Pass the Remote: Revisiting Wong Kar-wai’s films of longing and star-crossed lovers

No one interprets yearning and ill-fated love with the visual vividness and emotional range of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

“In the Mood for Love” starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai is considered one of Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpieces. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

The celebrated 62-year-old is revered for both his flourishes of sensual imagery — a lover’s hand tending lustfully to the flesh of a new and quite willing lover, a cascading waterfall that’s always out of two combative lovers’ grasp — and his heartrending stories of romances interrupted.

Because he creates such highly sensory cinematic experiences, viewers won’t passively sit down to watch a Wong movie, they’ll become caressed, seduced and entranced by them.

His work, though, needs preservation and protection. Luckily, Janus Films’ touring retrospective led to pristine 4K restorations of seven of his best-known titles: “In the Mood for Love,” “As Tears Go By,” “Days of Being Wild,” “Chungking Express,” “Fallen Angels,” “Happy Together” and “The Hand.” The Pacific Film Archive will also be showing “Ashes of Time” and “2046.”

Since audiences are unable to view these masterworks on majestic movie screens — where they belong — the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco’s Roxie Theater are inviting Bay Area movie fans to watch these cinematic treasures from the comfort of their home. Don’t miss out.

Tickets cost $12 per film and can be purchased for streaming at bampfa.org/watch-from-home/existence-longing-wong-kar-wai or https://www.roxie.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai.

This week, Pass the Remote spotlights five features from this outstanding series available starting Friday.


In the Mood for Love

Frequent acting collaborators Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai are luminous as 1960s next-door neighbors whose partners are having an affair. Rarely has unrequited love been portrayed with such aching clarity as Wong’s praised 2000 film. Lush cinematography along with close-ups of hands desperate for human connection — are some of his cinematic trademarks along with clocks declaring the imminent passage of time and drop-dead gorgeous costumes. All play roles here in creating a heartrending portrait of muted passion that’s been cast in the shadows of adulterous lovers. It’s one of the most timeless films of the decade, if not the century, and features a surprising finale that adds historical context to what was just witnessed. (PFA: https://bampfa.org/event/in-the-mood-for-love; Roxie: https://roxievirtualcinema.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai/in-the-mood-for-love)


“Days of Being Wild” from 1990 peered into the lives of 1960s youths in Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

Days of Being Wild

Shot and set in Hong Kong and the Philippines of the ’60s, Wong’s tragic 1990 tale of a hellbent-for-destruction lothario named Yuddy (the late, great Leslie Cheung) and the various women who fall for him and the men who want to be him is classic Wong, with “one-minute friends” becoming lovers and then exes. “Wild” delves into buried family secrets, fragile male egos and the need for identity. All that and numerous shots of rainstorms set the stage for infatuations that often go sour. “Wild” is as unpredictable as its lovers, an absorbing drama with stunning cinematography from Wong’s go-to Christopher Doyle. (PFA: https://watch.eventive.org/bampfa/play/5fa5dde9a0da5e002986a3af and Roxie: https://roxievirtualcinema.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai/days-of-being-wild)


Wong Kar-Wai’s adventurous “Chungking Express” from 1994 starred Briggitte Lin as a smuggler and Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cop. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

Chungking Express

Wong’s most playful feature is built around breakups and break-ins. Part noir and part romance, it’s undeniably a Wong production. Two stories are told about two different heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and their new potential love interests — respectively a blond-wigged gangster (Brigitte Lin) and a snoopy food vendor (Faye Wong). An effective soundtrack — which includes The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,’’  a cover version from Faye Wong of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and Dinah Washington’s most appropriate “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” — heightens the mood and the various tones. It’s a perfect little pick-me-up when you’re feeling down. (Roxie: https://roxievirtualcinema.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai/chungking-express; PFA: https://bampfa.org/event/chungking-express)


The tempestuous relationship of two gay lovers (Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is the focus of 1997’s “Happy Together. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

Happy Together

Wong rattled audiences by not only tapping two titans of Asian cinema, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, to portray squabbling gay lovers who are barely making do in a more accepting Buenos Aires but also making his film rawly sexual. Censors in 1997 didn’t care for that much. But Wong’s damning parable on the need for connection in your homeland is a stunner, shifting from B&W to color, as his couple get waylaid from their intention of visiting Iguazu Falls. It’s one of the best gay-themed features ever made, with two electrifying performances. Sadly, Cheung — who came out about his same-sex relationship the same year the film was released and was a favorite of Wongs — committed suicide in 2003 due to depression. (Roxie: https://roxievirtualcinema.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai/happy-together and PFA: https://bampfa.org/event/happy-together)


This extended cut of Wong Kar-Wai’s intensely erotic “The Hand” with Gong Li and Chang Chen was featured in a shorter form in the collbaorative 2004 project “Eros.” It shouldn’t be missed. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

The Hand

Critics weren’t kind when “Eros,” a 2004 bundling of three short films that flirted with desire, came out. The exception was Wong’s highly sexual “The Hand,” which garnered the most respect. In this extended version, “The Hand” is one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen. Gong Li stars as a ’60s-era in-demand courtesan who is holed up in the swanky Palace Hotel where she meets “suitors.” When a handsome young tailor (Chang Chen) drops by to take her measurements for elegant gowns, she educates him on sexual pleasure. Not inherently explicit, the short film seduces us in every way, from the costuming to the beautiful leads and on onto the breathtaking intimacy, particularly when Chen caresses a gown like it’s his lover. (Roxie: https://roxievirtualcinema.com/world-of-wong-kar-wai/the-hand; PFA: https://bampfa.org/event/the-hand)

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