When Quentin Tarantino started up his boutique releasing company, Rolling Thunder, last year, his first release was, unsurprisingly, a Hong Kong production. Tarantino, after all, has been one of the most vocal boosters of Hong Kong cinema in the United States. What was surprising was the choice: Chungking Express, a 1994 film by Wong Kar-Wai.
While Tarantino, like most American HK film buffs, seems to favor the crowd-pleasing, immediately accessible genre efforts that dominate the colony's output, Chungking Express is something altogether different. The title might suggest a thriller set aboard a train, but the film is, in fact, almost everything but. It's a romance and a comedy, but not a romantic comedy; it's a story about cops and smugglers, but not an action film; it's an art film, but one that doesn't try to bludgeon you with its artiness.
Chungking Express didn't do great business, but it did bring Wong's name to American audiences, leading to the limited release of his earlier films, As Tears Go By (1989), Days of Being Wild (1991), and Ashes of Time (1994). Now Wong's latest, Happy Together, opens in Dallas on Friday.
Happy Together, which won Wong the Best Director award in Cannes last May, is neither the crowd-pleaser that Chungking Express was nor an incomprehensible mess like Ashes of Time. Like most of Wong's films, it is meandering and far from action-packed--a character study that steadfastly plays its cards close to the vest. It is also one of the first major Hong Kong productions to center on a homosexual relationship.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (of Hardboiled fame) and Leslie Cheung (Farewell, My Concubine) play Lai and Ho, two Hong Kong lovers, who travel to Argentina in search of the beautiful Iguazu Falls. Along the way, they quarrel over something trivial and split up. Lai, who narrates most of the film, takes a job as a greeter at a Buenos Aires nightclub.
One night, Ho shows up with another man. Lai doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but Ho forces himself back into Lai's life. Their romance is off-again-on-again but rarely on for very long. As the charming but totally manipulative Ho descends into prostitution, Lai becomes friends with Chang (Chang Chen), a displaced Taiwanese, before finally heading back to Asia.
Currently, in certain places in the U.S., gay-themed films have a built-in audience, but in Hong Kong the subject matter is still risky and rarely tackled.
But Wong says the tide is turning. "These past two or three years, gay subjects have become more and more popular. People have begun to accept this kind of film," Wong said. Still, there was resistance from producers. "They said, 'Why do you want to make a movie about two men together?' And I said, 'Because I've never made a film like this before.' Still, they felt a bit safe because there were two very famous actors involved in the project."
Leslie Cheung, who has been public about his own bisexuality, has played all kinds of sexually ambiguous roles, most blatantly in Farewell, My Concubine. But Tony Leung had never played that kind of part before. According to rumor, he was so freaked out after shooting the opening scene that he wouldn't talk to Wong for days afterward.
Wong laughs. "Yes, the film was a big challenge for Tony--which is what I intended. I had worked with him on three films already, and I felt that he's too sure about himself, that he's too confident, always in balance. For an actor, that's not a good thing."
Wong disliked the film being labeled as a "gay film," which led to further discontent. "The critical response was very extreme," he says. "It's always like that. A lot of people liked the film, and other people didn't like it. Others asked, 'If the director says it's not a gay film, then why did he make it with two men rather than a man and a woman? If he wanted to make a love story, why not make it between a man and a woman?' It's ridiculous."
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Wong is famous for shooting either with no fixed script, or with so many conflicting drafts that there might as well be no script. His basic technique is to show up on the set with the cast and crew and make stuff up as he goes along, then shoot and shoot until cast members have to leave, with the intention of assembling it all during post-production.
Despite the budgetary advantages, that process is part of the reason Wong doubts that he'll ever work in Hollywood. "I'd like it just as an experience," he says. "But I don't see anything which strikes me at the moment. Of course, we've been contacted by some studios and producers, but I have to let them know the way I work. It would be very difficult for them. They like to calculate all the numbers in advance."
In the meantime, Wong is preparing to shoot his first film since Hong Kong's return to China--Summer in Beijing, with Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. He's already shot a few scenes in Beijing, but, according to The New York Times, his working method is once again causing minor problems--this time with Chinese officials. After all, how can you get script approval when you work without a real script?
Directed and written by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen. Opens Friday.