Existence Is Longing: Wong Kar-wai

When 11 Dec 2020 - 28 Feb 2021
2155 Center Street
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

With long-awaited restorations of Wong Kar-wai’s films available at last, BAMPFA presents a retrospective celebration of the Hong Kong auteur’s contribution to contemporary world cinema. Having emigrated from Shanghai with his parents in 1963, Wong spent his childhood in Hong Kong’s numerous cinemas. He says that spending “almost every day watching films—French films, Hollywood films, Italian films, films from Taiwan, and local productions” was his version of film school, and the impact of this education is evident throughout his work. In his distinctly modern synthesis of classic Hollywood, Hong Kong genre, and European art films, Wong combines neo-expressionist cinematography, richly textured production design, and elliptical narrative structures to explore the existential complexities of change, desire, memory, love, friendship, and self-realization. Wong’s films are driven by emotion, with a visual style that reflects his characters’ inner states and the temporal flux that they long to transcend in the search for sublime connection. With precise attention to the physicality of his protagonists and the inanimate objects that become proxies for absent lovers, Wong embeds the erotic power of delayed gratification in every frame. Expertly exploiting the power of popular music, his transcultural soundtracks range across Taiwanese pop, Argentine tangos, Frank Zappa songs, Nat King Cole interpretations of Latin jazz, Laurie Anderson’s deadpan address, and “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas. Songs are sometimes used as communication by the characters, as well as serving as commentary or atmosphere, rendering the accompanying images unforgettable.

—Kate MacKay, Associate Film Curator

As Tears Go By

A low-level hoodlum on the bloody streets of Hong Kong’s notorious Mong Kok district must choose between a woman’s love and fealty to his hotheaded blood brother in Wong Kar-wai’s feature debut, which provided enough fistfights and street battles to please audiences while debuting the mood-drenched atmospherics and unabashed romanticism that would define his career. Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung (in a role she credits as making audiences aware of her dramatic potential), and Jacky Cheung star in this triad opera, “a tragic study of little people in a big city” as Wong himself described it, filmed furtively amidst Mong Kok’s “life in the raw.”

Chungking Express

Frustrated with the slow filming of his martial arts epic Ashes of Time, Wong promised funders a film about “two cops” and decamped with cast and crew to the city to pound out a contemporary quickie that would come to define 1990s Hong Kong cinema. Section one involves a blonde-bewigged smuggler (Brigitte Lin) and a smitten beat cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro); in section two, another police officer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) falls under the sway of food vendor Faye Wong and her constant “California Dreamin’.” Funders got their cop movie; international viewers received a mesmerizing jolt of Hong Kong’s energy, romance, and style, framed by Christopher Doyle’s lyrically kinetic cinematography.

Days of Being Wild

Wong’s first collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle tracks four desultory romantics (Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau) as they drift through a simmering Hong Kong summer circa 1960. Winner of five Hong Kong Film Awards.

Fallen Angels

A disillusioned Hong Kong contract killer falls for his professional partner in Wong’s loose follow-up to Chungking Express, a similar “love letter to Hong Kong nights” (New York Newsday). “Takes every risk known to filmmaking, and succeeds triumphantly” (Sight & Sound)

Happy Together

Two gay émigrés from Hong Kong (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Leslie Cheung) take their embattled relationship to an atmospheric Buenos Aires in Wong’s bruising, yearning tale. “A take-no-prisoners movie that’s the very antithesis of sentimental gay love stories” (Kenneth Turan).

In the Mood for Love

Hong Kong superstars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai star as emotionally repressed (yet nattily dressed) neighbors in Wong Kar-wai’s melancholy tale of lost romance. Voted second-best film of the twenty-first century in a 2016 BBC poll.

The Hand

Wong’s little-seen contribution to the omnibus film Eros (expanded to feature length) showcases the relationship between a smitten young tailor (Chang Chen) and a jaded courtesan (Gong Li). “Visually exquisite and highly erotic” (Jonathan Rosenbaum).


Copresented with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, San Francisco
Film Series Sponsors: Hanley Tzeho, Christopher Tzening, and Jonathan Tzechien Leung
Thanks to Brian Belovarac, Ben Crossley-Marra, and Emily Woodburne, Janus Films.

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Image courtesy of the event organizer.