When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Hong Kong action movies. I read every book about them I could find and made a weekly pilgrimage to Movie Madness to pick up new titles. In one of the books I read, there was a chapter on Wong Kar-Wai. The book explained that he was exceptional among Hong Kong directors because he idolized New Wave French directors such as Godard and Truffaut instead of U.S. directors, like Spielberg or Coppola. Wong’s masterpiece, the authors felt, was his film “Chungking Express.” I went to Movie Madness the next week in search of it. Six months passed, and every week it was checked out – when I finally did find it, I understood why.
“Chungking Express” is one of the most visually amazing movies I’ve ever seen. Forget CGI vampires or pixilated fish, what Wong is able to do with the city of Hong Kong is breathtaking. Airports are lit fluorescent blue, hotel rooms are washed in burgundy and noodle shops appear like oases of fluorescent light out of the urban darkness. One has to resort to purple prose to describe the lighting schemes Wong uses.
Within the first ten minutes of “Chungking Express,” the viewer is sent rushing from the streets of Hong Kong to an Indian boarding house to the Hong Kong airport, as a mysterious woman in a Greta Garbo wig (Brigitte Lin) tries to round up drug mules to smuggle heroin out of Hong Kong. As the woman shouts orders at the mules, the soundtrack switches back and forth from Indian raga music to a Phillip Glass-like
drone. I own “Chungking Express” on video and have seen it countless times, but the excitement of this scene still has yet to fade.
But even when the pace slows, Wong’s movies remain gorgeous. In “Chungking Express,” Wong makes apartment cleaning romantic, as when the impossibly cute Chinese pop star Faye Wong cleans a stranger’s apartment to the strains of The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin.'” From the meditative desert of “Ashes of Time,” to the bars of Buenos Aires in “Happy Together” to the smoky, sensuous lighting of “In The Mood for Love,” every one of Wong’s movies contains visual treats.
But now I need to level with you: sometimes the stories don’t translate. “Ashes of Time” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and while I understood all of “Chungking Express,” the simplistic subtitles made it hard to make an emotional connection to the characters. But since the Wong retrospective starting this week is playing on the big screen, there is no need to worry. Wong’s movies are so visually stunning that if you’re confused by their stories, you’ll just laugh and wait for more cool shots.
Anyone with cinematic affection needs to check out at least one film at the Wong Kar-Wai retrospective playing at the Northwest Film Center, even people dead-set against seeing foreign films. There is nothing foreign about the cinematic language Wong uses, and I guarantee even cynics will leave the theater saying “That film looked amazing.” So leave the CGI critters to their own devices this weekend and go check out some real special effects.