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2046 (#110 of 5)

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

In trying to whip up a Top 10 for this alternative Sight & Sound poll, I decided from the beginning to try to forgo any extra-cinematic considerations and simply go with 10 films that mean a great deal to me personally. There’s an implicit canon-building aspect to this particular exercise, and surely some would feel a need to take into account not only previous Sight & Sound poll-toppers (Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, , etc.), but also such things as historical importance in coming up with a list for posterity. But where’s the fun in that? Besides, screw posterity: I’m totally willing to admit, at the outset, the possibility that any of my favorite 10 below may decline in estimation over time, to be replaced by another film entirely that I may begin to appreciate more as I grow older. For now, though, these are 10 films that I could not part with in my life.

The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai
The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

Jason Bellamy: “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” That’s a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong’s films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he’s developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong’s filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he’s using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he’s referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he’s approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop’s mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn’t everything, it’s a lot of it.

That theme pops up again and again in Wong’s films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong’s In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, “They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it.” While that’s particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong’s lead characters. In this conversation we’re going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we’ll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I’d like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong’s body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?

Lust, Caution: Wong Kar-wai, Where Are You?

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<em>Lust, Caution</em>: Wong Kar-wai, Where Are You?
<em>Lust, Caution</em>: Wong Kar-wai, Where Are You?

Watching Tony Leung Chiu Wai under the direction of Ang Lee in Lust, Caution is like seeing De Niro minus Scorsese or Klaus Kinski without his Herzog. Something’s simply missing in the midst of all that talent (regardless of how many NC-17 rated body parts are in full view). It certainly doesn’t help that the calculating Lee will never reach the heights of the visionary Wong Kar-wai, Leung’s most significant director. I was rooting for Lee through every tilt and pan, but I was also thinking, “What would Wong do?”

Lust, Caution, a story within a story set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of WWII, centers on a young, revolutionary theater actress named Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) who transforms herself into the worldly “Mrs. Mak” in order to seduce and assassinate a high-level, Japanese collaborator named Mr. Yee (Leung). The crux of the film is that Lee’s actors are playing characters playing society’s cruelly imposed roles. The innocent schoolgirl morphs into the cool vamp. The Chinese bureaucrat has become a Japanese yes-man. This same role-playing territory is tread in 2046, Wong’s sci-fi masterpiece, a sort of 2001: A Space Odyssey of the soul starring Wong’s muse, Leung, with several actors taking on more than one character in different storylines.

Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels

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Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s <em>Fallen Angels</em>
Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s <em>Fallen Angels</em>

A kaleidoscope of alienation and longing, Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 film Fallen Angels remains one of Wong’s least discussed and least appreciated films. Of course, compared to the sheer beauty and maturity of his latest work—his intimate In the Mood for Love (2000); his majestic 2046 (2004); even “The Hand” (2004), his relatively brief yet masterful contribution to the omnibus film Eros—-earlier films like this one and Chungking Express (1994) come off as energetic though show-offy stylistic exercises.

But Fallen Angels is no mere exercise. In some ways, it is almost as important a film in Wong’s oeuvre as Happy Together (1997). If Happy Together represented a stepping stone, an emotional deepening of Wong’s usual themes of love, loss and desire, Fallen Angels represents both a look back and a look forward for one of cinema’s most important current directors.

Wong’s first feature film was a gangster flick titled As Tears Go By (1988), a Mean Streets ripoff that seemed to take its emotional cues from the popular Hong Kong action films of the time (such as John Woo’s 1986 gangster melodrama A Better Tomorrow). Tears may have been derivative and at times even dated and cheesy (on hearing the film’s Cantopop rendition of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” a friend said, “And I thought the original was bad enough!”), but it had an operatic power, and more importantly, it laid out some of Wong’s stylistic signatures, including exaggerated neon-tinted lighting, the use of pop music to underscore moods, and pixillated slow-motion action scenes.

Just Beautiful

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Just Beautiful
Just Beautiful

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.