How Wong Kar-wai became the grandmaster of Chinese cinema

His latest film is tipped for an Academy Award. Here's a freshers’ course in Wong's mastery

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The Grandmaster
Still from "The Grandmaster"Courtesy of Metrodome Pictures

It takes time to get things just right. For Wong Kar-wai, it took several years in production, a few missed release dates, two broken arms (lead actor Tony Leung), and three different versions for his latest film, The Grandmaster, to finally arrive in the UK. It was worth the countless delays and numerous reshoots. The sumptuous martial arts epic, which recounts the life of Wing Chun kung fu legend Ip Man, is a melancholy drama full of balletic fight sequences as expressive as the characters' emotions are restrained. But it's been six long years since his last release – his underwhelming English language debut My Blueberry Nights – so for those of you who have forgotten, here's our guide to what makes up a Wong film.

RECYCLE YOUR FAVS

Tony Leung is Robert De Niro to Wong's Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp to his Tim Burton, Brad Pitt to his David Fincher. Like all the classic director/muse combos, the pair do some of their very best work when they're working together. As one of Hong Kong’s finest actors, Leung has a way of using stillness that blisters with intensity. He can speak volumes with just a doleful gaze. Just watch his performance as Cop 663 in Chungking Express. Who else could make a man so devastated over a break up that he starts talking to soap seem so touching, so real? But it's not just Leung. Wong likes to recycle his cast. Other favourites include the late (great) Leslie Cheung, Cantopop singer Faye Wong, Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro and the luminous Maggie Cheung.

KEEP LOVE AT ARM'S LENGTH

Forget about happy ever after. Wong isn't interested. Love fascinates him and no other director can capture its seductive delights and cruel betrayals with such heartbreaking beauty. In his films, love is fleeting, obsessive, complicated. His characters want love but are scared of its all-consuming power. When love is gone, it leaves them shell-shocked and haunted by regret for years to come. What tenderness there is comes from longing, from wanting what you can't have. The erotic space between desire and a kiss. As Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) says in the Chinese auteur’s first martial arts film Ashes of Time: “The untasted fruit is the sweetest.” While In The Mood For Love – a mesmerising almost-affair between a man and a woman who suspect their spouses of cheating – luxuriates in the bittersweet agony of unrequited love and makes the act of suffering seem impossibly romantic.

FLIP THE SCRIPT

One reason Wong’s films take so long to make is that he makes things up as he goes along. There's no script, actors are given just the barest hint of a character, and dialogue is written hours before it's shot. With this spontaneous approach, he playfully takes apart the conventions of film-making using non-linear narratives, fragmented stories, characters who just disappear and improvised performances. Those expecting his first feature, As Tears Go By, to be a typical triad film, were met with something much more pensive, existential and romantic. And he likes to take his actors by surprise just as much as his audience. Leung once recalled how he was tricked into playing a gay man in Happy Together when the director gave him a fake script, changing the story the day before filming started.

GIVE TIME SOME SCREEN TIME

One of the most iconic scenes from Days of Being Wild, Wong's Rebel Without a Cause, is when narcissistic anti-hero Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) hits on shy Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) with the line: “At one minute before 3pm on April the 16th, 1960, you're together with me. Because of you, I'll remember that one minute.” Shots of clocks and watches frequently feature in Wong’s films as the passing of time dominates his characters’ thoughts, each one trying desperately to find meaning in a moment before it slips away. Time is so important because he’s captivated by how memory and the past affect people – the tyranny of not being able to forget and perhaps not wanting to. 2046 is a place everyone goes to in his dazzling sci-fi vision of the future to recapture lost memories. No one ever comes back. While in Chungking Express, Cop 223 (Kaneshiro) muses: “If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.”

DELIGHT THE SENSES WITH SENSORY OVERLOAD

Wong’s films ravish the senses; each gorgeous frame is hypnotic. It was with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a long-term collaborator, that his distinctive visual style really came into its own – a neon-saturated dream that sometimes switches to black and white, sometimes whirls past in a frenzy or slows right down, and is always achingly beautiful. A special step-printing process, jump cuts, freeze frames, kinetic camera work and great music help him to create a highly-stylised, vibrant and disorientating cinematic kaleidoscope that is pure sensation. If it's romance and love that Wong fetishises the most, he makes the viewer feel their own heady rush by seducing us visually; cigarette smoke dancing languidly towards the ceiling, a gay couple tangoing in a grimy kitchen, lovers kissing endlessly in a phone box. Pure poetry.

FIND YOUR BEARINGS

As a kid, Wong moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Then it was a British colony before it was handed back to China in 1997 and a sense of dislocation informs many of his films. His characters are constantly on the move, just arrived from another place or about to leave. They’re dreaming of California (Chungking Express), emigrating from Taiwan (Fallen Angels) or adrift in Buenos Aires (Happy Together), and never feeling at home wherever they are. Various dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese) can be heard in his films and the most meaningful dialogue his characters have is usually with themselves. Wistful voiceovers dominate, emphasising their isolation. They're lonely souls bumping into each other – sometimes just 0.01cm apart – in big cities. But occasionally, they find a connection, however brief. It’s one they’ll remember for years afterwards, a memory they hope will never expire.

The Grandmaster is out in cinemas December 5

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