A still from Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 film “Chungking Express.”
Culture

Why Wong Kar-wai takes forever to make a movie

Mar 21, 2019

Wong Kar-wai, the enigmatic Hong Kong director behind critically acclaimed films like In the Mood for Love (2000) and The Grandmaster (2013), has not released a feature film in more than six years.

It’s the longest stretch of time without a release for Wong, who has been hailed as one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers but is also notorious for taking his time with projects.

The director is also very secretive and media-shy. Even actors who have worked with him don’t really know when he’ll decide that a project is complete.

“Everyone who has worked for Wong Kar-Wai knows that it’s impossible to tell when he’s going to be done,” Zhang Ziyi, who starred in The Grandmaster, once told reporters when they pressed her on the film’s progress.

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So when Wong dropped hints about his next project on Sunday at an awards ceremony in Hong Kong, the film world was abuzz.

After receiving an honorary award from the Hong Kong Screenwriters’ Guild, the director told Ming Pao that he expected to begin shooting his latest project, a film adaption of the Chinese novel Blossoms, by the end of this year or early next year.

He said the film would be a thematic follow-up to two previous works, In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), both highly stylized films about the fleeting romances of solemnly lonely characters.

A still from “In the Mood for Love.”
A still from “In the Mood for Love.” / Photo: Jet Tone Productions

It’s not the first time Wong has publicly discussed Blossoms. For the past three years, he’s been talking about adapting the book, which takes place in Shanghai and follows the lives of three men from China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1990s.

Sunday was the first time he indicated a production timeline.

But Sunday was the first time he indicated a production timeline. For a mercurial director like Wong, who is known for shooting without a script or storyboard, that is significant.

In past interviews, Wong has emphasized that he goes into a production with only a rough story in mind. A script, so to speak, might just be a smattering of notes.

The result is both rewarding and frustrating for the people who work with him. Many actors say some of their best performances have come from his films because the improvisation affords them creative freedom.

But that also means shooting can drag on for years while Wong makes tweaks to the story in the middle of production. (Compare that to the average Hollywood film, which takes three months to shoot.)

The consummate perfectionist

Early in his career, Wong released an average of one film every two years. Still, his penchant for perfection was apparent. A scene in his second feature film, Days of Being Wild (1990), required more than 50 takes.

As Wong’s career took off and he earned more critical praise, he took more time with his pieces.

His 2004 film 2046 took five years to make. The arduous process reportedly led his longtime partner and cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, to end his collaboration with Wong.

“How many five years do I have left?” Doyle told The Guardian in a 2005 interview.

Wong Kar-wai (left) and Christopher Doyle at a press conference for their first collaboration, “Days of Being Wild,” in 1990.
Wong Kar-wai (left) and Christopher Doyle at a press conference for their first collaboration, “Days of Being Wild,” in 1990. / Photo: South China Morning Post

In retrospect, Doyle suspected Wong probably sat on the project because of writer’s block.

“Whatever artists or non-artists we are, basically we only have one thing to say. We just don't know how to say it, and you're looking for ways to articulate it,” Doyle said.

The film was famously in post-production down to the 11th hour. Organizers at the Cannes Film Festival had to postpone a screening because the final shipment kept getting delayed.

Ultimately, most critics gave 2046 the same glowing reception that they afforded his previous work, In the Mood for Love, but some noted that the film was weaker than its predecessor. Roger Ebert wryly called it “a lovely meander.”

“I feel that 2046 is unnecessary in retrospect,” Doyle told The Guardian. “I think probably Wong Kar-Wai realized that somewhere, and that's why it took so long. You do realize that you have basically said what you needed to say, so why say more?”

Christopher Doyle (right) with Wong Kar-wai on the set of “In the Mood for Love.”
Christopher Doyle (right) with Wong Kar-wai on the set of “In the Mood for Love.” / Photo: Jet Tone Productions via Alamy

With Blossoms, Wong seems to be taking his time once again to ensure that everything is perfect.

At the 2017 Lumière Film Festival in Lyon, France, he told reporters that he was “working like an architect and historian” to recreate parts of Shanghai and San Francisco.

There’s an illuminating passage in Wong’s semi-autobiography, WKW: The Cinema Of Wong Kar Wai, that sheds light on his desire to take things slowly.

In the passage, he talks about why he always wears sunglasses—even indoors—and admits that it’s because he needs time to think before responding to others. The sunglasses, he wrote, help shield his immediate reactions.

“Some people are very good in public, and they perform nicely,” he wrote. “I'm not that person. This was from the beginning. Whenever I was shooting, I had too many things to deal with. I needed the space so that I have a second, or two seconds, to respond.”

Eventually, he wrote, it became a habit.

Wong Kar-wai Hong Kong cinema Chinese films