Wong Kar-Wai's Process

Wong Kar-Wai, mentioned in our previous post and priorly, is a meditative filmmaker. His films push the limits of conventional narrative structure, often focusing more on the moods, gestures, and glances of his characters rather than traditional arcs and plot developments.

A still from ‘In the Mood for Love.’ Image via BBC.

A still from ‘In the Mood for Love.’ Image via BBC.

In a recent interview with Filmmaker, the director gave a rare glimpse into his process.

Wong Kar-Wai’s notes, that as a child, “cinema was a dream, an escape, something you wanted to explore.” He started his apprenticeshipin the craft a as a screenwriter in the late 1980s. While he valued learning the narrative form, he wanted to let the particularities of the film medium dictate the material. As he explains,

Image via Tiny Couch Review.

Image via Tiny Couch Review.

“Yes, [I used to be a screenwriter]! That’s why I hate it! The reason I write is because I want to make films. When I was a writer, I always wanted to make sure the script reflected the way I wanted to see the film. That means you have to start figuring out how the film looks like before you start writing. Most writers don’t need to have this picture [or] go through this experience, but for me, I have to start making the films before I start writing. When you look at my script, you can basically tell what the film will look like. That’s why it takes so long.”

Wong Kar-Wai is known for coming up with ideas on set and giving his crew a very loose structure to work from. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some days he may not even shoot, if he’s not feeling that the environment is producing the right kind of ideas or inspiration.

I initially thought this process came from confidence derived from the success of his previous work. While I’m sure Wong Kar-Wai has confidence, I now realize that this approach is rather from a place of deference to the medium of cinema.

Wong Kar-Wai wants to use the singularities of the visual cinematic experience to best showcase his thematic undertones. The image is the primary driver. If things aren’t lining up to create that magic moment, then he passes.

This respect extends to the power of acting, where the absence of written instruction may bring about a higher level of artistic expression. On actors and scripts:

““If they know the script, which is the normal situation, they can prepare, but it doesn’t mean it will be good for some of them. At a certain point, going without any preparations can bring you something amazing.”

Wong Kar-Wai’s films explore the cultural shifts and rich dynamics of late 20th century (and modern) China with subtext, nuance, and expressionistic elements. The films’ brilliance lies in their ability to be both of the place and of the world. Barry Jenkins captures this in an conversation with the Criterion Collection:

By finding coming to know the characters through their idiosyncrasies, a viewer—such as myself, who has never been to Hong Kong—comes to know the place. Combined with emphasis on local locations and capturing the setting’s culture pulse, the audience experiences a sense of immersion into Wong’s world and leaves with a more whole understanding of Wong’s themes—an experience that could perhaps only be duplicated or surpassed by a trip to China, definitely not by reading a textbook.

The Filmmaker interview is probably the most I’ve ever seen Wong explain his process, albeit the interview is still brief. In true Wong Kar-Wai fashion, in so few words he nudges us just enough to understand the true intent and brilliance of his filmmaking. It is cinema, at its finest and most true.