessarily mean that my films are hip. In fact, I don't like hip things. To me, there are only two kinds of films – good films and bad films."
Aside from the visual elements, music also plays a big part in a typical Wong Kar Wai movie.
"To me, movies are images and sound. And music is part of the sound. I always choose music based on what happens in the film. Personally, I don't have a very precise taste in music. Listening to music becomes a part of my job, a part of filmmaking. I like music that has a cinematic quality that makes me think in terms of images."
For his 1997 film, Happy Together, Wong uproots the main characters from their native Hong Kong and places them upon the distant soil of Argentina, complete with, of course, lots of tango music. But why Argentina of all places?
"It was right after I completed Fallen Angels, in 1996," explains Wong, "People were curious about my next film and they were always asking me if it was going to be about Hong Kong 1997 – a question I hated answering because I must have been asked more than a thousand times! So I asked Doyle, 'Why don't we make a film outside of Hong Kong?'
"I'm also very fond of South American literature. And I remember reading this book by Manuel Puig called The Buenos Aires Affair, so I said, 'Why not make a film in Argentina?' We wanted to run away, and Argentina seemed like the furthest we can run to."
As Wong got caught up with the idea of making a film completely beyond what people expected him to make, he decided to have a gay couple (played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai) as the main characters in the film.
"As our Asian society is still not totally accepting of homosexuality, Tony was a little apprehensive about how his role would affect his career. Leslie, on the other hand, was more comfortable in his role as he had tackled homosexual roles before, for example, in Farewell My Concubine. He really helped Tony a lot.
"I tried to get the major love-making scene out of the way by shooting it first. It also helped to get everyone clear on the fact that the film's main characters are gay. I also didn't want to make the scene too explicit and elaborate. The story is about their lives, and I wanted to take a simple approach for the love scene so that it becomes a part of their lives – something as ordinary as sleeping, eating or washing clothes."
Wong is quick to point out that Happy Together is a love story, not merely a gay story.
"Over the past few years, there have been quite a number of gay films or films featuring gay characters. Some of them adopt a very stereotypical approach in poking fun at gay people, but for me, I really don't see anything funny in a person being gay.
"Some films prefer to portray gays as a form of contrast with the other people in the society, a kind of 'us versus them' mentality. But the approach that I'm trying to take is really to discard any preconceived notions towards gay people. Why think of them as being different from us? In my opinion, concerning the relationship between two people, it doesn't matter if a man loves a woman or another man. What's more important is the intensity of the emotions."
Wong discloses that he is trying to make a short film about the making of Happy Together. This will include deleted scenes, especially footage featuring a character played by Shirley Kwan who does not appear at all in the film.
His next film is called Summer in Beijing which will be shot in Beijing and Hong Kong with Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung in the lead roles.
"After Hong Kong's handover, we were worried about censorship. But so far, nothing has changed yet. The traditional markets for Hong Kong films have been shrinking, so it's more important for Hong Kong filmmakers to think about how to break into the Chinese market."
At the moment, Wong is still waiting for the Chinese authority to approve his script for Summer in Beijing – or to be more precise, a script which someone else had written on his behalf. But he is not about to abandon his usual style of shooting a film without adhering to a script. One is almost certain that when the clearance is given and the camera starts rolling on the new film, anything can happen.
On hindsight, the ending line of my article might have come across a tad optimistic. In the end, I think clearance wasn't given, or at least unresolved problems were significant enough to stall the Summer in Beijing project. Wong's next film turned out to be the classic, In the Mood for Love, which was shot in Bangkok as a stand-in for 1960s Hong Kong. With Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung still in the lead roles, it premiered in 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d'Or and Leung was named Best Actor. In the Mood for Love is supposedly the second film in a tetralogy that also includes Days of Being Wild and 2046 (2004).
Re-reading the interview with Wong made me think of a few things.
Firstly, it made me miss writing for a publication like BigO, which was always pushing its envelope in its heydays. For BigO, which halted its printed version in 2002, I'd reviewed a number of controversial films on laserdiscs (remember them?), like In the Realm of the Senses (1976), written and directed by Nagisa Ōshima (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), which features scenes of unsimulated sex; and Salò (1975), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini as a World War II adaptation of Marquis de Sade's 1785 book, The 120 Days of Sodom. The question of whether these films are art or smut is up to one's interpretation, but both these examples were released on Criterion Collection, which (according to its website) is "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films on home video" (that) often include restored film transfers along with commentary tracks and other kinds of supplemental features, which we pioneered with the release of our first laserdiscs, Citizen Kane and King Kong, in 1984." Incidentally, in March 2021, Criterion released a new boxset called World of Wong Kar Wai, containing seven of his films driven by "lush and sensual visuals, pitch-perfect soundtracks, and soulful romanticism".
Which brings me to my second point of remembrance: how much Wong's style has influenced us, and is continuing to do so – for example, it's common to hear people saying, this Instagram photo is "very Wong Kar Wai". The boxset coincided with the 4K restoration of his films overseen by the director himself, which were also screened in March and April 2021 by Asian Film Archive in Oldham Theatre at the National Archives of Singapore. As tickets to the screenings of these seven films were extremely hard to come by due to Wong's popularity with film buffs and social-distancing measures reducing the theatre's sitting capacity, Singapore's independent art-house cinema, The Projector, has programmed 'Wong Kar Wai x Tony Leung', featuring limited screenings of the restored versions of 2046, Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, to run in April and May 2021. In a scene reminiscent of Asian Film Archive's earlier ticketing woes, The Projector posted this notice on its website: "Our deepest apologies, despite all our preparations in advance, our ticketing site could not handle your love for Wong Kar Wai when we went live on Monday 22 March 7pm."
Having subscribed as a Supporter of the Asian Film Archive, I was able to bypass the mad rush for tickets and secured in advance a coveted seat for the screening of Days of Being Wild in March. I must have watched the film at least twice before, but it was still a great pleasure to view it again in Oldham Theatre. Ah, the scene of Yuddy dancing in his singlet and boxer shorts, hair slicked back, to the tune of 'Maria Elena' by Xavier Cugat, shuffling from the front of his wardrobe mirror to the balcony of his apartment chockfull of retro furniture.
This is also the scene that happens right after the quote about the legless bird is narrated. The quote is completed towards the end of the film, when Yuddy reflects, "I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn't gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning."
Read into this rumination anyway you wish. But the third thing I take away from my reminiscence of meeting Wong in his hotel room in The Westin Stamford (now known as Swissôtel The Stamford) over 20 years ago, and recently watching Cheung play Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, is that some things have remained unchanged amid all these changes. Cheung remains an epitome of cool immortalised on screen, albeit a fine actor gone too soon, while Wong is still trying to make his next film in China (according to Variety, in its report dated September 25, 2020, an official filing on the website of China's National Film Bureau showed that the script for a project named Chungking Express 2020 was submitted for government approval in Shanghai in April and approved in September).
I suppose, a new Wong Kar Wai film in the pipeline is something to look forward to. In the meantime, somewhere out there, a bird is still flying, without ever stopping to land, until it drops.
QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021