There’s a certain irony in the idea of a Wong Kar Wai retrospective, as so many of his characters are already living in the past. His best movies feel like memories of themselves, rhapsodies of regret and lingering visions of the ones that got away. The thing I was looking forward to seeing on a big screen most in 2020, “World of Wong Kar Wai” is a years-in-the-making project from Janus Films presenting painstaking new 4K restorations of seven contemporary classics from this most idiosyncratic and influential filmmaker. Watching Wong Kar Wai movies in a theater is like living inside of somebody else’s dream for a little while. But since that’s obviously not in the cards during this cursed year, the good folks at the Coolidge Corner Theatre are making the whole shebang available at home via their Virtual Screening Room. The series kicks off this weekend celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wong’s 2000 masterpiece “In the Mood for Love,” with the other six films in the series set to follow starting Friday, Dec. 18.
Critics are an ornery sort who don’t agree on much, but there’s a general consensus calling “In the Mood for Love” the finest film of this new century so far, and I don’t hear a lot of argument. Set in the early 1960s Shanghai of the director’s childhood, it stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung as next-door neighbors who develop forbidden feelings for one another after discovering that their spouses are having an affair. The movie is a marvel of repression, with the emotional constriction taking physical form as these characters are crammed into cramped corridors and narrow alleyways, our views often obscured by looming foreground objects. They’re stuffed into these sets the way she’s bundled into her formfitting cheongsams and he in his firmly knotted ties. Even the frames are tight, holding on hands that come tantalizingly close to touching as the neighbors pass politely on the stairs.
It’s an intensely emotional experience that burns itself into the viewer’s brain, edited in such an elliptical fashion that feels like you’re remembering the movie even while you’re seeing it for the first time. “In the Mood for Love” is one of those films so forcefully stylized that it makes the real world look strange for a little while when you’re done watching it. I can still recall my ride home on the Orange Line after the first press screening at Copley Place, and when my old college roommate went to see the movie, as soon as it was over he walked outside and got in line again for the next show. There’s perhaps never been a more perfectly distilled depiction of unrequited longing, even if a perverse part of me prefers the messiness of the film’s controversial sequel “2046” — curiously not included in the retrospective — in which Leung Chiu-Wai’s character becomes a womanizing rake, realizing that even the most beautiful actresses in Asia can’t compare to his memories of what might have been.
This sort of heartbreak goes all the way back to Wong’s first film, 1988’s “As Tears Go By,” which is also another excellent example of how so many young, talented male filmmakers need at least one movie to get Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” out of their system. But the film takes flight whenever it’s focusing on the protagonist’s illicit love for his female cousin (Cheung again) scored to a swoony, Cantonese cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” He hit his stride with 1990’s “Days of Being Wild,” Wong’s first collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a larger-than-life Australian expat who’s like if a hard-drinking, bar-brawling Hemingway character was also a self-taught genius with a camera. Doyle’s radically expressive lighting would provide the key to the director’s dreamy aesthetic in a tumultuous team-up that came to an ugly end, alas, during the four years or so they spent shooting “2046.”
My favorite Wong Kar Wai movie was also my first, and is probably still the best entry point for the uninitiated. 1994’s “Chungking Express” got an uncharacteristically splashy launch for a foreign language film in America, thanks to one hugely influential and excitable fan. Quentin Tarantino famously saw the film at a festival in Stockholm and loved it so much he cried, bullying Harvey Weinstein into buying it for him and releasing the film under the director’s short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures imprint. I don’t think Tarantino gets enough credit for how cool he made it for young people to be interested in international cinema. (The original VHS and DVD releases of “Chungking Express” include supplements of the filmmaker enthusing in full former video store clerk mode, rattling off recommendations and providing a motor-mouthed mini-history of the French New Wave and its influence on the film you just watched.) It was because of Tarantino’s tireless championing that I went to see “Chungking Express” at a Rolling Thunder event with Wong’s in attendance. I remember he was smoking cigarettes and wearing his sunglasses inside, wondering aloud if there was any way he could sneak off to see Scorsese’s “Casino,” which had just been released.
“Chungking Express” is Wong Kar Wai’s most ingratiating and adorable movie, an uncharacteristically sunny, whirling dervish of a picture positively drunk on its own technique. The director was thick in the midst of editing his massively-budgeted, way-behind-schedule wuxia epic “Ashes of Time” and found himself at a creative dead end. This quickie project was conceived as a throat-clearing exercise during a break in post-production on "Ashes" and filmed in just 23 days, with Wong writing the script in the morning and shooting during the afternoon and evenings. The freewheeling feeling of liberation comes through in the movie’s goofball ebullience. As with those early films of the French New Wave Tarantino was talking about, “Chungking Express” seems exhilaratingly unshackled, as if anything could happen.
The bifurcated structure tells two separate stories that are secretly the same, about a couple of brokenhearted cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and our old friend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who just got dumped and would prefer to shut down and wallow in their own self-pity instead of opening themselves up to the new possibilities for love and happiness that are swarming all over this crazy cityscape. I understand how one could make a convincing case that this is the plot of every Wong Kar Wai movie, but this time around it’s played for laughs, teasing the more absurd elements of these men’s emotional constipation. The mirrored stories are reflected in the filmmaking, which never misses a chance to double up on images and uses constant repetitions of songs, shots and sayings as a formal equivalent to the routines from which these characters so sorely need to break free.
Leung Chiu-Wai is not much of a detective, failing to notice that the young girl from his favorite food stand (Cantopop star Faye Wong in her film debut) has been breaking into his sorry bachelor pad and cleaning house, eventually redecorating the place while he’s moping around at work. Kaneshiro’s hotshot is similarly oblivious that the lady he’s crushing on at the bar (Brigitte Lin, dolled up in a blonde wig, trenchcoat and sunglasses like a 1940s femme fatale) runs a den of drug mules as her day job. There’s a sublime silliness to their romantic confusion and missed connections, a whimsy missing from Wong’s other films with regard to what fools these mortals be.
Quite possibly the most endearing film ever made, “Chungking Express” somehow gets away with breaking just about every rule of editing, story structure, camera technique and conventional wisdom, bouncing along with the same breezy confidence with which Faye Wong bops around her secret crush’s apartment to the beat of “California Dreamin’.” You can easily see why someone like Quentin Tarantino would cry tears of happiness while watching this film. It leaves you flushed with a feeling of endless possibilities, not just for romance but for what wonderful things movies can do.
“World of Wong Kar Wai” is now streaming at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.