If you caught Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, you probably saw his follow-up, Fallen Angels. And If you weren't hooked on his films at that point, you are either dead or just lame. Since the Hong Kong director blew up in the
mid-1990s, he's slowed down the pacing of his story lines and increased the amount of time it takes for him to complete a film. 1997's Happy Together moved away from the frenetic pop-music rhythm of his previous two works and loitered in an Argentinian wasteland of fucked-up love and waterfall melancholy. His latest film, In the Mood for Love, pairs up Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in a mutual post-heartbreak haze set in 1960s Hong Kong with Nat King Cole crooning Spanish lyrics in the
The cast reunited in a swanky downtown New York hotel, and I was there. Maggie Cheung waited at the concierge desk while Tony Leung looked like sex in a white suit nearby, smoking a cigarette and occasionally leaning over my table to use the ashtray. In a state of nervous anticipation, I sat across from Wong to figure out if he was a genius or just pretentious. Maybe both? You decide.
GR: You were born in Shanghai and when you were five years old, you and your mother were separated from the rest of your family because of the Cultural Revolution. Did you ever get to be close with your brother and sister? WKW: We have a very close relationship because all over the years we communicated through letters, and it's very comfortable.
GR: Is that where you learned to write? WKW: No, actually I hate writing. I think writing is something very, very difficult and should be very serious. So whenever I have to write, I have to be very serious. Same as my father-he thinks writing is a very serious thing.
GR: What did your father do? WKW: He worked in Hong Kong in a nightclub. He was a manager. Some of the music in In the Mood for Love is from the music that played in the nightclub at those times.
CR: Where else do you get your music? WKW: My mother. My mother has good taste in films and music, and Nat King Cole is one of her favorites.
GR: What are your other influences? WKW: I was born in Shanghai and I came to Hong Kong. At that time we didn't have any relatives in Hong Kong and we didn't speak Cantonese. We were living in an environment with a lot of strangers around us, so my mother and I spent almost every day in the cinema. And those days in Hong Kong, you could see American films, European films, Japanese films, local Mandarin, or local Cantonese. Actually, a lot of films I've seen as a kid. So there's a lot of influences.
GR: How much are your movies a reflection of your own personality? WKW: I don't think my films reflect anything from my life in a very realistic way. It is not necessarily a reflection of my life; it's more like my hope. I think one of the reasons we make films is because there is something that we want to improve in our life. People say, Hong Kong in your films look different than real life, and I say, "Yes, because I want to improve that." I hope someday Hong Kong will become quiet, less people, and this is our projection.
GR: Wasn't In the Mood for Love originally called Beijing Summer? WKW: It's two different projects. In the beginning we wanted to make a film called Summer in Beijing, which is a story about two Hong Kong citizens working in Beijing. But we had problems with the Chinese government so we had to give up that project.
GR: When was the first time you picked up a film camera? WKW: I spent two years in Polytechnic. I don't know why I studied graphic design, since I had no training in drawing. I think the main reason is you don't need to do any more writings, readings, or exams in graphic design. So I spent three years there and one day there was a local
TV station that wanted people to train to make television. In those days, TV was this new thing, so some students studying stage in Europe, they came back to Hong Kong and worked at these stations. And it was like a Hong Kong new wave. Most
of the Hong Kong directors now came from those students. I just worked as a designer and was trained as a director.
GR: Is there any filmmaker in particular that you like? WKW: I like a lot, but there's no one that I say, Okay, he's the one that influenced me." From time to time, just like In the Mood for Love, a lot of people say the film is like [Michelangelo]
Antonioni, but to me the film is like Hitchcock. I wanted to make a film like Hitchcock. Over the years we've seen a lot
of films, and there's something already left in our memories, so we just react to something and sometimes we want to do this and sometimes we want to do that. There's no one that I would think especially, "I want to be like him."
COOLNESS AND CLOCKS
GR: Did you date a lot when you were younger? WKW: No.
GR: A lot of your storylines are about very dysfunctional relationships. Is this some kind of way to figure out your own relationship issues? WKW: I don't have a lot of romance in my life. There's one of the reasons you make films. You can explore, you can try You have curiosity.
CR: You make Asian people look cool compared to how they are portrayed in American films. WKW: Asian people are cool.
GR: Do you think a white actor could play one of your characters? WKW: Yes. I would like to have made a film with Steve McQueen.
GR: In the beginning of your career you did more action films. Now you're doing more dramatic pieces. Do you think that gun films and action films are over in Hong Kong? WKW: No. I think it's like sometimes you do something, you get tired of it, and you move on to something else. Maybe someday you will go back to it. I don't have a special reason to make action films or films with no action. I feel like I want to make my best movie.
GR: Why do you always fixate on time in your movies? WKW: First of all, we are not very conscious about the clock or time references. I think a clock is like a chair or table. It's part of the space. But over the years people were trying to find a kind of motif, and sometimes they even asked, Can we make a film without a clock in it? We tried that, and we were always conscious about it. From then on, we tried to hide a clock somewhere as a joke.
GR: Out of all your films, which couple do you think has the best chemistry? WKW: Most of them have good chemistry.
GR: But which is the best? WKW: I think Tony and Maggie are very good in the movie.
GR: Better than Leslie and Tony in Happy Together? WKW: I'm not saying that. I think most of the couples in my films work quite
GR: I found it hard to see Tony with Maggie after seeing him with Leslie's character. WKW: I think that Tony and Garfield in Chungking Express had very good chemistry. He was always talking to the toy.
GR: In the Mood for Love took 15 months to make. What do you do in between films? WKW: Make another film.
GR: Do you think you'd be able to make a film without cinematographer Christopher Doyle? WKW: Yes, half of In the Mood for Love is without Chris.
GR: So you're not so dependent on him. WKW: I think we shouldn't say that because we work as a team. And I'm sure the film will be different with different cameramen; but we don't say we can't make a film without Chris or we make a better film without Chris,
GR: What kind of sunglasses do you wear? WKW: Normal sunglasses.
GR: Do you always wear the same pair? WKW: Yes, I bought it in Kowloon City somewhere ten years ago. It was made in Hong Kong and there were only a few left. So I bought them all.
GR: Can you tell me about the film you're working on? WKW: We are working on a film, 2046, and the film happens in the year 2046. The reason we want to make that film is because in 1997, Hong Kong, the Chinese government, made a promise [to not overhaul the local economy for 50 years]. 2046 is actually the last year; we want to make a film about promises and see if anything has changed.
GR: Maggie told me you were conservative. What did she mean by that? WKW: I don't know.
GR: How would you describe Maggie? WKW: Conservative. More conservative than Wong Kar-Wai.
GR: All your answers are very... WKW: Vague. [Starts drumming fingers on the couch.]
GR: Yes, very broad. is there anything you have a specific answer for? Like what's your favorite food? WKW: Chinese food. Good Chinese food.
GR: Anyhow, you said you didn't have very much romance in your life and that you wanted to make movies about types of romances that maybe you didn't experience. WKW: Oh, you believe that?
GR: Oh, you're not telling the truth? WKW: Is it that simple?
GR: I don't know. Is it? WKW: That means because you don't have something, you want to do that something. Is that so simple?
GR: It's not so simple, but it's an obvious rationalization. WKW: You think it's true?
GR: I think it is true to a certain extent, especially for artists. People who have issues they didn't resolve when they were younger often try to work it out in the present, even if they're not conscious of it. WKW: So, from that theory people who are poor in their childhood, they want to make films about rich people?
GR: No, not necessarily. Maybe it'll be one aspect of a film. You're giving me a hard time now. WKW: No, I don't think so. [Laughs.]
GR: Tell me what your hobbies were before you entered filmmaking. WKW: Actually I'm a very boring guy
GR: I've read that before, but it can't be possible. There's something going on up there. WKW: Not everybody is like Woody Allen, analyzing themselves and turning it into entertainment.
GR: So you don't believe in analyzing too much. WKW: You just react to things. And I think some people can be analytical, but in my case ifs not. So actually I don't have a lot of interesting things or colorful things that I can describe to you.
GR: I'll give you an example: What was Chungking Express a reaction to? WKW: I wanted to make a film about Hong Kong in those days, so the main characters are actually from the city
FR: How about for Happy Together? WKW: Because I didn't want to make a film about Hong Kong. I wanted to go to Argentina. It was the farthest place that we can reach from Hong Kong. It's the other
side of the earth. I think that's quite cool, right?
GR: Definitely. WKW: I think that's one of the advantages of being a filmmaker; you can travel and you can travel in time also. You can go back to 1962 or you can go to 2046. You can make 10 seconds last forever or you can make 10 years in one second.
GR: That's very romantic of you. You don't consider yourself a romantic? WKW: No. In a way I'm very practical.
GR: How about your wife's birthday? WKW Buy something for her. I think there are so many things you buy for people now. You have to do something on Valentine's Day, and sometimes it becomes routine. I don't like it.
GR: What's the craziest thing you've ever done? WKW: Make a film.
GR: How about before making films, because it seems that everything after a certain period in your life is all film. WKW: To answer hundreds of questions everyday. Don't you think it's crazy?
GR: Yeah, I think it's pretty crazy. I wouldn't want to do it. I feel like I want to ask you another question. Are you bored right now? WKW: No.
OR: Are you agitated? WKW: I'm fine.
GR: You have your hand thing [his finger drumming]. WKW: I always have this thing.