The Hong Kong auteur’s films are deliciously sensuous reflections on lust, longing, and love – here’s where to start, from Chungking Express to In the Mood for Love and 2046
DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990)
His follow-up to 1988’s ‘As Tears Go By, Days Of Being Wild’ (1990) established Wong as a master of mood: it is a languid, melancholic portrait of a young man with a penchant for stealing hearts and throwing them by the wayside. Set in the early sixties, it’s a dream-like study of how memory mists over reality and shapes our perceptions of the past.
CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994)
Wong might be known for his lovelorn evocations of love and lust, but he’s funny, too. The best example of this is ‘Chungking Express’ (1994), a low-budget feature made during a two month break from editing his angsty martial arts film, ‘Ashes of Time’. Melancholy and humour mingle together in what’s perhaps Wong’s most accessible offering, a gentle introduction to the auteur’s atmospheric style, peppered with witty one-liners and, of course, romantic longing. Following two lovesick cops who’ve been ditched by their girlfriends, before crossing paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant, ‘Chungking Express’ is an effortlessly charming dissection of love and heartbreak. One of the defining works of 90s cinema, it propelled Wong into instant stardom.
HAPPY TOGETHER (1997)
In ‘Happy Together’, Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are an on-again, off-again couple on a holiday to Buenos Aires with the hope of recapturing the former glory of their early romance. Stuck in a cycle of squabbling codependency and addiction, romance is shown as a habit, rather than actual pleasure, with both men struggling to shirk off the anger and distrust that’s broken down their relationship. Like ‘Chungking Express’, Wong’s fractured and, at times, frantic visuals suggest the youthful rush of early love, with Lai and Ho’s emotional baggage lagging gently behind them, tainting their surroundings. While the final scene remains optimistic, it’s a bittersweet and uncompromising look at a longing for love that’s already lost.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)
While ‘Chungking Express’ remains a fan favourite, ‘In the Mood for Love’ is Wong’s pièce de résistance and a definite must-see. In Wong’s gloriously shot and haunting masterpiece, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play two neighbours who realise their spouses are having an affair. The film sighs and swoons with yearning as the pair begin to develop feelings with each other, often taking part in hypnotic pas de deux en route to a local noodle stand. Set to the refrain of a mournful waltz that moves at a sophorous pace, the audience is made to feel the tangible passion of unattainable love. Like Wong’s previous films, memory is a key theme, referred to later in the story “as though looking through a dusty windowpane”. With gorgeous costumes and immaculate set design made to evoke the 1960s Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood, ‘In the Mood for Love’ is an intoxicating treat that leaves you craving for a catharsis that never comes.
Meant as a loose sequel to ‘In the Mood for Love’, ‘2024’ is part romance, part sci-fi. Tony Leung (again) is a louche gossip journalist who lives in a cheap hotel, dreaming of a far future dystopia where lonely souls try to reach a mysterious place called 2046 in order to recapture lost loves. Typical of Wong’s films, much of the story is told in a non-linear sequence of events, jumping frantically between reality and Kubrickian fantasy. A shapeless reflection on the repercussions of souring love, ‘2024’ is a darker, most cynical beast than his previous works, but just as beautiful.