Tanjil Rashid

The vivid memory-scapes of Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai

Time is always out of joint, and very often the villain, in the work of this celebrated filmmaker

A defining character of Wong Kar Wai’s career: Maggi Cheung as Su Li-Zhen in his 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love. Courtesy of janus films

The films of Wong Kar Wai are a kind of map of Hong Kong. In them the city becomes a magnificent metropolis of missed connections, a tempestuous port where ill-fated lovers cross paths like ships in the night. And Wong has filmed the city from so many angles, with such spatial precision, that if the People’s Republic were ever to grow impatient with the territory’s seditious tendencies and raze it to the ground, Hong Kong could be reconstructed, flawlessly, from Wong’s films alone.

A major retrospective on the Chinese film director is under way at the BFI and ICA. It couldn’t be more felicitous, since Wong Kar Wai is that most retrospective of filmmakers, always looking back, his characters ever in search of lost time. One look at the titles will tell you that: Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), and of course his nostalgic masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), whose original Chinese title translates to a distinctly Proustian note: ‘the vanished years of flower.’

Wong, the greatest filmmaker to emerge from Hong Kong’s immense film industry, was actually born in Shanghai in 1958. He came to the island aged five — part of the exodus from the communist mainland — and still sees his adopted homeland through the wide eyes of a child.

Every Wong film is made with this conviction that music at once encodes and unleashes memories

Because Wong’s father was away working as a mariner, he was raised by gossiping women — leaving him with a taste for the melodrama lacing all his films. It filled the boy’s head with the romance of the high seas. His films are fascinated by the possibilities of migration; characters are always jumping ship to Singapore or Macau or the Philippines, to escape the burden of the past.

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