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WONG’S SO RIGHT

for The Brooklyn Paper
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A humid summer night. Dozing fitfully on your rumpled bed, you pine hopelessly for a lost love. Through your open window, rainfall, voices and passing radios intrude on your dreams, until you can’t recall which parts are real and which fantasy.

No film artist has captured this misery and transmuted it into ecstasy more than Wong Kar Wai. From May 14 to May 23, just as warm nights hit the city, BAMcinematek will present "Living in Dreams: Films of Wong Kar Wai." His seven works as director/writer, plus three others that put his career in context, will be screened.

It is a particularly opportune moment for such a survey. The director’s eighth opus, "2046," premieres at the Cannes Film Festival the same week. And Sofia Coppola recently acknowledged Wong’s influence on "Lost in Translation" when accepting her Best Screenplay Oscar.

In the furiously commercial world of Hong Kong cinema, Wong is king of the misfits. His films are intensely interior yet so sensual you feel them on your skin. They drip and shimmer with expressionistic color, fetishistic detail and atmospheric music. And although they rarely meet box-office success, they rake in awards and inspire imitators and parodists.

Wong started as just another screenwriter-for-hire, a period represented here by the comedy-action-horror crowdpleaser "The Haunted Cop Shop" (1987; screens May 21). Its director and co-writer, Jeffrey Lau, later partnered with Wong to form the Jet Tone production company.

Wong’s directing debut, "As Tears Go By" (1988; May 21) is the umpteenth glossy knockoff of Martin Scorsese’s "Mean Streets." His only big hit to date as director, it’s the Wong film for people who don’t really like Wong films.

He found his voice with "Days of Being Wild" (1991; May 23), which wanders the damp nighttime streets of early 1960s Hong Kong like one of its lost-youth protagonists. "Days" also inaugurated his collaboration with pop- and screen-idol Leslie Cheung, playing an angel-faced, but cold-blooded, womanizer with serious oedipal issues. Wong’s nostalgic melancholy is all the more resonant in light of Cheung’s suicide last April at the age of 45. In their three movies together, Wong exquisitely wielded the Cheung persona, a blend of dapper arrogance and quivering vulnerability.

Cheung was among eight major stars sucked for two years into the making of "The Ashes of Time" (1994; May 16). The breathtaking and bewildering result filters HK cinema’s defining genre, martial arts, through a vision that, at first glance, couldn’t be more opposed. The heart of martial arts cinema is the human body working its will on the physical world; the point and poignance of "Ashes" is that this power doesn’t translate to the inner world. Crippled by wounds on their souls, these mystic warriors mostly languish in the dust, their swords growing dull.

Amusingly, BAM’s series even includes the bizarre footnote, "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes" (1993; May 16). As the desert shoot for "Ashes" made cinders out of its schedule and budget, the entire principal cast took time out for this gonzo martial arts spoof, with Wong producing and his Jet Tone partner Lau directing. It must be one of the few instances of a movie made as a fundraiser for another movie.

"Chungking Express" (1994; May 15) began as a footnote: Wong knocked it out with atypical speed in back streets and hole-in-the-wall locations, during a break from editing "Ashes." Maybe consequently, it zips along with refreshing energy. It’s his sweetest, most optimistic film, a romantic comedy at heart. "Fallen Angels" (1995; May 23) is its darker B-side, using characters fallen from the "Chungking" script. Both trace the intersecting paths of nightdwelling loners. Both embody the big-city feeling of being surrounded, yet untouched, by a torrent of humanity. One offers hope for connection, the other dashes it.

"Happy Together" (1997; May 14) oscillates between these poles as it observes the disintegration of an expatriate gay couple stuck in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With two of Hong Kong’s best actors, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, onscreen almost constantly, it could have been a two-man show. But as always, the director is the real star, searing the screen with garish, decayed reds, the perfect hue for a love that has burned itself out.

Such craft seems to emerge willy-nilly from improvisatory rewriting and re-shooting suggestive of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Amos Lee and Kwan Pun Leung’s "Buenos Aires, Zero Degrees" (1999; May 20), offers a rare document of this prodigal directing process. Snippets from the many hours of unused "Happy Together" footage are augmented with cast and crew interviews and later film shot by Lee and Kwan on the original locations.

"In the Mood for Love" (2000; May 22), without dispelling Wong’s hallucinatory rapture, is his subtlest and most emotionally authentic film to date. Abandoning his trademark voiceover monologues, he lets fluttering glances and tensed shoulders express the unspoken passion between two married neighbors in a claustrophobic, middle-class tenement.

Coppola swiped the heart-piercing final scene, but accept no substitutes. This fleeting minute or so could stand as the career summit for any filmmaker, but it could have been made by only one.

 

"Living in Dreams: Films of Wong Kar Wai" will run May 14-23 at BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $10, $7 for students 25 and under (with valid I.D. Monday-Thursday, except holidays) and $6 for seniors, BAM Cinema Club members, and children under 12. For more information, log onto www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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