The people around the Wong Kar-Wai phenomenon
Wong Kar-Wai is often seen as the archetypal auteur, and it is very easy for viewers, especially critics, to divorce him entirely from the filmmaking and creative backdrop of Hong Kong, as if his creations are in a parallel universe which has exclusivity of labour, art and culture. But we must remember that WKW found his way through the very HK filmmaking circles which now form the mainstream which he so does not resemble. His divergent path from his fellow filmmakers is almost unique, and should be studied by reference to those very people whom he worked (and often still does work) with.
It takes more than one to tango...
Aside from fellow HK filmmakers, WKW of course works with cast and other crew members. I will attempt to summarise the most popular and perhaps those most influential on the films of WKW, as well as those whom I include more for trivial purposes. I can't say that I know which are the most 'important' people, so I will surely have missed many crew members out. This is due to a lack of research on my part.
The purpose of this article is merely to show the nature of how WKW’s films are made against the backdrop of a culture and an industry. Whilst the final creative control and choice is in the hands of the auteur, what makes the film is co-operation. I am also exploring the position of the ‘Wong Kar-Wai phenomenon’ in relation to the (filmmaking) culture of Hong Kong and how his films are perceived against such a backdrop.
(Please note, where I have included references to movie databases, there are probably mistakes in those sources, particularly the IMDB. Still, I am indebted to the Internet Movie Database and the Hong Kong Movie Database. Also, doing this task without being able to read Chinese means I would welcome any further info or corrections sent to my usual e-mail address.)
William Chang Suk-Ping
To begin with, we have one of two close collaborators (the other being Chris Doyle) who can barely be considered unsung heroes given that they are acknowledged as part of the core of WKW’s filmmaking team.
William Chang is regularly credited on the films of WKW as editor or production designer, but his creative input seems to transcend mere labels. He has worked with WKW on every film that WKW has directed. A fellow Shanghainese and contemporary in HK, his career covers production design, art design, editing and costume design, and he has worked extensively in just about every genre.
Like WKW, and many others who flourished in the 1990’s only after toiling in the 1980’s, his earlier output is extremely varied, whilst his later work has seen him nurturing and honing an identity: a very artistic crew member, often taking challenging and striking projects - from production design in Stanley Kwan’s homosexual tearjerker, Lan Yu (2001), to the costume design in Tsui Hark’s fiercely revisionist martial arts actioner, Blade (1995). Yet, earlier credits include work in films such as Jackie Chan’s Armour of God (1987); hardly a movie where the production design bears William Chang’s hallmarks.
And what are Chang’s hallmarks? It’s sometimes hard to divorce his and WKW’s input in their collaborations. This is especially true when his job titles imply artistic assistance, from all aspects of visual design right down to editing actual film. Chang’s consultation is apparent in an exchange noted by WKW regarding the (missing) love scene in In the Mood for Love (2000): ‘I cut the sex scene at the last moment. I suddenly felt I didn't want to see them having sex. And when I told William Chang, he said he felt the same but hadn't wanted to tell me!’ (From an interview between WKW and Tony Rayns, 19 June 2000 - printed in Sight & Sound, August 2000.)
This gives an insight into the collaborative nature of the post-production of WKW’s films. What is also apparent is Chang’s work on the design of the movies - sets, costumes, colour schemes - all part of the crucial mood which so informs WKW’s movies, and so the input of Chang should not be underestimated.
According to an article in Entertainment Design (1 Jan, 2001), Chang attended a Canadian film school, before moving to work in fashion. In HK, his mixture of technical film knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities would soon see him credited in many films as production designer or art director. Eventually, he met WKW and they worked together whilst WKW was still a writer before collaborating on the director’s debut, As Tears Go By (1988). Their collaboration still endures to this day. Speaking of their relationship, Chang says: ‘Kar-wai is like a tailor who lays out the cloth in front of him. He looks at it and figures out what is the best way to cut it. Although I do not have the script ahead of time, my job is concerned first with building the sets, understanding the emotional requirements of the scenes, and then creating the clothes for the characters.’
Since the rise of WKW’s films, Chang has managed to net high profile work where he has been able to further his aesthetic expression, especially in the costuming field where he originally gained experience. His costuming skills have featured in the films of Chen Kaige and Tsui Hark, amongst others, and beyond film he collaborated with the late Leslie Cheung for his extravagantly elegant concert outfits.
Chang has been a part of all of the films WKW has directed, and so he is an inseparable part of those movies. It is a situation which clearly works, and WKW doesn’t argue with such logic. On Chang’s role as his editor WKW says: ‘William's just very good at it - he studied film, and he has very good judgement. Most of the time, I say, I'll shoot the film, and you edit it. Why not?’
To say that WKW’s films are visual is like saying the oceans are wet, but that cliche summary of WKW’s output is telling, as it speaks of our reliance on relative values: all films are visual, so what is it that has made WKW’s films more visual than most? A shorthand answer, not entirely correct as it doesn’t take into account other factors, but still more correct than most other answers, is Chris Doyle.
According to information in an article by Tony Rayns (‘It’s All About Trust’ - Cinema Papers, August 1996), Doyle was born in Sydney, but has spent much of his life in a variety of professions (or, even more generally, ‘situations’) around the world. These include becoming a Norwegian Merchant Marine sailor at the age of 18, digging wells in the Indian desert, and being a self-proclaimed Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner.
At the University of Hong Kong, he took on the Chinese name of ‘Du Kefeng’, and then relocated to Taiwan, working in theatre, then photography and television documentaries. According to Doyle, just hanging around the coffee bars of Taipei brought him into contact with the likes of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who would soon form the vanguard of Taiwanese New Cinema. Against this backdrop, Doyle’s documentary work ingratiated him with the social concerns of Taiwan (particularly a Taiwan which was still trying to discover an identity behind Kuomintang dogma), and the simple act of ethnography was a cultural landmark.
His skills in cinematography brought him attention, and Edward Yang invited him to shoot That Day, on the Beach (1983). Afterwards, Doyle went to France to shoot Noir et Blanc (1986) for Claire Devers, but was unsatisfied by the experience, so he returned to Taiwan. With some recognition, other directors were interested in his work, and then he worked with WKW on Days of Being Wild (1990). ‘Days of Being Wild was a pivotal film for me, a real breakthrough.’ The film also established the triumvirate of WKW, Chang, and Doyle.
With WKW, Doyle found a director who would give him seemingly free rein over the flow of images being created, and they found mutual interests and terms of reference with the likes of music and literature. Most importantly, they were patient with the creation of the film, something that was often hard to appreciate for the unfortunate actors who had to put their careers on hold. The idea of a ‘jamming’ jazz improvisational approach to filmmaking is frequently referred to by both WKW and Doyle. WKW and Doyle say they rarely have to explain what is wanted - their relationship is trusting, almost intuitive. This is best understood when Doyle talks about how he knows what WKW wants, and what he knows of films in progress: ‘I don't even bother with it any more. I assume the film is going to be about time and space and identity and isolation. And probably it's going to be in the spaces he says it'll be in - probably...’ (Hong Kong Babylon, Frederic Dannen.)
After Ashes of Time (1994), and Chungking Express (1994) recognition for Doyle was assured. In fairness, parts of the first story in Chungking were shot by Andrew Lau, although this was partially due to Doyle’s unavailability. But the nexus between filmmakers and art was simply sublime - leading to many New Wave comparisons. Such referencing to Western auteurs - ‘standards’ of a cinema seen as a polar opposite to HK - has only furthered Doyle’s profile, as he is the ‘Westerner’ in the crew who is often asked about how such an apparently hybrid creation like Chungking could come about. Growing international focus due to the popularity of Chungking as an international ‘cult’ hit led to many interviews where the persona of the hard-drinking, grizzled ex-pat veteran was nurtured. It is now almost a common occurence to read about a dishevelled or drunk Doyle turning up at talks and seminars, mixing frankly bizarre behaviour with the odd nugget of truly lived-through filmmaking wisdom.
Doyle’s profile acts almost as a conduit between the western cognoscenti of ‘art’ films and the vanguard of HK cinema. The image of WKW - poker-faced and cryptic, complete with omnipresent shades - is minimalist and hard for critics to fathom. But Doyle’s musings appear regularly in specialist film publications, often with shooting diaries and other anecdotal gems for a hungry public of fans eager to know more of what goes on in the making of a WKW film.
Doyle’s output has included work with Chinese director Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon (1996)), and work in Korea (Motel Cactus (1997)), but it has been his films with WKW which still attracts the most feverish attention. WKW’s usage of Doyle’s photography is legendary not just in the results, but also the excesses of process - WKW ends up using only a small percentage of what is shot - with much undoubtedly great cinematography ending up on the cutting room floor. Yet Doyle is prepared to work like this, and the trade-off is that, arguably, WKW allows him greater freedom than any other director.
Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together, only did more to cement Doyle’s position as one of the world’s most prized cinematographers, and it wasn’t long before he was approached by Gus Van Sant to shoot Hollywood’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Doyle has continually shown a willingness to try new experiences, breaking his own advice against directing (‘Don't talk to me about content. Of course I can understand the structure of a story, but I am much more interested in atmosphere and dynamics. That is why I should never direct...’), to make his directorial debut, Kujaku (San Tiao Ren/Away With Words (1999)).
Since Happy Together, WKW has tried to rely less on the status quo of his intuitive relationship with Doyle, and so In the Mood for Love was co-shot with Mark Li Ping-Bing, and 2046 co-credits Kwan Pun-Leung. Not working all the time with the glacial pace of WKW’s shooting schedules has allowed Doyle further experience of shooting in different cultures. He shot Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American (both 2002) for Philip Noyce, as well as Zhang Yimou’s big-budget wu xia pot-boiler, Hero (2002), whilst finding time in the same year to be credited as ‘special visual consultant’ on Andrew Lau’s HK blockbuster, Infernal Affairs, and then shooting Thai film, Last Life in the Universe in 2003. Doyle has clearly been busy, and his profile is sure to be even greater before long. Let’s just hope that his collaborations with WKW - arguably where he has created his most memorably evocative photography - will continue and bear further fruit in the future.
Though it seems unfair to lump the stellar casts of WKW’s films into one category, this section is only a summary of some of those who have worked with WKW, and who they are against their cultural backdrops.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
What more can be said about the actor who has emerged as WKW’s most consistently excellent leading man? Leung first appeared in the mysterious coda to Days of Being Wild, designed to signal a sequel which would have had his garret-dwelling gambler as its central character. Such a sequel never materialised (at least not in the form envisaged), but Leung stayed on to work with WKW in Ashes of Time. He has since worked with WKW as a leading man in Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love (for which he was awarded a prize at Cannes).
Leung was originally an electrical appliance salesman before he turned his hand to acting with the HKTVB television channel - the channel regularly seeks out ‘new talent’ - and he entered showbusiness in much the same way as others before him as well as contemporaries like Stephen Chow and Chow Yun Fat. His television work attracted attention and pretty soon he moved into film. He has shown a willingness to work beyond the mainstream, for example by playing a role in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989) and Tran Anh Hung’s Vietnamese drama, Cyclo (1995). However, he also fits a central role in HK’s entertainment culture, with features such as action blockbusters Tokyo Raiders (2000) and Infernal Affairs keeping him in the limelight.
To WKW’s backers, Leung is solid box office. Many actors have faded in terms of their initially stellar screen appeal, but Leung is a consistent box office pull. Like many other HK stars, he is also an accomplished singer as well, but it is his deep, stoic acting persona which has really contributed to WKW’s movies.
Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing
Leslie Cheung’s character was the undoubted central pivot of WKW’s second feature as director, Days of Being Wild. This gives an indication of the legendary status the actor had in HK, his presence exuding pure screen appeal.
Born on 12 September, 1956, Cheung was the youngest of ten children, his father being a much sought-after tailor. With a fairly privileged upbringing, Cheung was able to attend university abroad, studying at Leeds University in the UK. Returning to HK, he sought fame by entering the 1976 ATV music contest. Pretty much at the inception of the Cantopop boom, his second placing allowed him to move into movies and television.
By the mid-1980’s he was on the silver screen regularly, one of his credits being in The Intellectual Trio (1985), a film co-penned by WKW in his pre-director days. However, it was in 1986/7 that his movie career went stratospheric with John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). By this time he had already established himself as one of the most successful pop stars in HK, and now the celebrity ‘legend’ of Leslie Cheung was born.
A perennial lead from the mid-1980’s onwards, Cheung cultivated the persona of an ultra-cool narcissist, a playboy, a pin-up who wasn’t simply eye-candy but a real cultural and individual presence. These qualities were brought to his films, some of his most notable successes being The Bride with White Hair (1993), and internationally recognised work with Chinese director Chen Kaige in Farewell My Concubine (1993), and Temptress Moon. It was with Farewell My Concubine that the androgyny of Cheung was developed into explicit issues of sexuality. With the complex interplay between the yellow press, audiences and the film industry, Cheung played on his sexual ambiguity with films such as Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994).
Cheung’s films with WKW were highpoints of his incredible career. After Days, Cheung was the lead in Ashes of Time, before starring in Happy Together, which added more to the public curiosity over his sexuality. However, his working relationship with WKW became strained as he tired of WKW’s time-consuming experimental methods, and he left the shoot of Happy Together vowing never to work with WKW again.
A temporary émigré in 1992 when Cheung moved to Canada, he decided to move back to HK to continue his career. However, after the handover in 1997 (marked by his appearance in Happy Together) his acting and music careers began to take a slump as the yellow press were arguably more interested in aspects of the private life of ‘Gor-Gor’ - or ‘elder brother’ - as he was then known in acknowledgement of his seniority against HK’s ruthlessly youth-based pop star culture.
Plagued by depression, Cheung’s final film, Inner Senses (2002) probes aspects of suicide and self-destruction - concepts alluded to in some of his other classic roles, such as Days of Being Wild’s Yuddy.
On 1 April, 2003, Cheung leapt to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in HK. WKW paid tribute to Cheung by saying that, despite their disagreements, he respected Cheung as he and Cheung were both ‘dreamers’.
Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk
After attending finishing school in the UK, Maggie Cheung returned to the land of her birth, HK, and started a career in modelling. A Miss Hong Kong runner-up in 1983, she was soon offered television and film roles. Many of her earliest film roles have been described as ‘flower vase’ roles in that she was merely used as a pretty adjunct to a male ‘hero’. The paradigm example was Jackie Chan’s Police Story (1985). However, it was that film which catapulted her into an enduring superstardom which has transcended cultures.
From then on, she began to explore more complex roles. Unlike many other HK stars, Cheung is not a singer, and so her film persona is her sole public identifier. When she first worked with WKW on As Tears Go By, it is fair to say that WKW did not make full use of her, but he made up for this by giving her a challenging role in Days of Being Wild. It was a breakthrough for her as she finally broke the mould of ‘decorative’ roles she had been given. Now she was finally a superstar for her acting.
That is not to say that she was outside of HK’s mainstream. Far from it, she appeared in two of Police Story’s sequels, and was very much a presence in HK popular cinema, from Dragon Inn (1992) to The Heroic Trio (1993). Against this, her brief appearance in Ashes of Time cemented, not only her acting ability, but also the magnitude of her screen presence.
Fluent in English, she has attracted international attention - Chinese Box (1997), Irma Vep (1996). In 1998, she married the French director of Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas whilst living in France, and although they have divorced she remains a French resident. In recent years she has worked on fewer HK films, although her performance in In the Mood for Love shows that her screen presence is stronger than ever, with her Cannes gong in 2004 for Clean showing how she is respected internationally.
Carina Lau Ka-Ling
One of the most popular stars in HK, Carina Lau is rarely out of the public eye. She was born on 8 December, 1964, in Suzhou, China. Settling in HK, she would become a television actress and find fame. Progressing on to movies, by the late-80’s she became one of the essential HK stars. Her long-term relationship with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai has filled column inches for years.
For notable movie appearances there are, of course, her roles in WKW’s films. In Days of Being Wild, and Ashes of Time she gave excellent performances displaying considerable range. Outside of WKW’s films she has been in everything from Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) to He’s a Woman, She’s a Man. An assured lead, her popularity means that she can be seen as the spokes-celebrity for Max-Factor beauty products, making her a byword for glamour.
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Jin Cheng-Wu)
Takeshi Kaneshiro is a native of Taiwan, of mixed Taiwanese-Japanese parentage. In the context of WKW’s films, Kaneshiro has starred in two: Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.
Born on 11 October 1973, Kaneshiro attended the Taipei American High School, before appearing in television commercial work. From there, Kaneshiro started a music career which made him a massively popular pin-up in the Chinese-speaking world, and it was inevitable that the film industry in HK would take notice.
What was surprising was that one of the pop star’s earliest films was Chungking Express. The result was massive success all over Asia. Though Kaneshiro is most popular as a pop star and movie actor, his celebrity career encompasses all regions, from product representation to television roles. His multilingual capabilities have stood him in good stead (he is a native speaker of Mandarin and Japanese) as he has found growing fame in Japan as well, appearing on television and in films, as well as, reputedly, a voice performance on video game, Onimusha: Warlords (2001).
Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia
It’s hard to over-estimate the cultural impact of Brigitte Lin on Chinese film industries. Famous for being the highest-paid and most sought-after actress in ‘Chinese Asia’, her talents have brought her to the very top of film’s halls of fame.
Born on 3 November 1954, Taiwanese Lin was ‘discovered’ as a teenager on the streets of Taiwan by a talent scout, and asked to attend a screen test. Success in the Taiwanese film industry soon ensued.
By the end of the 1970’s, she had conquered Taiwanese cinema. Moving to the HK film industry she was soon working with cutting edge directors like Tsui Hark on Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). Her appearances in Tsui Hark’s films, including Peking Opera Blues (1986), Swordsman II (1991) and Dragon Inn (1992), mark the quintessential image of Lin’s powerful, mysterious, often cross-dressing screen persona.
By the start of the 1990’s she was already a legend, and her box office appeal was at its peak. She was synonymous with the reinvigorated New Wave HK filmmaking style, particularly in the breathtaking re-imaginings of the wu xia genre, characterised by The Bride with White Hair.
Then, at the very peak of her powers, she made the shock announcement that she intended to quit the film industry. And that’s when she appeared in two WKW films - Ashes of Time and Chungking Express - fitting swansongs for an incredible career. She has since settled down to family life.
Faye Wong has appeared in two WKW films at the time of writing, Chungking Express and 2046 - with her scene-stealingly charismatic performance in Chungking Express quite enough to cement her position then as a superstar.
All over South-East Asia, Wong is known as a singer, and her fame over the region has reached enormous proportions, but with more longevity than most starlets. Her singing style is characterised by melodic vocals clearly influenced by western Indie-pop such as the Cranberries, the Sundays and the Cocteau Twins (at least it was in the mid-90's). Indeed, she has covered each of these artists, most notably with her Dreams cover in Chungking Express.
Despite attention for that film, she has stuck more to her music and has made very few movies despite being obvious box office appeal. However, as a measure of her fame when she does act it is usually with a top-notch cast (Okinawa Rendez-Vous (2000)). She also starred in semi-WKW-spoof lunar new-year comedy Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002) - a film produced by WKW, which is a measure of how her movie career has been defined by her Chungking appearance.
Andy Lau Tak-Wah
A short entry here for this long-standing superstar, by virtue of his appearance in two WKW films, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild. Andy Lau is known as a ‘King of Cantopop’ given his long-standing popularity as a balladeer. But his movie career is not auxiliary at all. In fact, like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Lau is solid in terms of longevity, skill and box office.
Lau is one of the most hardworking persons in the HK film industry, with over 100 films to his name, and he is also a successful businessman (many stars invest in businesses as fame is often too fickle) and he has his own production company, Teamwork, through which he released his own star vehicles Fulltime Killer (2001) and A Fighter’s Blues (2000) as well as showcasing new talent such as Fruit Chan (Made in Hong Kong (1997)). Lau has, quite frankly, been in almost everything. The success of Infernal Affairs shows that Lau is stronger than ever.
Jackie Cheung Hok-Yau
Jackie Cheung has appeared in three WKW-directed films to date - As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time - but has not been the out and out star in any of them. In many ways this is a shame as Cheung is one of the most flexible actors in HK.
Arguably an even greater ‘King of Cantopop’ than Andy Lau, Cheung was reputedly an employee of Cathay Pacific before finding fame in the late 1980’s. He made many films in the early 1990’s, but recently he has concentrated more on his music. However, this should not detract from his movie appearances which show great range and ability. Whilst clear recognition for his acting is sometimes elusive, especially as he often gives effective support rather than scene-stealing leads, this has been somewhat redressed by his contemplative and convincing turn in Ann Hui’s July Rhapsody (2002).
Chang Chen hit international multiplexes and mass fame with his role in Ang Lee's wu xia hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). At the time of writing, he has appeared in three WKW features so far: Happy Together, 2046, and WKW's segment of Eros (a film featuring a trio of shorts by WKW, Steven Soderbergh and Michaelangelo Antonioni).
Chang is the son of Taiwanese actor Zhang Guozhu, and he had his movie break when Edward Yang - who was a friend of his father - cast him in A Brighter Summer Day (1991) when he was 14. After national service, he appeared as a model in adverts and then began to approach acting seriously. When he was cast in Happy Together he was still fairly inexperienced in movie acting, but his career was heavily supplemented with adverts and modelling, his rock-ish yet easygoing looks being aimed at a youth market. Inevitably, he has dabbled in the art of pop, although it is really in the movie field where he has made his mark.
Crouching Tiger gave him an international audience, and he has returned to WKW to be challenged in meaty roles (as well as to look cool - starring in WKW's Six Days (2002) music video for DJ Shadow). With his appearance in two consecutive WKW features, and the growing praise of critics, his acting career is developing confidently.
This section details those who are less frequently mentioned next to WKW. Some are collaborators, some are industry people whom I include for the sake of background, some may have little connection to WKW, but I include them anyway for detail. Then there are those I include purely for the sake of trivia.
Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Andrew Lau (no relation to actor Andy Lau), is credited as the cinematographer on WKW’s directorial debut, As Tears Go By, but he is also credited for co-shooting Chungking Express (much of the first story) with Chris Doyle.
His cinematography skills - in the likes of As Tears Go By and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire - got him widespread recognition. When WKW first started directing, Lau found that though WKW was not steeped in technical lore, he knew what he wanted and would push the cinematographer until the film fitted his vision. With success and recognition, Lau was soon to start directing his own films.
However, looking at Lau’s directorial works, one would be hard-pressed to find any connection to WKW. Amongst interesting work such as To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui (1994), and Infernal Affairs (2002) we find shameless exploitation fluff like Raped By An Angel (1993) and the populist gratuitous hokum of the Young and Dangerous series (1996 onwards). To think that when Raped By An Angel was being made, WKW was stuck in the middle of his grand operatic masterpiece, Ashes of Time - could there be two more different directors?
Lau can be seen as a quintessentially HK director despite all his faults. Whilst many view his output as formed of drossy, soulless star parades like The Legend of Speed (1999) and A Man Called Hero (1999), to the industry he is a very safe pair of hands indeed, putting bums on seats. In fact, Lau seems to be, domestically, one of HK’s most successful directors during the ongoing Asian Financial Crisis - he certainly knows what audiences want to see. Added to this he also demonstrates a typically HK ability to adapt and be flexible - from the blockbuster action of Infernal Affairs to the gentle rom-com of Dance of a Dream (2001), Lau provides suitable direction, whilst masking more risky elements (genre play, the role of the artist) behind the entertainment.
On his cinematography, he has developed a professionalism which can sometimes be ignored as too polished. The look he provided in WKW’s films - a gritty, blurred reality stemming from the iconic undercranked action climaxes in As Tears Go By - would later become trademarks of 1990’s wu xia films like The Bride with White Hair, before being refined and seen as quintessential Chris Doyle. But now, Lau is pretty much accomplished in all styles of cinematography, arguably at the loss of individual style.
What is clear is that Lau can shoot great, and a good director can really use his skills. Added to this, Lau makes films which are, occasionally, damn good entertainment.
Jacky Pang Yi-Wah
Ms Jacky Pang is regularly credited in WKW’s films, variously as a planner, producer, associate producer, production supervisor and production manager. It is a little hard to find information about her background from the internet, but her connection with WKW’s Jet Tone production company seems quite apparent. Her titles vary depending on whether one uses the internet or film credits as sources, but she is credited on Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love, generally in production/planning roles.
Pang has also dabbled in the directorial art herself, apparently helming Rose Rose I Love You (1993), amongst others. Pang is also credited on other WKW-related films (Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002)), so she is clearly part of the ‘WKW’ filmic phenomenon. (Please note that I had previously referred to Ms Pang as a male - in error as it turns out - apologies to anyone who was mislead.)
Jeff Lau Chun-Wai
Jeff Lau is often called a ‘partner’ of WKW. His most visible output has been to direct several movies perceived to be WKW spoofs (notably, Eagle Shooting Heroes and Chinese Odyssey 2002) for Jet Tone with select WKW casts. These movies fit the HK comedy mould, with perhaps less coarseness than comparable Stephen Chow works, but they also show an understanding of WKW and his works borne out of Lau’s long-term association with him.
Lau has directed where WKW has written (The Haunted Copshop (1987)), and he has also collaborated with WKW in scriptwriting (The Haunted Copshop and Saviour of the Soul (1991)), and helped to produce (Fallen Angels), so it seems likely that the two have shared creative ideas and working methods with each other. With WKW’s status seen as auteur, post-Days of Being Wild, Lau continued prolific work as director, producer and writer on definitively HK films, especially comedies where HK in the 1990’s pre-dated Hollywood for gross-out and illogicality. A prime example would be Fist of Fury 1991 (1991), a film produced and written by Lau, starring popular comedian Stephen Chow, featuring a set piece involving a spitting fight.
Lau’s work with Jet Tone has given the company valuable box office returns, yet Lau has also managed to form a useful contrast to WKW’s perceived ‘arthouse’ cinema, whilst still probing some of the same concepts as WKW. Take Chinese Odyssey 2002, for example, where the Chinese title (Mandarin: Tian Xia Wu Shuang) refers to the concept of one, singular, perfect lover beneath the heavens - the person one needs for fulfilment and harmony. This concept has been referred to in several WKW films, notably Ashes of Time with the references to lifetime commitment (‘one soul, one lifetime’): the person who waits for you (or doesn’t). Of course, WKW also plays with the unfeasibility of such a concept in a world of always shifting, temporary possibilities (Chungking Express), but the romantic in WKW and Lau knows that the idea of a perfect union in a world of billions of disparate souls enthrals and captivates. The difference? Lau’s lunar new year film demands the happy ending, but WKW’s films realise that ‘everything changes’ - unions are perfect only in their impermanence.
Of course, Lau has to work with the mainstream framework, so one can’t really expect him to take on the full mantle of WKW’s philosophising. Taking this into account, Lau’s perception of WKW is telling, and in many respects deeper than the work of those directors who copy WKW’s technique in the hope that the feel of his films will be transferred as well. Also, it pays to know that Lau is a filmmaker who can comfortably work in HK’s mainstream, so he doesn’t have to spoof WKW, but does so perhaps out of endearment for his friend’s work.
Patrick Tam Kar-Ming
Patrick Tam is often mentioned as giving WKW his big break which led to his directorial debut, As Tears Go By. As the legend goes, prior to directing movies WKW crafted a trilogy of scripts based on the gangster genre, and Tam went ahead and shot the last story of the trilogy, Final Victory (1987), to positive critical reception.
From here, WKW was inspired to direct one of the scripts himself, and it was with Tam’s reported support that WKW was able to direct As Tears Go By, based on the first story of the trilogy. With the support of an established director, WKW was able to use fairly big stars in the production, and the result was massive success.
Tam’s own filmography bridges the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, and he has also been involved in ancillary roles close to WKW’s films, such as co-editing in Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time. Apparently, since 1996 he has worked in scriptwriting in Malaysia (although I’m unsure if this is still the case).
Frankie Chan Fan-Kei and Roel A. Garcia
No mention of WKW’s films would be complete without credit being given to his use of music. Whilst WKW frequently chooses completed compositions to be included in his films, from as diverse a range as previous movie soundtracks, opera, pop songs and Latin dance, he also calls on the services of musicians to create original compositions for his films.
Two names which appear again and again (which is why they are quoted together here) are those of Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia.
Frankie Chan’s name appears regularly from the 1970’s onwards in HK cinema. Initially scoring films, he took a break from film music in the 1980’s to do pretty much everything else: writing, directing, producing, acting. One notable performance is as the villain in the Yuen Baio vehicle, The Prodigal Son (1982) - a role which involved considerable martial arts from Chan. He also scored that film with (tellingly for the era) an extremely cheesy organ/disco/cha-cha vibe. Thankfully, when his name reappeared on film music credits in 1994 with Chungking Express and Ashes of Time, the results were not just more palatable, but sublime. Chungking’s neo saxophone and Ashes of Time’s Morricone-esque variations perfectly compliment the dreamlike and lush visuals.
Perhaps one reason for the turnaround of Chan’s musical style is his colleague, Roel A. Garcia, who is noted as a score composer since the late 1980’s. He does not have many films to his name, although he worked on films either directed by or produced by Frankie Chan (or starring Chan as well, as in the epic A Warrior’s Tragedy (1993)), so that is probably where they exchanged ideas. Their work with WKW, from Chungking to Fallen Angels, is of crucial importance to the startling aesthetic effect of those films.
Eric Kot Man-Fai
As a director who can be said to have ‘spoofed’ WKW, Eric Kot is not unique. However, as the film (First Love: The Litter on the Breeze (1997)) was produced by WKW himself, and made for WKW’s Jet Tone production company, complete with the camerawork of Chris Doyle, Kot is in esteemed company indeed.
To put things into context, Kot is known in HK primarily as a comic actor rather than a WKW wannabe. He has appeared in dozens of movies, and it is in the comedy field where his face finds its forte, mugging, grinning, generally goofing around in the unabashed extremes of HK comedy. By comparison, he has merely dabbled as a director, with only three films to his name so far.
To re-emphasise the comic persona of Kot, and how this dispels practically any of the pretensions of grandeur associated with those who have ‘done’ WKW’s style, one only has to look at Lawyer, Lawyer (1997). This film, where Kot stars alongside fellow comedian Stephen Chow (another byword for extremely broad humour), features - amongst other inexplicable delights - our man Kot having a chicken leg inserted into his anus. Not quite the paragon of subtlety and sophistication.
Nevertheless, behind the camera Kot has turned his anarchic joviality to challenging filmic norms, and First Love is seen by many as a successful capturing of WKW’s style, without the dirge-like atmosphere of many other imitators.
The name of Chan Ye-Cheng appears regularly in WKW’s body of work. The role he occupies is that of producer, or executive producer, in many of WKW’s films. Being an executive producer on a WKW film can be a somewhat risky proposition, especially given WKW's admission that he sees himself as a 'not very successful commercial movie director'. Films like Ashes of Time required several backers, and in Happy Together it was reported that WKW had to give a guarantee not to overspend (or, in any case, to do so on his own funds). The headache of working with WKW, organising the finances and the 'materials' (i.e. actors and crew) within a commercial framework where the end result is to get some kind of return, is surely a skill which must be acknowledged. Hats off to Chang Ye-Cheng, or anyone else who has had protracted experience of marrying shrewd business sense with WKW's idiosyncratic methods.
Wong Chi-Ming is a crew member in many of WKW’s films. Note that there is another Wong Chi-Ming (‘Ringo’) in the HK film industry who is (as far as I know) completely unrelated, mainly dealing with martial arts choreography from the 1970’s onwards.
Our Wong Chi-Ming is, mainly, a gaffer. Chris Doyle has commented how his assistants and technicians are an important part of the team as ‘good assistants save your ass’, and so Wong’s input is already important.
However, the reason Wong is included here is because he has been in WKW’s films in other ways too. As an actor, he is reputed to be the argumentative store clerk who gives Takeshi out-of-date canned pineapples in Chungking Express. Also, the name ‘Wong Chi-Ming’ crops up in Fallen Angels as the name of Leon Lai’s character. WKW’s play with names, here and elsewhere, highlights a looseness of method (either real or, arguably, affected) which flies in the face of rigid artistic responsibilities or totemic ideas of ‘meanings’. Other examples of put-upon crew members finding themselves with WKW character namesakes include Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai, both crew members on Happy Together (one an assistant editor and one a camera operator, if I recall correctly). Liu Yiu-Fai is now credited as co-cinematographer on several major HK films.
The distinctive bald-headed man who plays Takeshi’s father in Fallen Angels, Chan Man-Lei formed an understated emotional crux to that film despite being a non-actor.
Since then, he has appeared sporadically in supporting roles, or as a cameo/extra. He can be seen in the Tony Leung, Sammi Cheng romance, Fighting for Love (2001), as well as ‘post-Asian Financial Crisis’ comedy, Frugal Game (2002). He was also Mr Koo (I believe) in In the Mood for Love (2000).