Monday, March 14, 2011

Wong Kar-wai on Netflix and Fandor

Following up on my post last week on Hong Kong's Johnny To, it is also worth noting that many films by the great Wong Kar-wai are also available for instant streaming.  Whereas Johnny To has been more firmly rooted in the genre-driven Hong Kong industry, Wong Kar-wai has made a name for himself with highly personal films for the international film festival circuit. His breakthrough film, Chungking Express (1994), is missing from this list, but it is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

A good overview of Wong's career can be found at the Great Directors page of the Senses of Cinema website.  A key collaborator in his career has been the cinematographer Christopher Doyle; if you start to watch any of these films streaming and the image quality is not to your liking, by all means stop and get the DVD or Blu-ray if available.  

The new streaming service Fandor has been receiving some attention in the press, and I will keep my eye on their listings for inclusion here.  For now, it is worth noting that two Wong Kar-wai titles are currently available there, Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997).  The subscription rate is $10 a month, but a current promotion allows you to watch one film for free if you log in with your Facebook account.  If you have experience with Fandor please feel free to let me know your thoughts about the service in the comments section below. 

Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994/2008, 93 minutes)
Netflix: In ancient China, swordsman Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) retreats to the desert to recover from the sting of an affair gone wrong. With a hardened heart, he subcontracts out killings to bounty hunters, who face their own dilemmas on the road to redemption. Tony Leung Ka Fai, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung also star in Kar Wai Wong's recut of his 1994 wuxia epic, which adds a score by Yo-Yo Ma. Netflix link.

I had the opportunity to see a 35mm print of the film around 1997 or so, and it was one of my favorite screening experiences of all time.  This has some of the most gorgeous cinematography I have ever seen (although I was disappointed by some of the alterations in the redux version).  For an in-depth analysis of the changes between versions of the film, consult David Bordwell's blog entry on the film.  More so than many of his later films, Ashes of Time is dependent upon genre conventions familiar to the Hong Kong industry, specifically the wuxia pian or swordplay martial arts genre.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the film might be lost to viewers who are not already familiar with those genre conventions, as the film plays with whether it will fulfill or deny viewer expectations for a martial arts film.  The redux version reduces this tension to a degree, and moves more towards an art cinema paradigm and eliminates some of the more purely genre driven elements.  This is probably not the film to introduce yourself to Wong's cinema, but it is well worth visiting at some point, and returning to for multiple viewings.

As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1988, 99 minutes)
Netflix: Hong Kong gangster Ah Wah (Andy Lau) does all he can to keep his friend and fellow mobster Fly (Jackie Cheung) out of trouble, but Fly continues to wind up in hot water. Ah Wah's crime boss has had about as much as he can stand of Fly, but Ah Wah continues to stand by his friend. To complicate matters, Ah Wah begins to fall for his cousin (Maggie Cheung) but can't find the time to start a relationship and keep Fly out of trouble at the same time. Netflix link.

Again, at this point in his career we still see the influences of the more dominant genre driven Hong Kong industry.  In this case, the genre is the mobster/triad genre, but we still see hints of things to come in Wong's later work.  While the repetitive use popular songs becomes a trait later in his career to great effect, I do have to warn you that you might have to hear a Cantopop version of "Take My Breath Away" a few more times than you would want to outside of watching this film.  Still, a great film, with perhaps the best scene to ever feature someone stuffing a gun down someone else's pants and firing it.

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1990, 95 minutes)
Netflix: After learning that the woman who raised him is not his mother, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) acts out by manipulating two women -- quiet Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and glamorous Mimi (Carina Lau). Su Lizhen eventually catches the eye of Tide (Andy Lau), while Yuddy's friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung) falls for Mimi. Meanwhile, Yuddy learns the identity of his birth mother and heads off to find her. This film won multiple honors at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Netflix link.

For me, this is where Wong Kar-wai starts to hit his stride, although I have to admit I did not know what to make of the film the first time I saw it.  My advice would be to take your time with the film, and don't force it to do anything other than what it is doing; just let the images work on you.  This a great meditation on time, loneliness, and the need to reach out to others, themes that will come back in subsequent Wong films.  By the end, we do see the re-introduction of genre components, but what will stick in your mind after the film is over will be vivid feelings and tones generated by specific lingering images.

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2005, 98 minutes)
Netflix: A disillusioned Hong Kong killer (Leon Lai Ming) embarks on what he hopes to be his last hit -- all the while realizing that to truly get out of the game, he must overcome his romantic obsession with his rarely seen partner (Michelle Reis). In a seemingly unrelated subplot, a mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) tries to get the world's attention in his own unconventional way. Kar Wai Wong wrote and directed this winner of multiple Hong Kong Film Awards. Netflix link.  Fandor link.

Often seen as a companion work to Chungking Express (in fact the story was originally going to be a component of that film), in Fallen Angels we see Wong spreading his wings stylistically, sometimes audaciously, to create a cinematically sumptuous experience.  Sure this involves a hitman, but we have now come a long way from As Tears Go By, and we are nowhere near the films of Johnny To from last week (as much as I love those films, too).

Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1997, 96 minutes)
Netflix: Gay couple Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) travel from Hong Kong to Argentina for a holiday to try to mend their dissolving relationship. They separate for a time, but when Po-Wing shows up at Yiu-Fai's door beaten up, Yiu-Fai takes him in. While Yiu-Fai begins a new relationship with another man, Po-Wing's life spins out of control. Director Kar Wai Wong's romantic drama won the Best Director award at Cannes. Netflix link.  Fandor link.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung are great in all of the Wong films that they appear in, but Happy Together is a particularly good showcase for their talents.  This film also benefits from the move away from Hong Kong and shooting on location in Argentina, which gives Wong and cinematographer Doyle a refreshing new palette with which to work.  Despite some great landscapes, however, the dominant feeling here is a kind of claustrophobia as the film vividly portrays the ups and downs of an codependent relationship.

In The Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2001, 98 minutes)
Netflix: In director Kar Wai Wong's delicately mannered tale of platonic romance set in 1962 Hong Kong, neighboring married apartment-dwellers Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung, who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) discover that their often-absent spouses are having an affair. The two spend much of their free time together and find they have much in common, but vow never to behave like their unfaithful mates. Netflix link.

A gorgeous, heartbreaking film.  All of Wong's familiar elements are here, working perfectly together.  Here is a film where art direction, set design, and especially the costumes are thrust into the foreground in a way that ads a special texture to the quiet, intimate story (every dress Maggie Cheung wears is stunning).  While I mentioned that the repetition of "Take My Breath Away" in As Tears Go By might get irritating, the repetition of Nat King Cole songs works amazingly well here and with great emotional impact. I'm less enthusiastic about 2046, which is a companion film to In the Mood for Love, but you should still check it out anyway.  You might also consider Wong's segment in the portmanteau film Eros to be a thematic companion to this film, and it is also available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

I look forward to your thoughts about these films in the comments section.  --JLK

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