Wong’s Wild and Crazy Technique
Written by: Stephen Short
Published in: Time International (Hong Kong) on Oct 16, 2000
It’s disarming to hear a renowned film director say after a full day of shooting that he “only knows roughly” what he’s trying to do. But this is Wong Kar-wai, famously spontaneous, random and restless. His set, inside Hong Kong’s Kowloon Military Hospital, is as cluttered as his work style. Forget catered poached salmon and Pouilly Fuisse; this is potato soup in styrofoam bowls and cans of Heineken. “Don’t worry,” says cinematographer Chris Doyle as he hands around the beer, “there’s plenty more where that came from.” He’s not kidding.
Wong’s technique means that whatever he shoots on a given night can be treated as a masterly take, or as a mere rehearsal for himself and his actors. He clearly hasn’t decided what the scenes he is filming with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung will do for the movie, In the Mood for Love. “He still hasn’t told me what we’re meant to be doing tonight,” says actress Cheung. “You’re bloody awful that way, you always do this,” she pouts, poking a finger into his swelling midriff. The director lifts his trademark shades and winks: “So why do you keep coming back for more?” Longtime collaborator Doyle pops the top off another beer and warns languidly: “We’ll probably be here all night.”
Scene 1: Cheung and Leung–who don’t know if they’re playing lovers, husband and wife, vampires or hookers (Wong likes to keep his talent guessing)–hunch over a stove, pretending they’re cooking in a hotel room. Leung sets the beef alight, and flames leap a meter into the air. “No, no, no,” says Wong. “Too much flame. Again.” And again and again. Four takes later the flames get higher, not lower. One singes Leung’s eyebrow, and with a shriek he runs out of the room. The crew breaks up in laughter, but the forlorn actor looks ready to cry. Twenty minutes later, after makeup has been smudged over the offended eyebrow, Wong changes tack: “Let’s just switch. You do the cooking, Maggie. Tony’s crap.” After two more takes, the director has seen enough. “For God’s sake, Maggie, you must be a crap housewife. You can’t cook either. I pity your husband.”
Scene 2: Cheung walks in, kicks off her flip-flops and removes her coat to reveal a diaphanous peignoir. Slowly she decants her body onto the bed. “I don’t know if it’s meant to be pre- or postsex,” she says before filming starts. “I’ve got to writhe around on the bed.” No one else knows either, but she writhes and the crew writhe with her. Wong looks ready to eat his cigarette.
Scene 3: It’s 3 a.m. Wong is on his 40th cigarette, and Doyle has broken in a bottle of Scotch.”He drinks to think. In another life I’d be his bartender,” the director says affectionately. Leung, who reads Chinese fiction between takes, wanders about without a single gelled hair out of place. “I’d like to direct a fairytale love story,” he muses airily. Co-star Cheung, flipping magazines, is less buoyant. Her husband, she says, “is wondering when this film is ever going to finish. I tell him he’s the lucky one–I’m the one who has to work with Kar-wai!” And that, as everyone realizes by now, is nothing if not days and nights of being wild.