The new Criterion Boxset World of Wong Kar-wai brings together seven of the Hong Kong auteur’s earlier works. His two most recent films are not present, but the classics that made him a world cinema icon, including In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, are restored and released in this brand new boxset. His cinema of vibrant cities, classic pop music, and fleeting romances stand the test of time.
As Tears Go By is Wong Kar-wai’s debut film and the first in the boxset. It is emblematic of many 80s and 90s Hong Kong crime thrillers and tells a story which is fairly generic. However Wong’s style starts here, and his use of love and music makes this more than a crime movie. Many of the stars went on to have huge careers, with Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung becoming successful singer-songwriters and actors. The films also stars Maggie Cheung, who became one of the most beloved Asian actresses of all time. While As Tears Go By is probably Wong’s weakest feature, it’s a fascinating start that launched the careers of so many talented people.
Wong’s second feature Days of Being Wild is a much more accomplished work. This is the film which really laid down his signature style. It doesn’t really have a plot, eschews genre, and changes story abruptly. The main actors from As Tears Go By return, but some of Wong’s other frequent collaborators first started working with him in Days of Being Wild. Legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot this film and all the later films in this boxset. There’s also a small cameo by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who would star in six other Wong Kar-wai films and is an acting powerhouse, known for collaborations with directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ang Lee, and John Woo. However the centre of Days of Being Wild is a fearless performance by Hong Kong singer Leslie Cheung. His portrayal of a womaniser whose soul is lost makes for a compelling film about being trapped by yourself. It’s an assured piece of cinema and Wong’s first masterpiece.
After struggles making Ashes of Time, the only 90s Wong film not in this boxset, he returned in 1994 with the simple, stripped back Chungking Express. As a film with two bisecting stories, it functions as a collection of short ideas. However those ideas come together to capture four lonely people looking for love in different ways. Few films have the breathless energy of Chungking Express and the sprawling music, quirky metaphors, and hyper-kinetic cinematography makes for a truly modern, urban art piece. This is about as life-affirming as Wong Kar-wai gets, as well as being incredibly accessible and moving. For many, this will be the finest film in the boxset.
Wong immediately followed Chungking Express with Fallen Angels, another film about young people alienated in their quest for happiness within contemporary Hong Kong. In many ways, it functions as an extension of Chungking Express. It has Wong’s experimental, fragmented approach fused with his usual pop music and dual stories. It also has flashes of violence, which links back to his earliest works. To an extent it is a rehash of ideas Wong used before, but one can also see Fallen Angels as a continuation of Wong’s unique view of the world. It’s a self-indulgent film, for sure, but still a fascinating part of Wong’s filmography and one of his greatest achievements.
Happy Together is Wong’s only same-sex romance film, centering on Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a gay couple living in Argentina. A young Chang Chen also appears as a mysterious Taiwanese man travelling through Argentina. Chang had already appeared in films by Taiwanese master director Edward Yang, and would continue to collaborate with Wong as well as expand his career to work with auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kim Ki-duk, John Woo, Ang Lee, and Denis Villeneuve. Happy Together is ironically one of Wong’s least happy films, with a relationship in turmoil throughout. The Argentinian setting allows for more expansive cinematography, but Happy Together is incredibly intimate. It’s a sad, bittersweet movie, ending on an incredibly ironic note but perfectly executed as part of Wong’s oeuvre of lonely love.
The penultimate film in the boxset is In the Mood for Love, the most widely acclaimed and beloved film in Wong Kar-wai’s filmography. Unlike his earlier works, it is a lot less frantic and more calm in execution. It is about a love never fulfilled and told with a steady beat of numb emptiness. The power of In the Mood for Love is that its failure to be loving is precisely why it ends up the most perfect encapsulation of love. Love rarely happens. Meeting the perfect person is rare, and actually being able to love is rarer. To some extent In the Mood for Love is praised too much, in that it is praised to the detriment of Wong’s other films, but there’s no denying that this is a masterful piece of cinema. Of all the films in this boxset, In the Mood for Love seems the one which will forever be most highly regarded.
Finally the boxset ends with 2046, which is very apt as it essentially remains the final chapter of Wong’s early career. After 2046 he left to make an English-language feature, followed by a martial arts epic, and then into a limbo where various projects couldn’t get off the ground. 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it also brings back characters and themes from Days of Being Wild. At the time it was Wong’s biggest and most ambitious film, functioning as a romance tale infused with history and sci-fi, told across multiple timelines, stories, and chronologies. The cast includes actors from almost all of Wong’s previous films, as well as Mainland Chinese icons like Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li. 2046 is a sprawling epic, taking the simplicity of In the Mood for Love and creating something knotted and complicated to follow it up. It’s a stronger film, with more ideas and a breathtaking execution.
Across these seven features, Wong Kar-wai’s unique vision grows and solidifies. Beloved classics like In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express are joined on this boxset by equally wonderful films such as Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. With his debut As Tears Go By and also a sort-of career finale in 2046 rounding out the boxset, this is an amazing collection of films that all have something to offer. The best of them are some of the finest Asian films from the past thirty years and the worst are still inventive and compelling works of cinema. Wong Kar-wai is a genius and it’s worth getting lost in his world.
The boxset includes new restorations which have been incredibly controversial for fans of the films that some corners have liked them to the Star Wars Special Editions. If you lucky enough to own a previous release of Blu-Ray of Chunking Express for example you may want to keep it. The extras are a plenty from new and old programs featuring Wong Kar-wai and other cast and crew to short films and deleted scenes, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes footage, a promo reel, music videos, and trailers and more. The booklet includes a essay from critic John Powers and a note from Wong Kar-Wait