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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

BIDDING FOR THE BIG TIME

With Happy Together, Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai is in the running at the Cannes Film Festival

By Alison Dakota Gee and Richard James Havis / Hong Kong


HONG KONG DIRECTOR WONG Kar Wai first visited the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. He was, he acknowledges, little more than a tourist. His debut film, As Tears Go By, an ironic take on the Hong Kong gangster movie, was relegated to the esoteric Critics' Week section. "There was absolutely no pressure," Wong remembers. "I just walked around the streets and had fun."

The director's star has risen considerably since then. Today, Wong, with his trademark steel-rimmed sunglasses and lanky frame, can barely shuffle down the Croisette in Cannes without being approached by Armani-clad men on cellular phones -- Hollywood agents, all of them wanting a piece of the man who has been called "Hong Kong's premier cinematic iconoclast."

Wong, 39, is back in Cannes with his sixth -- and possibly most iconoclastic -- film, Happy Together. Inspired by The Buenos Aires Affair, a novel by Argentinian Manuel Puig, this is the first of Wong's films to be shot outside Asia. It is also the first to feature at its core a gay relationship. In Cannes, Wong will be competing with such directors as France's Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Germany's Wim Wenders (The End of Violence) for the Palme d'Or, a prize that some see as more prestigious than an Oscar.

Wong, who moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong as a child, began his screen career as a scriptwriter. He found his directorial style with his second film, 1990's Days of Being Wild, the story of a young man searching for his lost mother. Days revolutionized the look of Hong Kong film with its innovative camera work and high production values. Set in the 1960s and shot by Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle, it unfolds like a sad, fractured dream. Wong coaxed remarkable performances from his actors, his crew and even his props -- loudly ticking clocks are used to communicate loss and regret.

Fame beyond Hong Kong came with 1994's Chungking Express, which pounded cinemas with an energy likened to that of Jean-Luc Godard's classic Breathless. When the mother of all iconoclasts, director Quentin Tarantino, announced that his distribution company, Rolling Thunder, would release Chungking Express throughout the U.S., Wong officially took that elusive step from local hero to international icon.

From that point onward, he had critics the world over rhapsodizing about his work. In 1996, Film Comment magazine gushed: "Passionate about ideas, possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern lives, [Wong] transforms emotional freefall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences, willfully missed signals and capricious possibilities for romance. His tastes are internationalist, his pacings crafty and contagious, built on indelible hooks and lush visual designs that chart the collision of randomly orbiting souls in the neon bustle of urban life."

Really? That kind of guff certainly doesn't describe Happy Together. Says Wong: "It's very simple -- much more simple than my previous films. It's about two gay men who want to renew their relationship. So they go to the farthest place on the earth from Hong Kong, South America. A reunion begins."

Leung (left) and Cheung face the future
(Asiaweek Pictures)

The lovers are played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, two leading Hong Kong heartthrobs. "Leslie and Tony have a great chemistry together," says Wong. "But when I told them I wanted to focus on a love story between them, they both said 'You must be kidding!'" In the end, it was the imminent handover of Hong Kong to China that convinced them they should go ahead. Many in the territory's film industry worry about censorship under Chinese sovereignty. Says Wong: "We agreed that if we wanted to do something like this, we should do it now." But why Buenos Aires as a backdrop? "For the last two years, everyone [in the international press] has been asking me what I feel about 1997," he says. "Because everyone expected me to say something about 1997 in my next film, I decided to run away to a country I had never seen before."

Wong's next film will bring him a little closer to home. Beijing Summer, which he hopes to wrap by October, will be a love story set in Hong Kong and China. "It will be fun," he says. The movie will have the same cheesy spirit as a musical -- only none of the characters will sing. Before that, though, there is Cannes (May 7 to 18). "Festivals can be a kind of torture," says Wong. "There is so much pressure to bring home a prize." Of course, if he does, the pressure will only get greater.


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