Recommends: Wong Kar-Wai Films Ranked
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
I've been on a little high as I revisit one of my favourite filmmakers this week. Escapism, desire and longing captured through the lens of Hong Kong's greatest director, Wong Kar-wai is helping me through what appears to be a rather depressing month (likely much longer and the most startling thing Halloween, this year, had to offer). In a career spanning more than thirty years and with only ten features in his filmography, a number of striking ads and other mediums under his belt, he's probably one of he greatest living auteurs to grace our screens.
Battling the fangirl in me, I can honestly say, each of his works hold such distinctive merits, filmic dialect and gorgeous eloquence in its scripts that it's hard to shrug any of his works off. Even the ones considered his weakest. His infamous partnerships with cinematographer Christopher Doyle and actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Leslie Cheung have been electric and essential to his work, much of his scripts written or improvised on set. To have such talent behind him, their intoxicating performances and, in Doyle's case, enrapturing work behind the camera form something utterly unique.
A master in pulpy style, hypnotic noir-ish tendencies, rich dialogue and mesmerising visuals of the psychedelic labyrinthine of Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai's work feel as modern as they did back in his debut. Not to mention sentimental and heartfelt. in the hands of other directors, his worlds would feel inauthentic and repulsive, but under Wong, he invites us in and we're encased in his magic spell.
10. My Blueberry Nights (2007)
To begin, is Wong's only disappointment in a career that offers something pleasing to all. My Blueberry Nights follows Norah Jones (that Norah Jones) waitress who, in a search for love and life experience, meets a variety of strangers on her travels across America. She also falls for a British Northerner (I don't know why, I truly don't but what region is hard to pinpoint) café owner played by an awkward Jude Law in what were the last days of his heartthrob persona.
A seemingly cheap imitation, feeling more like a Wong Kar-wai wannabe rather than the great filmmaker himself, it simply misses the magic of his previous work. We cannot say it's a lack of Hong Kong, others have been equally fantastic without that. Is it the translating of his style to English? I don't even think its that. The story is simply unexciting. An American road movie that doesn't quite gel with Wong's usual flavour, on top of that there are lacklustre central performances that make exchanges feel unengaging and inorganic. Wong's films are much like dreams. We float through them. However, this just feels like fragments of mundanity.
On the flip side, a highlight almost all fans can agree on, is the segment following Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn's separated couple ever more divided by their vices. Their performances alone save what is otherwise a mediocre film.
9. The Grandmaster (2013)
This one is a matter of taste more than anything and Wong Kar-wai's last feature of late (seven years ago!!!). Based on the life of the original Wing Chun Grandmaster IP Man, played by the amazing Tony Leung, it explores love and honour as he is challenged by a martial arts grandmaster from the North. It could be a genre thing more than anything else for me. I have never really gotten on with hyper-stylised martial arts movies, films like House of Flying Daggers (Yimou, 2004) do nothing for me but a good Jackie Chan flick can entertain me for hours. In this regard, I could be considered basic.... but at least I never said Jean-Claude Van Damme is my favourite!
This film is possibly a new phase for Wong's work; grittier, less rebellious and more stoic. He still plays with speed and time, another signature to the auteurs work, with beautiful sequences capturing the mastery of its subject. However, it's bleaker than his other films, less like a pop song and more a ballad. I didn't hate it, but it certainly is not my go-to when recommending the work of this fabulous director.
8. Ashes of Time: Redux (1994)
Stylish, colourful and bold. But what is the story? I'm not too sure. Not that all of Wong's films are full of narrative, rather feeding from theme and emotion. Still, this one I can't quite work out. A Wuxia epic, beautiful set pieces and stunning performances combined to make a unique experience. The plot varies from different sources. Where IMDB says it's a story of a man moving to a desert and encounter a swordsman he can hire for his contract killings... this was not the only thing I remember. There's a princess, there's a blind swordsman seeking to avenge a peasant woman, there are mercenaries and long suffering wives... I don't really know.
Maybe that's the point. A stellar cast of some Wong Kar-wai favourites, it can't quite maintain sense. There are two versions of this, with the redux being widely available, in which the filmmaker went back and fixed all the problems he had with the original release. Although stunning and striking, I can't seem to get on with it compared to his other works. It's still an impressive entry but not as moving as others on this list.
7. Days of Being Wild (1990)
A spiritual prequel to In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild's plot is simple. A playboy, supported financially by his stepmother, laps up his bachelor lifestyle but never seems to connect with anyone. It's a story about self-destruction and excess that followed up a romantic drama debut. Not quite as hypnotic as his other works, it still carries scenes of poignance that I repeatedly go back to with Leslie Cheung making an unlikable lead incredibly watchable. Nothing is cooler than watching him shimmy around his apartment. Still it loses points with me for it's excess. Some moments feel indulgent rather than to enhance the story and more so, Wong seemed to be searching for his voice in amongst this effort. It's no wonder his next release ended up being a dreamy hit.
6. As Tears Go By (1988)
Wong Kar-wai's debut feature is a taster of what to come. Playing with a pop soundtrack including a sincere use of a cover of Take My Breath Away (The artist I'm struggling to find right now), it gave us the hallmarks that would make this guy a legend. A gangster falls in love, longing to leave a life of crime. But his brother keeps dragging him back, unable to keep himself out of trouble. Desire and longing ooze throughout this film. Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung burn through the screen, possibly the reason for the success of the movie. One thing we can rely on Wong for is his romanticism; far from perfect, it still is a wonderful start to any career.
5. 2046 (2004)
Like something out of a Murakami novel, a lonely writer engages in various affairs with mysterious women who inspire his writing, a sci-fi novel set on a train in the future which can transport its passengers to their distant memories. With each liaison, the writers reality blurs with fiction as he is forced to confront lost loves of old.
The final in a loose trilogy, 2046 is a sort of sequel to In the Mood for Love, the title taken from the room number featured in the aforementioned film and with Tony Leung reprising his role as Mr Chow, now hardened and bitter with disappointment. Often regarded as inferior to it's predecessors, Wong's sixties décor, rich reds, other-worldly greens and golds, blended with the futuristic vibes really goes down as a visual treat and certainly a go-to of mine. With a cast marvellously compiled of the directors favourite actors including a return of the wonderfully ethereal Faye Wong, something of this film simply works for me. In succession with In the Mood, the tragedy rings deeper and the signature longing of all the directors works cries like some hopeless creature in the night amongst his filmography. I can't help but love it and it's scorned approach to romance.
4. Happy Together (1997)
Another moody entry now but the beginning of the countdown towards what I consider to be Wong Kar-wai's masterpieces. Happy Together follows Lai and his boyfriend (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung - the director's golden boys) after they arrive in Argentina. A volatile relationship leads to emotional manipulation, infidelity, break-ups and reconciliations, yet somehow they endure. But when Lai meets another man, he begins to see his relationship for what it truly is and the two drift further and apart lost and isolated in a foreign land.
Wong Kar-wai explores human need for connection, love and touch repeatedly in his films. But for a film that examines, explicitly, the roller-coaster of a doomed romance, none feels quite so lonely. Perhaps his most miserable film, we are faced with a couple who can no longer connect. It contrasts dramatically with his other work, still bundled with that original cinematography, but sprinkled with a bitterness that breaks my cold dead heart.
3. Fallen Angels (1995)
A hidden gem, a forgotten beauty, Fallen Angels shot to the top after one viewing. Originally intended as a third story in Chungking Express, Wong decided that it was complete as it was and to take this story but extend it. Predictably cool, it still moved me by it's strangeness, it's disjointed yet whimsical narrative. Filmed much on wide angle lens, going much of the film a warped fish eye look, it feels as though he is looking beyond the Hong Kong he had so far examined to it's nocturnal underbelly, in the hidden corners. Not much happens and yet it's characters encapsulate basic human need in it's rawest sense. It's story of five people colliding in Hong Kong by the cover of night is nothing but poetic. And surprisingly funny.
An assassin (with a fabulous soundtrack to accompany each of his hits, Because I'm Cool by Nogabe "Robinson" Randriaharimalala), his boss behind the scenes and a mute 'businessman' (played by a wonderful Takeshi Kaneshiro looking adorably cheeky) are just some of the characters we meet and with them we follow their flings, puppy loves, familial love and more. People give themselves to others, selflessly.
Somehow putting all this down in an article, each significant strand of the story makes less and less sense. Simply because; it's so very basic. But that's where the beauty lies in this film. That and a wonderful scene involving a home videotape and a nostalgia imbued song called Thinking of You - my heart needed something that genuinely moving and tender. This one is a must for any Wong Kar-wai fans or romantics.
2. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Mr Chow (Tony Leung at his most piningly handsome) and Mrs Chan's (Maggie Cheung at her most elegant) partners are often away on business. Having rented rooms in neighbouring apartments, the two form a friendship whilst suspecting their partners are having an affair with one another. As they try to come to terms with this heartbreak and betrayal, the couple begin to fall for one another all the while aware of the watching eyes of their landlords. And so they decide they must not stoop to the level of their cheating spouses.
This is Wong Kar-wai's magnum opus. A sensual love story; sleek, sultry, smooth. Stuffed with requited tenderness, frames within frames, scenes caught through mirrors, billows of smoke, rain-dappled streets, chaste longing looks and iconic slow-motion as the two float through their lonely lives just inches from one another.
The soundtrack, Christopher Doyle's cinematography, the marvellous costume design for Mrs Chan in each new scene (Forty-six dresses were provided for the film although not all made it into the final edit of the film) and moving performances from Cheung and Leung makes this spell-binding tale the sexiest romance I've ever had the pleasure of watching. The leads do not even share a kiss and each scene pulses with their chemistry. It's hypnotic. It's powerful. It's required viewing for all.
1. Chungking Express (1994)
Here it is. My Soul-food. The thing is though... this wasn't always my favourite of Wong Kar-wai's work. In fact, when I first saw it, I would have ranked it below Happy Together. Then one day I was craving a re-watch. So I did just that... and then I went back again and again. And I was grinning from ear-to-ear every time those credits rolled.
The film follows Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Tony Leung) as they nurse their broken hearts in Hong Kong. In two, loosely intertwined stories, we follow 223 through the night as he pines for his lost love, consuming vast amounts of tinned pineapple expiring by 1st May hoping that she will return before that day all the while intrigued by a mysterious woman. Disguised in a blonde wig, dark shades and trench coat, unbeknownst to him, she is a drug dealer. Meanwhile 663's girlfriend has left him. But the girl behind the counter (A marvellous Faye Wong) at his nightly takeaway joint intends to brighten up his life.
Possibly Wong Kar-wai's most delightful film, a romantic romp across Hong Kong captures all the lust for life and whimsy that the director is known for without the melancholy. There's a hope and longing, characters staring out of rainy windows, optimism and dreaminess that sweeps you up in it's spell. The soundtrack, including Faye Wong's beautiful cover of The Cranberries Dreams, only uplifts an already wonderful film. One can only wish to be looked at the way 663 watches the counter-girl. It never fails to entertain and inspire upon every re-watch, every filmmaker can only dream of making something so touchingly sweet. It's Wong Kar- wai 'the dreamer', sincere as ever and hopelessly sentimental. And I love it to pieces.
There we go, my Wong Kar-wai films ranked. Perfect for times like these he's the storyteller that gets right to the core of what makes us human. And with Covid around every corner, let's remember what it is to be alive. He may meander with each story he tells but never are they dull, with wonderful characters to lead you on their adventures through the eyes of one of cinemas greatest living directors. Let me know if you would rank any the same way, what's your favourite of his work? I hope you find a new watch and check out some of my other directors recommends including Hirokazu Koreeda and Akira Kurosawa.
Enjoy the Recommendations!