When Quentin Tarantino started up his boutique releasing company Rolling Thunder in 1996, his first release was, unsurprisingly, a Hong Kong production. After all, Tarantino has been one of the most vocal boosters of Hong Kong cinema in the United States. What was surprising was that he chose to release Chungking Express, a 1994 film by Wong Kar-Wai.
While Tarantino, like most American HK film buffs, seems to favor the immediately accessible genre efforts that dominate the former British colony's cinematic output, Chungking Express is something altogether different. The title might suggest a thriller set aboard a train, but the film is, in fact, a romance and a comedy -- but not a romantic comedy. It's a story about cops and smugglers, but not an action film; it's an art film, but one that doesn't try to bludgeon you with its artiness.
Chungking Express didn't do great business here, but it did introduce Wong's work to American audiences, leading to the limited release of his earlier films, As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1991), and Ashes of Time (1994). None of those films garnered more than a cult following. His most recent, Happy Together, opens Friday at the Alliance Cinema on Miami Beach.
Happy Together, for which Wong won the Best Director award at Cannes in 1997, is neither the crowd pleaser that Chungking Express was nor an incomprehensible mess like Ashes of Time. As is the case with most of his films, it is a meandering character study that steadfastly plays its cards close to the vest. It is also one of the first major Hong Kong productions to center on a homosexual relationship.
Tony Leung (1988's Hard Boiled) and Leslie Cheung (1993's Farewell, My Concubine) play Lai and Ho, respectively, two Hong Kong lovers who travel to Argentina to see the beautiful Iguazu Falls. Along the way they quarrel over something trivial and split up. Lai, who narrates most of the film, takes a job as a greeter at a Buenos Aires nightclub.
One night Ho shows up with another man. Lai doesn't want to have anything to do with Ho, who nevertheless forces himself back into Lai's life. Their romance is off-again/on-again but rarely on for very long. As the charming but totally manipulative Ho descends into prostitution, Lai becomes friends with Chang (Chang Chen), a displaced Taiwanese, before finally heading back to Asia.
It's not much of a plot, but then Wong rarely cares about plot; his specialty is character and mood, and Happy Together courses with both. The film largely abandons the trick cutting and photography of his past three films, and it's shot mostly in black and white -- not the slick black and white of American melodramas and film noir, but rather the rougher, more impromptu style of early Jean-Luc Godard.
The opening shots of Happy Together are in color, showing the two lovers' passports -- one of which will later assume some plot importance. But without warning Wong cuts directly to a black-and-white sequence of the two men in bed, as if to immediately make clear that the central characters are gay.
In certain places in the United States, gay-theme films have a built-in audience, but in Hong Kong the subject is still risky, hence rarely tackled. Prior to Happy Together, the most prominent HK film with a gay theme was Shu Kei's 1996 Queer Story.
But during a recent interview I conducted with Wong, the director points out that the tide is turning. "These past three years gay subjects have become more and more popular," he explains. "People have begun to accept this kind of film." Initially producers resisted. "People were a bit surprised," he adds. "They said, 'Why do you want to make a movie about two men together?' And I said, 'Because I've never made a film like this before. I've never touched on this subject.' Still, they felt a bit safe because there were two very famous actors involved in the project. So they said, 'Okay, we'll see what happens.'"
The producers' misgivings were not without basis. Asian audiences were shocked by the film, as were some censors, particularly by the opening scene. "It's interesting," Wong says. "Films like The Crying Game played Hong Kong. But it's seen as somehow different with Asian actors. The film [Happy Together] was banned in Korea because the censor department didn't like that these two guys were Oriental ... were Asian ... yellow people. They thought this would have an effect on younger people. Even though they'd passed Priest and other gay films from Hollywood. They said, 'Well, they're gweilos -- foreigners, Westerners -- they're so far away. They won't have much impact on our kids. But a film with Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung might influence their thinking."
Cheung, who has been public about his own bisexuality, has played all kinds of sexually ambiguous roles, most blatantly in Farewell, My Concubine. But Leung had never played that kind of part before. And, according to rumor, he was so freaked out by the experience of shooting the opening scene that he wouldn't talk to Wong for days afterward.
"Yes, the film was a big challenge for Tony, which is what I intended," Wong notes with a laugh. "I had worked with him on three films already, and I felt that he's too sure about himself, that he's too confident, always in balance. For an actor that's not a good thing. I always wanted to push him into a situation where he wouldn't be so confident, where he would be a bit tense. This subject was just the right material for him.
"So I convinced him to do it. I explained to him, 'If you can fall in love with a can of sardines in Chungking Express, why can't you fall in love with a man in Happy Together?'"
Most actors in Hong Kong, straight or gay, would avoid such a part; they'd fear for their image even more than an American actor would. "Of course that was an issue," Wong allows. "Maybe if another director had asked him to do a part like this, he wouldn't have considered it seriously. But he knows that I'm famous for being weird. He can do anything with me, and people will assume it's because of me, not because of his background."
Wong disliked the film being labeled as "a gay film," which led to further discontent. "The critical response was very extreme," he says. "It's always like that. A lot of people liked the film, and other people didn't like it. Others asked, 'If the director says it's not a gay film, then why did he make it with two men rather than a man and a woman? If he wanted to make a love story, why not make it between a man and a woman?' It's ridiculous. There's no point to such questions. If you make a love story between a man and a woman, nobody asks, 'Why not between two men?'"
Some of the flak came from gay critics. Wong explains: "The film was accused of not being authentic enough. 'There's no gay sensibilities.' What are gay sensibilities? I just know human feelings. On a radio program, Shu Kei said that the love scenes weren't real enough. How can you say something like that? There are so many ways of making love; everybody's different."
Wong is famous for shooting with either no fixed script or with so many different conflicting drafts that there might as well be no script. His basic technique is to show up on the set with the cast and crew and make stuff up as he goes along, then shoot and shoot until cast members can no longer stay, with the intention of assembling everything in postproduction. (He spent more than a year editing Ashes of Time.) Happy Together feels more tightly scripted than the confusing Ashes of Time or the delightfully off-the-cuff Chungking Express -- but it wasn't.
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"It was the same procedure," Wong reports. "I couldn't turn out a final script for this film. At one point the film was four hours; entire characters got lost."
Wong's first film, As Tears Go By, was more conventional in form, in part because it was patterned closely after Martin Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets; it became a big hit. The followup, Days of Being Wild, swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, but -- as I politely suggest -- wasn't nearly as successful with audiences.
"No," he admits with minimal chagrin. "It was a flop."
Despite the budgetary advantages, Wong doubts he'll ever work in Hollywood. "I'd like it just as an experience," he says. "But I don't see anything that strikes me at the moment. Of course we've been contacted by some studios and producers, but I have to let them know the way I work. It would be very difficult for them. They like to calculate all the numbers in advance."
Directed and written by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen.