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.”
5. Days of Being Wild (1990)
The seams of a larger oeuvre rapidly begin to form in Wong’s second picture, a jazzy period piece ensemble of crossed connections and dangerous love. No matter how “small” Days of Being Wild may feel once held against the pair of sequels it’d receive over fourteen years’ time, a deceptively modest approach is underlined by the depth and extent of its characterizations — in context, a first taste of what would only be more finely tuned in years to come. And, as a starting point, it’s more cohesive a forefather than As Tears Go By.
4. Chungking Express (1994)
Its use of a two-pronged narrative is not without unfortunately specious qualities; the first half always flows more concretely than a more rambling, less direct second; we could never hear “California Dreamin’” again and be just fine — all of these are true, but Chungking Express still lands so high for the purity of its emotions and wildness of its vision. The film Wong made most quickly is, fittingly, his breeziest, but that’s not to discount a finely woven tapestry of split-second chance and metropolitan suffocation, the alternately lovely and garish city of Hong Kong a precise metaphorical playground for the mixed-up lives of two cops, a criminal, and one service counter worker hoping to change their lives for the better. Does it all work out? The smash cut to yet another Chinese pop song cover should say it all.
3. 2046 (2004)
The title that most depends on context: when viewed in close proximity to its more-tender predecessor, 2046 reveals itself as one of the most crushing of sequels for almost immediately robbing both the audience and a Sisyphean protagonist of whatever personal peace had so briefly settled in. But it’s even more significant that a build from In the Mood for Love and Days of Being Wild (the latter having an albeit lesser play) would make it the rare continuation that emboldens and reshapes what’s come before, enriching personal trajectories and fulfilling the lives of characters who, in some cases, had only been supporting players nearly fifteen years prior. With such a complex web of interactions and personal disruption at hand, the meta future narrative is not without some questionable facets of integration, but the consistency of its tone and clarity of a throughline render these concerns moot. 2046 is one for the ages.
2. Happy Together (1997)
While, in some ways, the most complete romance in all of Wong’s filmography, Happy Together is also the most complex for how it follows up that rare consummation. The ricochet quality of its international scope is precisely matched by alternating affection, fury, and sadness, this mélange of place and passion compounded by a refreshingly brazen visual palette that casts the typically detail-oriented filmmaker into a dreamland of emotions that are equal parts elegant and raw. The Turtles-accompanied climax isn’t so bad, either.
1. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Of all the cinematic romances that never truly were, can any quite match In the Mood for Love? And, for that matter, can much more be praised that hasn’t been praised to the high heavens countless times over? To have only been the clearest, most succinct encapsulation of Wong’s mastery might have single-handedly earned its place on the list, but that decision, alone, would risk a foolish neglect of all else that makes it one of this century’s great works. Every frame, editing pattern, musical implementation, sideways glance, or broken-hearted delivery from the inimitable Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung — even something as supposedly small but immediately galvanizing as its late-period title cards. It could proceed for hours, but it would only forestall the inevitable, inevitably stirring rewatch.
The Grandmaster is now in limited release.
What is your favorite film from the director? Would you switch up our rankings?