Two years ago, I was in Cannes covering the film festival when my phone rang. I was surprised to hear the voice of Wong Kar Wai, whom I hadn’t spoken to since his last visit to Los Angeles in 2013 promoting his film The Grandmaster. He was calling from Hong Kong, he said, and wanted to ask me a question. He was thinking of putting together a book on his career with Rizzoli, but he needed the proper person to write it. Who would I recommend?
Knowing Wong’s gift for indirection, I wondered if he was asking me. Taking the plunge, I offered to do it, and he instantly agreed. “We have known each other,” he said, “a long time.”
This was true. We’d first met at a dinner thrown by Quentin Tarantino to celebrate the distribution of Wong’s 1994 romantic comedy Chungking Express, which did for Hong Kong what the Nouvelle Vague did for Paris. I spent the evening across from Wong, who was then a formidably hip young man who, for some reason, wore sunglasses indoors at night. I didn’t yet realize that these shades were an artistic trademark: When Wong puts them on, he’s on duty as WKW, Director.
We spent most of the dinner joshing, talking movies, and trying to hide our bored amusement at Tarantino’s boundless capacity for Quentining on—yakkety, yak, yak, yak. When the meal ended, Wong said to one of his colleagues, “Doesn’t he,” meaning me, “look just like a white Patrick Tam?”—a well-known Hong Kong director whose work I knew but whose face I didn’t. (For the record, I actually do look a bit like Tam.)
Now, Wong is a man who likes familiarity, and my resemblance to his onetime collaborator somehow made me stand out to him. A few months later at a film festival, I heard a voice call, “Patrick Tam.” Wong and I went off to have a drink, and ever since, we’ve been what I’d describe as friendly acquaintances.
Every couple of years—in Hong Kong or Busan, Beverly Hills or Toronto—we’d go to dinner and spend a few hours chatting about everything from Martin Scorsese to Chinese celebrity gossip to the shockingly early closing hours of L.A. restaurants, which offend Wong’s night-owl sensibilities. Along the way, he began taking off his sunglasses.
If he had a new film, he would always ask what I thought of it, and I’d honestly say what I thought. I vividly remember being in Cannes and naming all the flaws I’d found in his unhappy gay love story Happy Together—the editing was too fast, the style overshadowed the actors, et cetera. I remember, even more vividly, how calm and un-defensive he was listening to my criticisms. What made his equanimity all the more remarkable was that my complaints were utterly misguided. The film won him Best Director at Cannes, and when I saw the film again back in the U.S., I wondered what movie I thought I’d been seeing.
Our distant comradeship went on for 20 years, all of them blessedly unconstrained by the inhibiting, red-eyed presence of a tape recorder. We never did a proper interview, much less anything so large as a book.
But now we were planning a volume, WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai, that didn’t merely sound dauntingly definitive but had to be done quickly, to boot. Our goal was to finish it in time to release it for the May 4, 2015 opening of the Met’s huge “China: Through the Looking Glass” show, for which Wong was serving as artistic director. This meant we had to race against the clock. This gave us … months.
The clock ticking, I flew to Hong Kong in August 2014 to start interviewing him. I had failed to reckon with one thing: Wong is the Usain Bolt of delay. His films are notorious for their seemingly endless shooting schedules and their constantly postponed release dates. Wong himself freely admits that he finds it hard to get cracking on a project until he feels under the gun. Only then can he truly concentrate; only then will his best self emerge. Until that point, well … We spent my first two days in town hanging around his company, Jet Tone, whose Causeway Bay offices were in the process of being dismantled. Wong’s own office was still pretty much intact, with its library shelves crammed with Chinese and English books of all kinds—he’s a voracious reader—and its huge cupboards fastidiously layered with scripts for projects both made and unmade.
As ever, Wong was excellent company—friendly, solicitous, good-humored. He’s one of those hyper-observant people who has the quality of seeming to be in on some secret that you’d like to know. We’d vaguely discuss what should be in the book, then head up Tung Lo Wan Road for lunch at Classified, a Western restaurant he likes and that offered the good coffee I craved. I’d drink it, fretting that we weren’t getting any actual work done. When I’d suggest we do an interview, he would smile and say, “Later.”
But Wong has his methods, and on the third day, we hopped into a car with his wife, Esther, and he began showing me his world.
We started at Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Wong grew up here when it was a bustling melting pot, filled with arrivals from Shanghai (like his parents), movie stars, writers, ladies of the night, tailors, kung fu masters, Indian shopkeepers, and Filipino musicians. These days it’s home to gentrified nightlife, and Wong’s old address, #2, now belongs to an Italian restaurant named Papa Razzi, an unconsciously ironic nod to the world-famous filmmaker who once lived there. Still, for him, it’s a place buzzing with the Fellini-esque memories that have shaped nearly all his films. His eyes light up when he talks about them.
From there, we moved to the Chungking Mansions, the teeming, multistoried, multicultural bazaar immortalized in Chungking Express. Over samosas from a hole-in-the-wall shop, he told me that his father—who is usually described as a sailor—had managed the biggest nightclub in Hong Kong in that very building. And from there he led me across the way to check out the basement café where he’d written most of his early scripts. But to his chagrin, it, like so much of the Hong Kong he loved, was gone—replaced by a cut-rate jewelry outlet.
We wound up having dinner at the Café de Goldfinch, a venerable restaurant stronger on ambience than food, where he shot part of his most beloved film, In the Mood for Love, and later a brilliant scene with Zhang Ziyi in 2046. Wong had hoped to order me one of its specialties: borscht with shark’s fin, a dish that mingled (or is that mangled?) white Russian and Chinese cuisines. To my vast relief, they had run out.
I pulled out my tape recorder, and when Wong again demurred (“later”), I wound up talking to Esther, who’d never done an interview before. Although Wong is famous for his stories of romantic disappointment, he and Esther have been together since they first met selling jeans as teenagers nearly four decades ago. Intensely loyal to her, he worries that, in making his films, he had spent too much time away from both her and their son, Qing, a Berkeley student whose privacy Wong guards so fiercely he won’t do big public events in the Bay Area.
It wasn’t until the night of my last day in Hong Kong that we finally did an interview. He and I sat down over drinks at Juliette’s, a wine bar near his office where he and his cohort like to hang out at the corner table. I asked about his first movie, As Tears Go By, and he began talking about Hong Kong, gangster movies, and working with Chinese superstars like Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung. We went on recording until we were both talked out. Although Wong is as cautious in his life as he is daring in his art, he spoke about things he’d never talked about before. If we’d been doing a magazine article, it would’ve been enough. As it was, we still had 10 movies to talk about, not to mention much of his life. How could we possibly get all this done?
As I flew home to L.A., I was experiencing what I’d long heard about working on one of Wong’s long-gestating films: You spend your time waiting and waiting, dependent on his decisions, wondering if there’s any end in sight.
I returned to Hong Kong in late October, staying at a hotel near Wong’s new offices in Cyberport, a futuristic complex off Telegraph Bay remarkable for its high-tech soullessness and iffy Wi-Fi. This time Wong also heard the ticking clock, and he concentrated splendidly, doing 30 hours of interviews on everything—his childhood, his family’s history in China, the calamitous opening night of his dazzling film Days of Being Wild, when after the screening nobody would talk to him.
Along the way, he had me eat that Cantonese specialty pig lung soup—Wong relishes testing my foodist claims of liking authentic Chinese food—and arranged interviews with his jaunty female producer, Jacky Pang, and his most important collaborator, William Chang Suk-ping, a flat-out genius who does the production design, costumes, and hair and makeup for Wong’s films, as well as editing them.
Flying back home this time, I thought it possible that we would actually make our deadline. This only goes to show how foolish I am. When I called the Jet Tone offices on D-Day, December 10, to learn if Wong and his people had turned in all the finished text, his unofficial “little brother,” Norman Wang, told me that there was a small problem.
“Kar Wai isn’t sure why he’s doing the book.”
Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was flabbergasted.
“Shouldn’t he have thought about that before we started?”
Norman laughed. “Don’t worry. He does this with his films, too. It’s part of how he works.”
There could be no arguing with that—especially when the book was about Wong, not me. Besides, how can you take it personally when a legendary procrastinator is running late on a project that you entered knowing full well that legend? We pushed back the release date indefinitely, and I began to wonder if it might never get done. After all, Wong is a man whose mind is forever teeming with endless possibilities. He re-edited—and rereleased—his martial arts film Ashes of Time more than a decade after its original 1994 release.
As with his films, Wong began tinkering and tinkering with the text of his interview, periodically sending me his latest revisions to make sure they flowed properly. From time to time, I’d restore a juicy tidbit that his Chinese reticence led him to cut and that my crass American garrulity couldn’t imagine losing; sometimes he’d take it out again, telling me that a line I found interesting could cause someone big problems in China.
He was still tinkering six months later, in early May 2015, when we met up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I spent the evening following him and William Chang as they fussed over every last detail of the blockbuster show “China: Through the Looking Glass.” They went around adjusting screen projections ever so slightly, shifting display lighting by an eighth of an inch, micromanaging the decibel levels of the different music in each room. Watching this in action, I understood better how it would have been impossible for Wong to have let our book go out on the original schedule. There’s always room for perfection.
Eventually, Wong did declare himself finished, if not completely satisfied, with WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai. As Norman had predicted, he even found a satisfactory reason for telling the world things he’d never talked about publicly before: He wanted his son to understand his life and what he’d been up to all those years.
As for me, when I first agreed to work on WKW, a dear friend who admires Wong quipped, “I hope you don’t wind up hating him.” She wasn’t being cynical. She was reminding me that it’s axiomatic that when critics get close to filmmakers, especially major ones, they all too often wind up disillusioned—or worse.
I’m happy to say that didn’t happen. The last time I saw Wong Kar Wai was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where he’d come to discuss some American TV and movie projects he’s been working on. With the book in the rearview mirror and the recorder’s red light off, we had a relaxed time. He asked about Scorsese (when was Silence coming out?), I asked about the great actress Zhang Ziyi with whom I’d once gone to the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, and we agreed that the next time he was in town we should maybe have dinner in Koreatown. Like Hong Kong, places there stay open until all hours of the morning.