Weekly Top Five: Wong Kar-wai films

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Ashes of Time Redux
  • Ashes of Time Redux
As part of its series of notable contemporary Hong King cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center will screen two—count 'em, two!—films by master filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. The series has provided a grand opportunity to see a bevy of films by essential East Asian directors, including Tsui Hark and Johnnie To, while also showcasing works by lesser-known directors that speak to a unique and vibrant film culture. (I'm still kicking myself for missing Vulgaria, particularly after reading Ben Sachs' glowing review.)

In the Mood for Love and Happy Together both screen this weekend—the former on Wed 12/5 at 3 PM, the latter on Mon 12/3, 8 PM. After the jump, check out my five favorite Wong films.

5. "The Hand" (2004) Part of the anthology film Eros, which also includes two short films from Steven Soderbergh and the late Michelangelo Antonioni. If the title didn't give it away, Eros explores themes of love, sex, and longing; Wong's contribution, set in the 1960s, tells the story of a tailor and his relationship with a prostitute—played expertly by Chang Chen and Gong Li, respectively. Their relationship, highly erotic yet oddly mechanical, relates specifically to Wong's interest in Western modernity, a consistent pet theme of his. Somewhat sketch-like thanks to its running time of 42 minutes, but a hell of a sketch nonetheless.

4. Days of Being Wild (1990) The cast, the cast, the cast. But also, Wong's idiosyncratic style, which is already fully realized in this, only his second feature film. Rhythmic, hypnotic, and hauntingly erotic, it explores the nature of sexual attraction in strikingly fragmented fraction. It doesn't follow conventional narrative plot line so much as it provides snapshots of the various forays between a hotshot playboy (Leslie Cheung) and his many female suitors. The vignettelike structure reveals encounters that are equal turns sensuous, somber, romantic, and devastating.

3. Chungking Express (1994) Wong's most playful film, and also the most compulsively watchable. It's unabashedly indebted to the stylistic excess of early Jean-Luc Godard, yet at the same time an entirely singular effort. Thematically, it continues his interest in the enigmatic nature of human interaction. Roger Ebert, however, wasn't buying it. He wrote in his initial review, "You enjoy [Chungking Express] because of what you know about film, not because of what it knows about life." I disagree, and point to the film's wondrously ambiguous ending as proof.

2. In The Mood for Love (2000) Most consider this Wong's best film, and for good reason. It's the consummate example of his thematic trademarks, including the 1960s, romantic interaction as operational habit, displaced desire, and utilizes his typically disjointed but nonetheless enthralling narrative style. Thanks to his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it's also one of the most visually distinctive films of the last decade. Broad splashes of color amid stark albeit confined compositions give the film an incomparable look.

1. Ashes of Time Redux (2008) The original Ashes of Time was released in 1994, but Wong, displeased with elements of the story, released this shortened version over a decade later to little fanfare, mostly due to the lackluster response during its initial release. Compared to the rest of Wong's work, this criminally underrated kung-fu epic certainly stands out, but in all the best ways possible. It's his most spiritual film, providing a profound meditation on man's relation to the past, rendered in a stunningly poetic narrative that accounts for all manner of human experience. Doyle, meanwhile, has never done better work. The film's saturated desert setting bursts with splashes of color and movement. Sammo Hung's choreography doesn't hurt matters—neither do Yo-Yo Ma's haunting cello contributions.

Honorable mention: 2046 is an odd, pseudo-sci fi exercise that doesn't always work but is enjoyable as a sort of self-parody.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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