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Ranking the Films of Wong Kar-wai: From ‘As Tears Go By’ to ‘The Grandmaster’

Written by on August 23, 2013 

Few (if any) modern filmmakers have the same particular skills as Wong Kar-wai, an artist whose own senses of emotional veracity are matched only by an eye for all things purely beautiful. His newest picture, The Grandmaster, proudly continues that tradition, while once more exposing his taste for the more purely visceral and, additionally, revealing a filmmaker who can work gracefully even as he reaches a bit too far. Ambition for ambition’s sake is never to be found.

In honor of its release, we bring you a full countdown of his feature filmography — i.e., no inclusion of The Hand or similar short pieces — and, in assembling it, yours truly was pleasantly surprised to remember the man has never made a bad motion picture. Some stand above others, obviously — this is a ranking, after all — but not one of us with a sane mind could ever think to label them conventional or disposable; these are works that, time and time again, prove commendable to some significant extent.

10. Ashes of Time (1994)

For most, Ashes of Time would be best-known for a difficult post-production process which, being so consternating, compelled Wong Kar-wai to shoot another picture as some drastic means of freeing the creative juices. While that side project winds up several places down our list, this particular outing has an unfortunate starting position: it looks stunning, yes, and a litany of performances create one of the director’s finer casts — but, speaking traditionally (not always a wise choice with this director, admittedly) the screenplay makes for a narratively and thematically disfigured experience with little to ever truly grasp. Ashes of Time is too rich a visual creation to make for a bad film, but it’s the closest thing in Wong’s filmography to outright inert.

9. Fallen Angels (1995)

Much like Ashes of Time, Wong’s fifth feature, though a slight stumble, is nevertheless a lovely mess, and a crime picture whose (otherwise-intentional) disorganization is never not something of a pleasure to bask in. How many filmmakers can manage that? If the tethers of Fallen Angels are thin, the confidence with which Wong drives forward remains electrifying, while continued onscreen manipulations of Hong Kong — judging purely by the metropolitan aesthetics, it’s little surprise that this neon-lit tale would, originally, have made for a certain selection’s third segment — still carries with it a type cultural stimulation that’s nearly impossible to replicate. Had this hitmen-oriented romance maintained those highs, it’d be an outright classic — but, as far as lesser career entries go, we could always do worse.

8. As Tears Go By (1988)

Although Wong’s feature debut may not be “his” to an entirely recognizable degree, As Tears Go By makes for a strong, somewhat appropriate start. There’s the forbidden love — the first time out, complete with a complex, incestuous angle — step printing, and an overpowering use of music, the lattermost almost entirely thanks to one of the more unexpected cover songs I can ever recall encountering in a motion picture. But then there’s much of the rest: violent qualities would dislodge its place in the canon, to a certain extent, while tropes of Chinese gangster movies also see Wong more significantly entrenched in narrative play than all that’s come since has required. For one who’s essentially a first-time filmmaker — and for one who’d do things now, at this stage, that haven’t been notably recaptured as far as 25 years later — he handles the several ingredients with confidence, rarely stumbling.

7. My Blueberry Nights (2007)

How did this ever wind up the object of so much derision? If nothing else, Wong’s sole English-language picture gives one of the more peculiar modern views of America outside Wim Wenders, every inch of land — from noisy New York City streets to a small Southern town a barren western landscape — played at a register that could only have been encapsulated and executed by talented foreign eyes. Admittedly, some common criticisms hold true: there are performances that don’t fully pan out — Natalie Portman’s whole southern tilt would be no less convincing coming from Joe Piscopo; Rachel Weisz is too luminous a screen presence to be given a role alternately so brief and volcanic — while several of approximately thirty narrative direction’s could’ve been trimmed for clarity’s sake, but My Blueberry Nights has a magic and luminosity all the same. To understand its more peculiar delights, look no further than the lead turn of Norah Jones: an unlikely center who brings a naïveté as sweet as it is soulful, this very quality used to give her too-brief, bookend exchanges with Jude Law an air of satisfaction that Wong’s other entanglements so brutally jettison.

6. The Grandmaster (2013)

An excerpt from my review, reflecting the American cut: “[A longform, third-act flashback] is The Grandmaster in a nutshell: there exists little in the way of perceptible balance with all that surrounds it, while the expressions can be too obvious in their pure emotions, too opaque in their thematic implications — and the implications of which are irrelevant when the very act of watching a master orchestrate movement, light, shadow, and feeling so strongly embodies why we even seek out cinema time and time again. Its newly cut, truncated form be damned, The Grandmaster is worthy of the legacy for which its creator can lay claim — a symphony of individually moving pieces that coalesce into a final picture as fulfilling as it is seemingly incomplete.”

See the top five on the next page >>

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