Cinema and Media Studies Wong Kar-wai
Derek Lam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0259


Hong Kong cinema’s most critically acclaimed and internationally renowned stylist, Wong Kar-wai came to international prominence in the 1990s, when his poetic, emotive, and improvisatory form of urban cinema, focused on lonely, melancholic individuals wishing to connect and find romance within an enchanted cityscape, seduced audiences by means of intoxicating visuals, memorable soundtracks, and charismatic star turns. Although Wong began his directing career with a genre film (As Tears Go By, 1988) after years of working as a screenwriter, his stylistic imagination and virtuosity were immediately apparent, and he quickly went on to make an uncompromising, nostalgic period film (Days of Being Wild, 1990) that embodied in essence his interests and preoccupations as an auteur. While critically acclaimed, the film was a box-office flop, and Wong had to work with financing from Taiwan for his personal take on the martial arts genre, Ashes of Time (1994). Before he was able to finish that feature, Wong made the film that catapulted him to worldwide fame: the urban romance Chungking Express (1994). The acclaim continued with the nocturnal Fallen Angels (1995), a companion film to Chungking Express; Happy Together (1997)—a gay love story set in Argentina, for which Wong received the Best Director award at Cannes—and In the Mood for Love (2000), a period romance that found Wong returning to his favorite setting: 1960s Hong Kong. In 2004, Wong followed that film with a sequel of sorts, 2046 (cited under In the Mood for Love (2000)/2046 (2004)), which introduced science-fiction elements to his work before making his only film in Hollywood with My Blueberry Nights (2007), starring Norah Jones, although it received only a lukewarm critical response. His latest film as of 2017, The Grandmaster (2013), is about Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun master, Ip Man. It was filmed with a lavish budget as a coproduction in China. The film was well received and became a huge box-office hit in China, although a different cut presented at the Berlin Film Festival and a dramatically shortened version distributed in the United States were less enthusiastically reviewed in the West. A popular favorite with critics and cinephiles, Wong has likewise attracted much attention from film scholars. Besides exploring his cinematic idiom in formal terms, studies have also focused on such recurring themes and motifs as desire, memory, nostalgia, or the malleability of time. Others have considered Wong’s films in terms of their treatment of urban space, in connection to pop culture or postmodernity, in relation to art cinema and commercial genre filmmaking, or as related to the unique historical situation of the territory’s handover to China in 1997.


Wong Kar-wai’s output has merited book-length consideration, and several volumes are in print. Brunette 2005 emphasizes Wong’s formal innovations as an art-film auteur rather than reading his work politically or in relation to Hong Kong’s commercial-genre cinema. Lalanne, et al. 1997 is an excellent collection of critical essays in which Lalanne focuses on the form and thematic preoccupations of Wong’s cinema, Martinez on Wong’s use of music, and Abbas on the political resonances of Wong’s work. Teo 2005 provides close readings of Wong’s films, emphasizing literary influences on the director’s work. Bettinson 2014 homes in on the director’s cinematic aesthetic, which, the author argues, is characterized by gestures of formal disturbance. Wong and Powers 2016 consists of a critical overview and a book-length interview with the director. Nochimson 2016 is a wide-ranging collection of essays covering various aspects of the director’s work. Rayns 2015 goes beyond a close reading of In the Mood for Love (2000) to provide an insightful analysis of Wong’s cinematic idiom and filmmaking method.

  • Bettinson, Gary. The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-wai: Film Poetics and the Aesthetic of Disturbance. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888139293.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Taking a largely formalist approach that owes much to the methods of David Bordwell (see Bordwell 2000, cited under Chungking Express (1994), and Bordwell 2013, cited under The Grandmaster (2013)), Bettinson focuses in particular on Wong’s cinematic aesthetic, characterizing it in terms of “disturbance,” whereby the otherwise highly coherent and unified stylistic elements are regularly disrupted by destabilizing gestures that aim for “perceptual and cognitive challenge” (pp. 22–23).

  • Brunette, Peter. Wong Kar-wai. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

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    Auteurist study that appreciates the director as an innovator in cinematic form. While acknowledging that Wong’s work can be related to the generic conventions of Hong Kong cinema, as well as the validity of allegorical readings that look for political resonances, Brunette chooses to view Wong’s output chiefly as art films displaying formidable formal aesthetics.

  • Lalanne, Jean-Marc, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, and Jimmy Ngai. Wong Kar Wai. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1997.

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    Offers three critical perspectives: Lalanne focuses on the fragmentary nature and elliptical form of Wong’s cinema. Martinez discusses the use of music as well as the musical structure of Wong’s films. Abbas associates feelings of negativity and disappointment in Wong’s work with sociopolitical developments in the lead-up to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. Includes an informative interview with Wong.

  • Nochimson, Martha P., ed. A Companion to Wong Kar-wai. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2016.

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    Wide-ranging anthology focusing on diverse aspects of Wong’s cinema. Highlights include Reynaud on Wong’s jiang hu, Abbas on repetition, Biancorosso on the use of preexisting soundtracks, formal analyses by Bellour and Chion, and queer perspectives from Leung and Rojas, as well as Marchetti, Lee, and Yue on cultural contexts. Contributors also include Ingham, Teo, and Desser, among others.

  • Rayns, Tony. In the Mood for Love. London: BFI Film Classics, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-84457-876-4E-mail Citation »

    Beyond offering a close reading of the 2000 film In the Mood for Love (Huayang nianhua) (cited under In the Mood for Love (2000)/2046 (2004))—complete with scene breakdown and detailed commentary—Rayns’s book-length study discusses the making of the film and its origins, along with an insightful analysis of Wong’s cinematic idiom.

  • Teo, Stephen. Wong Kar-Wai. London: BFI, 2005.

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    Emphasizes the inspiration that Wong derives from literature, likening Wong to Resnais in his ability to appropriate from a wide range of authors. Stresses the connections between Wong’s work and his acknowledged sources (Puig, Cortazar, Haruki Murakami, Jin Yong, Liu Yichang), arguing for the profound effect they have had on structure, dialogue, and characterization in Wong’s films.

  • Wong, Kar Wai, and John Powers. WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai. New York: Rizzoli, 2016.

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    Lavishly illustrated volume that consists of an incisive overview of the director’s work by critic Powers and a candid, book-length interview with the director, in which he discusses each of his films in turn. Wong shares not only autobiographical reminiscences, but also sources of inspiration for his work, as well as production-related anecdotes.

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