Wong Kar-Wai. When does a film expire? or The author in the age of his technical versions
There has been a lot of excitement and buzz among fans of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai the past few months – not only because we went through April-May and we couldn’t wait to bring out the Chungking Express quotes on expiration dates – but also because the long-awaited restored versions of his films have finally been released collectively, following on from last year’s celebration marking 20 years since the premiere of In the Mood for Love.
No doubt, such a moment gives us the opportunity to look back and nostalgically reflect on what makes the author’s films so memorable. Is it the romantic image of Takeshi Kaneshiro going through dozens of cans of pineapple for a lost love in Chungking Express? Is it Tony Leung woefully crying in pain on a tape recorder in Happy Together? Or maybe it is the unspoken love between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan passing each other in slow motion on the stairs in In the Mood for Love.
We’ve all grown familiar with Wong Kar-Wai’s vibrant universe, filled with emotions and quirky, nonchalant and elusive characters, who go through life as if in a dream. Liminal images of a buzzing and mysterious Hong Kong, love stories missed by the millimetre, the melancholy of impossible or unfulfilled loves, or the romantic ennui of modern life, they all convert into a highly stylized and aestheticized cinematic language; fleeting thoughts are suggested by impressionistic shots, wide and bold color palettes, rich textures.
At the same time, Wong’s figure, always seen with black sunglasses, has also reached legendary status in popular culture also because he usually shoots his films for long periods of time, with a short or almost non-existent script, relying on the atmosphere, the actors’ improvisational skills and just being in the moment.
The 7-film collection available now on Criterion – As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) – gives us an overview of Wong Kar-Wai’s universe and consolidates the visual connections between his films, giving unity to his poetic vision. The only three titles missing from the collection are Ashes of Time (1994) – there’s a 2008 Redux remastered version of the film, The Grandmaster (2013) – given that it has been recently made, it needs no restoration, and My Blueberry Nights (2007) – simply the author’s failed attempt to make an American film.
Now, the release of these remastered versions as a collector’s edition box set on Criterion may not seem that special at first glance. Redux, unabridged, or director’s cut vs. producer’s cut versions are common practice, and there are more than a few directors who have revisited their films, be it art-house cinema (see Francis Ford Coppola) or commercial cinema (see the hyper-recent situation with Zack Snyder). In fact, this doing is not a premiere for Wong Kar-Wai either, since some of the films he is remastering now have been restored on other occasions, more or less recently, and he has been releasing several collector’s or limited editions. Between you and me, although they come as quite expensive, Wong Kar-Wai’s limited editions seem to be some of the few collectibles that are really worth it, given that they sit at a healthy intersection of capitalizing on the fans’ nostalgia and enthusiasm, truly offering them something extra and presenting the film in an excellent format. What makes things extremely interesting is the fact that the remastering process is a recurring one for Wong Kar-Wai, who every few years goes back to some of his films and turns to minor tweaks, like moving frames up or down the film timeline, remixing sound, color-grading and improving the image quality.
But why are these restored versions so relevant?
Broadly speaking, they are important because, through Criterion, they came out as one complete official set (including bonuses, cut scenes and critical reviews), something that many people had been expecting for some time now. The fact that the restored versions were curated and released on Criterion legitimates what, via Wong Kar-Wai’s status as a stylist and aesthete, had previously been standing somewhere between the universal canon and a cinephile-hipster appreciation. Then, it’s important that the seven films have also been released on several other streaming platforms at the same time as Criterion, which is a great alternative to to allow for some “accurate” versions, more than decent quality-wise, to be seen by a wider public that is not necessarily interested or willing to spend a lot on collector’s editions. It’s clear that these versions need to be seen as references and that they are representative of what Wong Kar-Wai considers to be (for now) the best vision for his films – and all the changes can be found here, listed by the director himself. Fans, too, joined this move of reporting the differences – some with enthusiasm, some with disappointment – through various attempts to compare the old with the new, many people complaining that they rather preferred previous versions of the films.
(A good comparison can be found here, https://vimeo.com/537320640/cdd5a248b6)
In a broader sense, however, the context of these restorations – and in particular, the director’s view on them – is related to more profound issues regarding the author’s status today and the way subsequent changes to a film question their position. The fact that Wong Kar-Wai expressly states in the director’s notes that the current version of his films is closest to what he had initially envisioned is a symptom of a larger discussion on the author’s authority over their own work (in the current context).
The questions that arise from here are whether, and in what way, it matters which version of the film you watch or if the author should also have authority over the viewer’s experience. To what extent is an intended or recommended viewing experience still valid? Such a discussion has become extremely relevant to the fate of contemporary cinema and extends from the memes of Dunkirk being watched on the smartwatch screen to the much-needed recent gesture of Radu Jude, when he pointed out that the torrent version of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is not the good one.
Wong Kar-wai states very clearly what his main dilemma was working on the restorations – what is the intention behind this effort, or rather, who does he do it for? Should he restore the films in versions similar to the ones that the public has grown fond of, or should he honor, for himself as an author, the vision he had from the beginning, but with the risk of alienating a part of the public? In other words, who should the film be intended for, the viewer or the author? The answer to such a question is generally difficult, and even more so for Wong, given that he is an extremely famous director, well imprinted in popular culture, with films cited everywhere, with scenes proclaimed as iconic and with a mega cult following. If we know anything, it’s that cinephiles can be frighteningly territorial and it’s hard to loosen their attachment to certain films (or certain authors).
The author vs. public issue gets more complicated in the case of Wong also because his films have multiple versions, more or less official, with various technical and aesthetic variations – something which differ from a simple stand such as director’s vs. producer’s cut, where the choice comes easier because you don’t have to confront the author with himself. When it comes to Wong Kar-Wai, there are changes between the famous “work in progress” premieres at film festivals, the film released in theaters and the film released on DVD. There are differences between several international versions, the American ones and the ones released in China-Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. There are obvious differences between the old and new versions, such as mono vs. stereo, in terms of sound, and HD vs. the now 4K, in terms of image quality. There are primitive or the lost versions, the Weinstein controversies in relation to how The Grandmaster was presented. If you’re curious and geeky, you can find systematic lists that feature the differences between the versions of his films, and they still might not cover everything.
That being said, watching a film by Wong Kar-Wai is like playing Russian (Chinese?) roulette, you never know what version you’ll get. Everything is quite random if you are not that familiar with him as an author and if you don’t know what you are looking for – which, ironically, is a lot like the spirit of his films, the melancholic wanderings of his characters.
Most of these versions show changes mostly concerning the visuals and aesthetics – much the same goes for the Criterion edition, except for Days of Being Wild, the DVD of which now also includes an older version, apparently “lost” (the one mentioned by Bordwell in the reference above). Few are the cases that include major editing changes, like scene cuts or added scenes, but since Wong values the stylistics and sensory quality of the image, changing aesthetic cues will give you different hints about the character and atmosphere, will offer new ways of reading his films.
Let’s stick to the example of Days of Being Wild. The film comes in several versions with different color-grading, and both Wong and Christopher Doyle, his DoP (and one of his most important collaborators) were involved in various degrees in the restoration process – as Doyle confesses, on a DVD version, when he was no longer in the editing room, his coloring was “corrected” because “they thought he didn’t know what he was doing”. There are versions of Days of Being Wild that come in more realistic colors, some have more sepia, others a vibrant tint of green. According to Wong’s aesthetic standards, you will be able to interpret the film differently depending on how you see the coloring changes (vintage look, unnatural colors, or realistic tones) in relation to the ’60s setting. Is it all but a nostalgic emotional process channeled into the cinematography or is it a real-time action?
(A good comparison can be found here, https://vimeo.com/537320640/cdd5a248b6)
Especially for his pre-2000 films – in particular, Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, because they are so steeped in the ’90s atmosphere, and the crisp visuals, with a lot of grain and a lot of step printing-type tweaks, resonate with the romantic chaos of the characters – it may seem that it’s of no importance which version you watch. Given that Wong is a programmatic stylist, and both he and Christopher Doyle are willing to admit that many technical errors were adopted as style trademarks, the fact that a film by Wong Kar-Wai looks “old” or “muddy”, or that some characters look greener than one is used to seeing people in movies, may have a certain charm and enhance one’s cinematic experience, and not alienate it. If Wong and Doyle didn’t play and operate so much with artifice, color, and texture, it would probably have been much easier to have an issue with the image quality and to refuse to embrace it as a style element, to discern more clearly between a “bad” and a ”good” version.
Still, it’s a bit unclear how much input and decision-making power Wong and Doyle had in all these versions, how much of them are a process mediated by distributors, producers, or other people. Which is why these recent restorations are extremely important – they also come with the author’s disclosure that tells you straightforwardly: look, this is the closest to how I originally envisioned the films and this is what I would like you to watch. Or, at least, it’s a recommendation that underlines his authority, because Wong Kar-Wai is well aware that people have seen many different versions of his films and that they’ve grown attached to them. The director doesn’t necessarily discredit the previous versions and the way they look; he knows we will not abandon them. What Wong Kar-Wai does is capsize these attachments, in a powerful gesture to state that the author is not dead, and to claim authority over the film.
But is the author’s version the best version of the film? There’s the hard question.
In cases like the one I mentioned above, the one with Radu Jude, I think the author’s recommendation should be honored. After all, it’s a fresh new film, just released, and the statement informs from the start which is the good version and that the leaked one was never intended for the public. For Wong, the situation is much more complicated because it’s been quite a long time since the films subject to restoration were released, enough to have become entrenched in popular culture and to have gained a loyal audience. Not to mention that some of the above versions have been held, in one form or another, as “correct” versions of the film for their time. And (although we can argue that in the aesthetic and interpretation process they are significant) the differences between them do not profoundly change the film. Whether you watch the Artificial Eye version or the 2021 4K-version of Chungking Express, the same things happen and are said, no matter the color or format changes. That doesn’t mean that the changes in aesthetics are irrelevant. Quite the opposite, it’s the very fact that we are offered such different aesthetic experiences, but which do not alter the film’s content in a major way, why we, fans, will have every right to choose the version of the film we prefer, based on our own personal and emotional preferences. We will choose the version closest to the film we want to see, to the film we think it should be. For an author for whom sentimentalism and emotion are so important in the way we perceive cinema, the fact that a certain version is “closer to your heart” seems a perfectly reasonable thing.
Such personal preferences might pass the endurance test because we had time to navigate through as many versions as to instinctively understand the author’s intentions and what he’s interested in. The slightest changes, the alternate endings, and the footage that we know was shot and later abandoned showed us what is organic, what belongs in the film and what doesn’t. Through all these re-edits, we witnessed many insights into the creative process. From this point of view, it seems that Wong’s films have somehow ended up working independently of the author. Even so, the viewer’s authority may have a lot of limits outside these guidelines. I think it’s, after all, a bit unfair to theorize what the author means when he comes and tells you directly what he means.
For this very reason (ie, my attachment to his works), I do have some reservations about the new restorations in the Criterion box set. Some changes seem to do some disservice to Wong’s films. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with the initiative and I was looking forward to it, especially since the director keeps seducing us with ideas for new films that don’t seem to see the light of the day. I wouldn’t call them bad restorations and there are many choices I would salute. Like the fact that Days of Being Wild is as green as Christopher Doyle states it should be – and it works perfectly as a somewhat-artifice for the sickly-melancholic atmosphere that the film wants to induce. The fact that you can see a new design applied to all title cards is a commendable adjustment – showing that all these films belong to the same aesthetic vision and are intended to be released together, defining at the same time a certain cohesion in Wong Kar-Wai’s intentions for the restoration process. There are, however, other choices before which the older versions seem, in some respects, more accomplished. There was a certain beauty to their less clean sound and muddier picture.
Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love suffer the most from these causes. Fallen Angels returns to the cinemascope format, as it was originally intended, and as much as the gesture seems honorable and somewhat harmless, it distorts the visual and narrative connections it has with Chungking Express; the two now seem much more isolated from each other – which they clearly aren’t, and even Wong Kar-Wai admits it could have very well been the same film. On the other hand, the new format cancels out quite a bit of the wide lens effect that resonates so well with the loneliness and crises of the characters. It would have been preferable for Wong to have stayed with the technical error he says he made in the editing room, when they accidentally turned the Steenbeck on anamorphic instead of standard, leading to the bizarre and alienating image we’ve all become familiar with, an image that at the time seemed more appropriate. In the Mood for Love underwent color changes, heading towards the idea of patina and artifice. The film works much better now in its thematic and story parallel to Days of Being Wild, but much of its charm lied precisely in the fact that it was more realistic and moderate than the films Wong made before the 2000s, especially compared to the Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, which are much more oriented towards formal, fresher & rock’n’roll experiments (as Tarantino calls them). The now darker image casts a shadow on Maggie Cheung’s costumes (And that’s a shame). The brighter, more realistic, and less distressing image from the previous version celebrated in a more sublime way the aesthetic qualities of Mrs. Chan’s gorgeous cheongsams and integrated much better the subtleties the costume tells us about the characters and the story, about their times and their nature.
Happy Together, as well, seems foreign to me because of the changes in color-grading – we no longer have those supersaturated and intense colors, the Iguazú waterfalls seem much less picturesque. That hyperstilized pattern we got to see in other versions, the quite unnatural tones of the faces and of an alienating and miserable Argentina seemed a much better way to store the pain of unfulfilled, passionate but heartbreaking love between Tony Leung’s character and that of Leslie Cheung. In spite of all this, here I can best understand what Wong wants to convey in his director’s notes, that is, the fact that he sees the remastered versions as new films. The drama between the two now seems a much more realistic film – the love affair is much less romanticized here, it seems much more anchored in reality. Leslie and Tony dancing an intimate tango in a shabby kitchen no longer feels like a stylized cinematic artifice, but rather comes as a natural gesture between any couple. In the end, such adjustments force you to set aside some expectations, look for what has been changed, and wonder why these choices were made.
We might feel that this nostalgia we are clinging to as true fans has been attacked, but I personally believe that this series of remastered versions is very much necessary, because they keep us updated on the director’s intentions, they emphasize what we already knew about Wong Kar Wai and what we have stayed with from his films. Christopher Doyle says that we should try to let go, at least a little, as viewers and as filmmakers, in relation to the works which we have grown fond of, and I agree with him. Things are changing. We have to move on. The fact that Wong Kar-Wai repeatedly returns to edit his films and that there are so many versions of them, more or less accomplished, seems to question something much more profound. To what extent is a film definitive? Ontologically speaking, the idea that a film is a never-ending work-in-progress and that it may never be perfect sounds quite beautiful. It paints the author in a more human way and less as an off-limits pedestal.
In fact, Wong and Doyle have always been open to admit that a lot of the films they worked on together look or come off the way they do thanks to some errors they knew how to make proper use of, and that filmmaking involves a lot of happy accident and a lot of improvisation (I know, the nightmare of any producer). The two seem to imply that you best go where the film takes you, which might sound idealistic and romantic, but it may lead to some pondering on what you, as an author, can do for your work, in a way that is noble and fair.
The idea of altering films every now and then, as to keep them “in line” with the author’s vision, also entails that they have the chance to constantly evolve and to offer the viewer an experience, be it new or just different, every time. A film’s life doesn’t end the same year it has been released, and that has become even more obvious in the era of streaming services. For an aspiring filmmaker, in particular (but not only), to hear that Wong Kar-Wai doesn’t consider his films finished even after 20-30 years is quite the reassuring thing.