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.
What makes Wong stand out in Hong Kong is his apparent disdain for commercial success; in an industry obsessed with commercial values, he seems more like a Godard or Rohmer than a Barry Sonnenfeld or Joel Schumacher. As a consequence, Wong's ability to keep making films is based more on acclaim on the international festival circuit than on box office receipts. (It's also helped by the fact that, like David Lynch or Woody Allen, his industry's biggest stars compete to work with him.)
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). While none of these garnered more than a cult following, Wong has two films scheduled for release in the next few months; his latest, Happy Together, which won Wong the best director award in Cannes last May, and its immediate predecessor, Fallen Angels, a sort-of sequel to Chungking Express.
Happy Together 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 Hard-Boiled 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.
It's not much of a plot, but then, Wong rarely cares about plot; his specialty is character and mood, both of which Happy Together has plenty of. While the film's subjects are gay, Wong's personal pessimism -- centering on loneliness and the difficulty, even the fruitlessness, of relationships --remains. While the film largely abandons the trick cutting and photography of his last three films, it's mostly in black and white -- not the slick black and white of American melodramas and film noir, but the rougher, more impromptu style of early Godard.
The opening shots of Happy Together are in color, showing the two lovers' passports -- one of which will later assume some plot importance. But, without warning, Wong cuts directly to a black-and-white sequence of the two men in bed, as if to immediately make clear that the central characters are gay.
I talked to Wong in Los Angeles; he was on his way to the New York Film Festival, where both Happy Together and Fallen Angels were being shown. I've had my ups and downs with his work -- about which he had apparently been told. Wearing his trademark shades, he jovially opened with: "Ah, so you're the man who still can't figure out Ashes of Time after five viewings?"
After a moment's embarrassment, I assured him a) that it was only four viewings, and b) that I was much more positive on Happy Together. I asked why Fallen Angels (1995), one of his more accessible films, hadn't opened here sooner.
He sighed. "Last year we were going to show it at the New York Film Festival, but people warned us, 'No, don't show it there without a distributor in place, because, if you get reviewed by the New York Times and if the review is bad, it will kill your film before it's had a chance.' "
In a city like San Francisco (and particularly at a theater like the Castro, where Happy Together opens this week), gay-themed films have a built-in audience, but in Hong Kong the subject matter is still risky, and hence rarely tackled. Prior to Happy Together, the most prominent film with a gay theme was Shu Kei's Queer Story.
Wong said things are changing: "These past two or three years, gay subjects have become more and more popular. People have begun to accept this kind of film." Still, there was resistance from producers. "People were a bit surprised. 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. I've never touched on this subject.' Still, they felt a bit safe because there were two very famous actors involved in the project. So they said, 'OK, we'll see what happens.' "
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, like Cheung a Hong Kong A-list star, had never played that kind of part before. And, according to rumor, he was so freaked out by the experience of shooting the opening scene that he wouldn't talk to Wong for days afterward.
Wong laughed. "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. I always wanted to push him into a situation where he wouldn't be so confident, where he would be a bit tense. This subject was just the right material for him.
"So I convinced him to do it. I explained to him, 'If you can fall in love with a can of sardines in Chungking Express, why can't you fall in love with a man in Happy Together?' "
Most actors in Hong Kong, straight or gay, would avoid that kind of part; they'd fear for their image even more than an American actor would. "Of course, that was an issue. Maybe, if another director had asked him to do a part like this, he wouldn't have considered it seriously. But he knows that I'm famous for being weird. He can do anything with me, and people will assume it's because of me, not because of his background."
Wong disliked the film being labeled as "a gay film," which led to further discontent. "The critical response was very extreme," he said. "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. There's no point to such questions. If you make a love story between a man and a woman, nobody asks, 'Why not between two men?' "
Some of the flak came from gay critics. "The film was accused of being not authentic enough. 'There's no gay sensibilities.' What are gay sensibilities? I just know human feelings. On a radio program, Shu Kei said that the love scenes weren't real enough. How can you say something like that? There are so many ways of making love; everybody's different."
I wondered if this had caused a rift between the two. (Hong Kong is small enough that nearly everyone in the film industry knows each other.) "No, we're still friends, even though I didn't like his Queer Story either. I didn't like the attitude, like it was taking sides: 'I'm gay, you're straight, so I don't like you, you don't like me.' I don't see the point of doing things like this."
Wong is famous for shooting with either 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 into something satisfying during post-production. (He spent more than a year editing Ashes of Time.) Happy Together feels more tightly scripted than the confusing Ashes of Time or the delightfully off-the-cuff Chungking Express ... but it wasn't.
"It was the same procedure," Wong reported. "I couldn't turn out a final script for this film. Early next year, I may release a CD-ROM on Happy Together. Then you'll see how it progressed. At one point, the film was four hours; entire characters got lost. With my way of making films, maybe I should just make something like a CD-ROM."
Wong's first film, As Tears Go By, was more conventional in form, in part because it was patterned closely after Mean Streets; it became a big hit. The follow-up, Days of Being Wild, swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, but -- as I politely suggested -- wasn't nearly as successful with audiences.
"No," he admitted with minimal chagrin. "It was a flop."
Despite the budgetary advantages, Wong doubts he'll ever work in Hollywood. "I'd like it just as an experience," he said, "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." I suggested that even Jackie Chan has faced some of the same problems.
"But it's all a matter of confidence!" he pointed out. "They let James Cameron make Titanic. He's got the position and the bargaining power. Maybe, if Jackie Chan becomes big enough, he can make films like that in Hollywood."
In the meanwhile, Wong is preparing to shoot his first film since Hong Kong's return to China -- Summer in Beijing, with Maggie Cheung (the luminous star of Irma Vep) and Tony Leung. He's already shot a few scenes in Beijing, but 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?