Wong Kar Wai: The substance is in the style

Wong Kar Wai is the only Asian director who’s both moviemaker and style icon.

John Woo had his time in the sun with slo-mo bullet ballets, Mexican standoffs and cool shades; and Japan’s Takeshi Kitano was there for a moment with masochistic, deadpan ultraviolence. But Wong’s potent brews of color, music, costumes and metaphysics have assured him an entree into style magazines as well as film festivals, tapping into the Western love of retro-chic as much as into its fascination with Oriental exotica.

Though his blend of exoticism and nostalgie is so, so French, on the fest circuit Wong was actually championed in his early days by Berlin, Toronto, Locarno and Venice. The Gauls came late to the feast, at least in terms of festival kudos.

To its credit, Cannes’ Critics’ Week selected Wong’s first feature, the “Mean Streets”-like “As Tears Go By,” in 1989. But it was eight years before the Official Selection embraced him — for “Happy Together” (1997), which also won a best director gong.

In 2006, Wong became only the second Asian to head the main competition jury — even after stretching the fest’s patience and infrastructure to the limit with the late arrival of “2046” two years earlier — but the Palme d’Or has so far eluded the Croisette luvvy.

That could change this year, as Wong’s “My Blueberry Nights” not only opens the Cannes’ 60th bash but also competes.

More important, the U.S.-set road movie confirms what has always been the case: Hong Kong’s most famous arthouse export has never really been a typical “Hong Kong filmmaker” at all.

Wong was actually born in Shanghai, in July 1958, and moved with most of his family to the then-British colony at the age of 5. Raised speaking Mandarin and the (very different) Shanghainese dialect, he didn’t become fluent in Hong Kong’s dominant dialect, Cantonese, until his teens. As he once remembered, “(The Shanghainese) lived in their own neighborhood, with their own language, music, food, magazines and cinemas. They created a small Shanghai in Hong Kong.”

During the ’60s, Hong Kong still had a sturdy Mandarin-speaking film industry — largely created by immigrant artists from the mainland — alongside its more declasse Cantonese one. And the memories of that era, with popular Mandarin ballads as well as Latino music imported by Filipino workers during the ’50s, infuses many of his films, especially the more recent ones like “In the Mood for Love” and “2046.”

Most memorably, Wong translated this sense of growing up a stranger in a recognizable, but culturally foreign, landscape into “Happy Together,” centered on two male Chinese lovers in Argentina. Another of Wong’s road movies — characters in his films are perpetually in motion between various places — the pic isn’t about homosexuality at all, beyond being a further device to stress the characters’ isolation.

Wong’s cultural eclecticism (the use of “California Dreamin’ ” in “Chungking Express,” a Nat King Cole ballad in “2046” plus copious references to American cinema passim) has helped make his movies accessible to Western auds. But it’s also masked a deeply traditional Chinese side to his character that forms the other half of his double life.

Lauded overseas for his high-toned arthouse movies, Wong is equally known at home for his deep love of populist Chinese culture. He entered the industry during the ’80s cranking out commercial scripts and working for actor-producers like one-time matinee idol Alan Tang.

And with his longtime business partner in Jet Tone, writer-director Jeff Lau, he shares a love of Chinese swordplay literature that’s surfaced, on the arty side, in his own “Ashes of Time” and, at a gleefully trashy level, in Lau’s “The Eagle Shooting Heroes” (which Wong also co-directed, uncredited).

What’s missing in all of his films is a feel for native Hong Kong Cantonese culture one finds in the movies of, say, Johnnie To, and even the more adaptable (Vietnamese-born) Tsui Hark, (Thai-born) Peter Chan and (mainland-born) John Woo.

For almost a century, Hong Kong has been a melting pot of different Chinese cultures, but, for a typically proud, fleet-footed, eclectic Shanghaier like Wong, it’s merely a postal address for his own world of the imagination.

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