In the mood for Wong: whatever happened to Wong Kar-Wai?

He remembers those vanished years.
As though looking through a dusty window pane,
The past is something he could see but not touch.
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
(In the Mood for Love)

Wong Kar-Wai on the set of his latest film, The Grandmaster (2013)

It has been 20 years since Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express first spilled onto film festival screens with the frenetic energy that its Western distributor, Quentin Tarantino, intuitively understood to be historically expressive.

The failure of his most recent work, The Grandmaster, to find a release in Australia provokes reflection on the shape of a career that once felt so attuned to late capitalism’s biorhythms, and now seems more like a barely remembered fever dream.

Quickly following up on his early success by reassembling some of the material shot for Chungking Express into a companion piece — Fallen Angels (1995) — Wong took more time on the significant formal progress made by Happy Together (1997), a gay romance shot in Argentina, featuring an ingenious melding of monochrome and colour.

This string of works, appearing over three years, announced the sudden maturation of world cinema’s most exhilarating stylist. Though it is impossible finally to distinguish Wong’s achievement from the contributing genius of his great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a summation of his style can help illuminate what was felt, at the time, to be his vital significance.

Very narrow depth of field, crowded and imbalanced frame-ups, edgy hand-held tracks, low contrast resolution due to the frequent framing of light sources, punctual freeze-frames, slow-motion cutaways often in phased “jerky” motion sequences, elliptical editing including cross-fade cuts, an affinity for blank emptiness and vestibular entropy, maddeningly repetitive musical refrains, unmotivated lateral camera movements and shock cuts (involving no aural continuity), garish colour mixes, textural clashes of fabrics and grains, exorbitant use of glass surfaces and screens, lens blurs, stains, blocked-off visual field restrictions, and most of all, a fetishistic regard for the objects that give density to the climatology of desire (cigarettes, pineapple tins, painted lamps, slippers under a bed, a snipped coat button …).

Indeed, despite the absurd beauty of his actors, it is the object world that offers the greatest pleasures in Wong’s cinema. In a generalised formal overuse of the pathetic fallacy, things come to spiritual life under the stimulus of a desire that cannot otherwise find expression. They are stamped by an emotional intensity that endows them with a unique luminosity on the screen.

Fans of Chungking Express will not readily forget the erotic interplay between Tony Leung and Faye Wong that takes place entirely through the humble intermediary objects of his apartment in Chungking Mansions: wet rags, bars of soap, and teddy bears. The would-be lovers never occupy the rooms at the same time, but her (uninvited) housekeeping in his absence irradiates the sad cop’s melancholia with the glow of a superintendent emotion.

The object world of Chungking Express (1994).

Indeed, for Wong this was to have set a pattern. His imagination thrives on saturated adjacencies, elegant parallelisms, near misses, discreet triangulations, displaced objective correlatives and discontinuous occupancies. Unconsummation is the consummation devoutly to be wished, since it gives his films a dynamism that contradicts the dominant sexuality of cinematic romance.

For Wong, love is not a temporal but a spatial phenomenon – an architectural mood. It concerns the intimate disposition of bodies in confined spaces, their gestures, habits, and cellular traces. Inasmuch as it has anything to do with time, it inhabits the cyclical and reiterative dimension of neurosis. Which is why, in his greatest work, the unbearable tensions that accumulate around the cramped apartments, counter-tops, bars and compromised hotel rooms of his frustrated lovers must find release, not in action, but in sublime geographic displacements: a California of the musical mind in Chungking Express; the majestic Iguazu Falls of Happy Together; or the unspeakable beauty of Angkor Wat in In the Mood for Love.

What was Wong, then, but the cinema’s greatest romantic since Truffaut, or indeed since Ophuls? We all felt that, here, for once (and in sharp contradistinction to Tarantino’s own flashy kinetics), style’s excess over substance amounted to a quasi-political point, a small victory over narrative coercion and bottom-line mendacities of investment and return. Wong’s style was the shape contemporary desire took on the screen.

His cultural sensibility was inherently low-brow, both feet planted in the pulps and pop music; but his formal lyricism was the equal of any artist to have taken up a 35mm camera. He understood the lyrical currents in popular culture, the poignancy latent in the way a top-ten hit foments an emotional episode, and saturates it with spatial overtones.

Habitually over-filming with only the loosest sense of any final form, and piecing their films together like a mosaic out of the shots that retrospectively belonged best together, Wong and Doyle found ways and means to express our degraded postmodernity without making us feel cheap and nasty about it. He made us feel happy together.

Never more so than in that miraculous and perfect thing, In the Mood for Love, surely the greatest film made about love in living memory. The way the neighbours, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, construct their imperishable accord through a speculative mimicry of their cheating spouses, and repeated rehearsals of upcoming scenes of emotional extremity, exposes the performative and imitative logic of all desire.

In the Mood for Love (2000).

But as the relationship with Doyle unravelled, and Wong took up with a string of lesser cinematographers, his focus became dissipated, and his productivity took a nosedive.

His latest, a supposed biopic of the Wing Chun master Ip Man, comes with many of the stylistic features we once thrilled to in Wong’s oeuvre, but they are arranged as if in a still life, sapped of all vitality, suspended in the drear aspic of “nostalgia film”.

Of course, nostalgia was always a major valence of Wong’s spatial romanticism, but “nostalgia film” is a different beast again. In it, a set of aesthetic givens lays hold of the material and forces the viewer’s precognition of an historically specified cultural milieu.

“1930s Foshan” may not be itself an overly familiar cinematic cliché, but within five minutes of the opening of The Grandmaster, one feels as though one has known it all one’s life. The meticulously choreographed fight sequence on the lamplit streets of Foshan begins to resemble all the other stately “historicist” martial arts sequences we’ve borne witness to since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) brought the wuxia genre out of the discreditable gutter and into the mainstream (down to using the identical orchestrator, Yuen Wo Ping).

The Grandmaster (2013), opening scene.

The deadly toll this export genre make-over has taken on many of China’s best filmmakers – Zhang Yimou’s decline into the pompous Hero (2002) and awful House of Flying Daggers (2004) being paramount amongst these casualties – is here repeated with a fatal logic.

To the extent that Wong adapts his sensibilities to a genre predicated on action sequences and banal agonistic structures, he undoes everything that is precious in his artistry: its elliptical whimsy, its chronic murkiness, figural displacements, and blank passages.

It is only once the film escapes the mainland 1930s (a decade, one thinks, uniquely unsuited to Wong’s aesthetic) to the Hong Kong of 1952 that we catch welcome glimpses of the old master. The super-sharp contrast fetishism and chromatic formalism lapses into a more genial tonal messiness and textural indistinction. Glass panels play a larger mediating part. And the action sequences are cleared away to make room for yet another story of unconsummated desire.

But with grim recurrence, flashback episodes return us to the vapid stereotype of the 1930s, now in a Manchuria drained of all spatial specificity. And that is surely the greatest tragedy of this film – for what we are watching is the etiolation of one of the greatest spatial intelligences ever to work in the medium of cinema. Time and again, what we see is not Foshan, not Hong Kong, not Manchuria, but some corrupt abstraction specific only to the layering of prefabricated locales that flourish in “nostalgia film”.

Crushingly, this collapse of the spatial horizon is confirmed (in a perverse manner) by the increasing place given to historical incident in the film’s narrative. Wong fans will recall with what absolute discretion history had intervened as the “untranscendable horizon” of desire’s frustration in his best work: best of all, the ingenious displacement of Hong Kong’s handover to the Chinese in 1997 achieved by setting Happy Together, his commemorative film of the event, in the city’s antipodes, Buenos Aires.

But in The Grandmaster, history happens the way it tends to do in conventional film epics: as so much predigested infotainment, marching onto the screen out of the official textbooks.

One can only hope that this is not the end, that there is more of genuine interest and formal intelligence left in Wong Kar-Wai; but it seems that commercial considerations have put paid to the greatest cinematic stylist of the end of the last millennium – not by eliminating all the traits that made him so distinctive and essential, but by preserving them in a form that renders them subservient to a higher master: the grandmaster profit.

Perhaps it’s a good thing after all that that grandmaster won’t be collecting dividends here in Australia.

Did you know that The Conversation is a nonprofit reader-supported global news organization?