How Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's movies shaped 1990s cinema

Dan Norman October 25, 2020
Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

In this series we look at the past 100 years of cinema as seen through ten of the industry’s most fruitful actor/director partnerships. Today, we examine how Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s movies shaped 1990s cinema.

A film set is a busy place and every movie relies on the efforts of many different people. On top of that, every time you begin work on a film you’re entering a new workplace. In those conditions, a familiar face can be a welcome sight.

Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons film-makers might reunite. There could be a mutual recognition they bring the best out of one another. It might make sense for the biggest action director to keep working with the biggest action star. It may be an order from the studio, believing the pairing is what the public wants to see.

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Film history is littered with director-actor pairings that were more than the sum of their parts. It’s impossible to decide on the best but, in this series, we’ve decided to pick a pair for each of the past ten decades.

Each duo made at least three films together in that time, although some collaborations lasted longer. Put together, they tell a story of cinema during the past 100 years.

Today, we see out the 20th century with an actor and director who used their blend of style and substance to explore their changing homeland. Here is the lasting influence of Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s films on 1990s cinema.

Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s best movies of the 1990s

Films made: Days Of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Ashes Of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997)

In the 1990s, Tony Leung and Wong Kar-Wai built a reputation for being the epitome of on-screen cool. In Leung, Wong found the perfect romantic hero for his dreamy, nocturnal visions.

Classically handsome and sophisticated, charming with the appearance of someone eternally lost and a little bit sad, Leung is the embodiment of Wong’s film-making style.

Whether as the tragic, doomed, Blind Swordsman in Ashes Of Time, the heartbroken Yiu-Fai stood alone at the Iguazu Falls in Happy Together or the policeman getting over a break-up in Chungking Express, Wong never missed an opportunity to catch Leung looking downcast.

Wong – and his erstwhile director of photography Christopher Doyle – have a number of extremely recognisable visual tics. Diners, bleary neon, smoke and slow-motion appear again and again in his films.

Leung, who exudes stoicism and sincerity whenever he’s on screen, is priceless in preventing it all lapsing into self-parody.

Wong and Leung were at the forefront of the new wave in Hong Kong cinema at a time when the territory was undergoing questions of national identity – 1997 marked the handover of Hong Kong by Britain to China.

Although the topic is rarely addressed directly in Wong’s films, these questions always linger in the background. Eastern and Western influences both naturally infiltrate their environments, particularly through food and music.

The films present a lot of binaries – two paths, two characters, two storylines. Nowhere is this clearer than in Chungking Express, which divides itself into two halves and encourages its audience to see pairs everywhere.

This is usually expressed most clearly through a choice in the characters’ romantic lives. Leung’s characters often find themselves at the centre of these crossroads, caught between two options. Stay or go. Mope or move on. Pursue or leave.

Wong and Leung know the power of the choice. Every film has Leung deciding to go a different way – but in each case the audience feels the effect.

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A screenwriter and sometimes a writer of other things, living in York.