Lost in the incessant re-editing of old films or the preparation of new ones that will never be made, bogged down in lengthy shoots, Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) is more than an eternal dissatisfied: a haunted creator, a never-ending crazed “talker”, sick of having to return his copy and whose finest films one might think are the ones he never made, the ones that will float around endlessly in his head.
Without news of the Hong Kong filmmaker for nearly ten years and The Grandmaster in 2013 (apart from the start of his Blossoms Shanghai series project), amateurs and neophytes will be able to refer to the origins of this essential work, on its first two and magnificent features- films, As Tears Go By (1988) and Our Wild Years (1990), which the flow of re-releases brings back to the screens in restored versions.
Melancholy little brother of the Hong Kong “new wave” of the 1980s, promised to international consecration since Happy Together (1997), Wong Kar-wai has not only invented a style, plundered shamelessly. He “invented” the 1990s, at least something of their retinal persistence: nostalgic patina, formal flamboyance, inconsolable relationship to time, elastic use of memory and end-of-the-century romanticism.
Before turning to directing, Wong Kar-wai first and long made his hand as a screenwriter in the purgatory of pure and hard industry, first in television, where he worked on soap operas, then in the writing pools of genre cinema, on dozens of action, horror or kung-fu films. He notably wrote Final Victory (1987) for his eldest and mentor Patrick Tam, a formidable author of urban thrillers who put him on the job.
His first feature film, As Tears Go By, is a commissioned film, a story of gangsters, cut on the same canvas as Mean Streets (1973), by Martin Scorsese, such as he will never shoot again by the after. Wah (Andy Lau), a young gangster from the Kowloon district, versed in debt collection, drags Fly (Jacky Cheung) as a henchman, buddy and uncontrollable hothead who does nothing but his own, but to whom he is tenderly attached. However, Wah sees his heart leaning on the other side, with his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), whom he follows off to Lantau Island, where she lives. But each time, he is irresistibly called back to the peninsula to save the day for Fly, who borrows at all costs without repaying, provokes the neighboring gangs and compromises himself definitively.
Wong Kar-wai interferes in his own way with this material, first by dividing it: on the one hand, the male film, the violent and masochistic one of gang wars; on the other, the female film, that of amorous temporization, made up of waiting, setbacks and crossovers, like a pas de deux.
Even more than the story, the plan already appears as a territory of experimentation: furious urban swerves, red monochromes, jerky images, musical sequences (on a cover of the hit Take My Breath Away, by the group Berlin), everything goes there to enhance the expression of feelings, whatever they may be. Through its breaks in tone, its bubbling urban iconography, its fury and its melancholy, this first attempt already attests to great beauty, barely upset by the obligations of the genre.
In-room love movie
Our Wild Years, the first truly personal film, goes even further, burying itself in the Hong Kong of the 1960s as if at the heart of a mental space. A spleenetic young playboy (Leslie Cheung) multiplies his conquests: a chaste waitress (Maggie Cheung) is succeeded in his bed by a stormy revue dancer (Carina Lau). Raised by a courtesan, the don Juan is worked by a deeper identity motive: to be able to contemplate the face of his biological mother, in whose absence he is spoiled while waiting for all the other women.
In this film of love in the bedroom, where even the outside seems immersed in it, the story seems woven from the shortcomings and frustrations of each, and evaporates in a heady dream. The set, entirely recreated in the studio, reduces the past to a few fetishes (patterned dresses, telephone booth, bewitching mambo by Xavier Cugat) between which the characters wander like lovesick souls. Time curled in on itself lets the images of a future already tinged with the patina of memory flow back, as if everything had been told since death itself.
From one film to another, so many heart-catching motifs, haunting rhythms, suspended icons are invented. We see the characters of Wong Kar-wai take on consistency, like stars launched into solitary orbits, whose destiny is always the same: passing each other fleetingly then getting lost, then wandering endlessly between the walls of a world reduced to dimensions of a tenacious memory, of a haunting image. For Wong Kar-wai as for others, romance is a symptom of cardiac arrhythmia.