LYON The Lumière Festival honored Wong Kar-wai with the Lumière Award on Friday following a wide-ranging discussion between the Chinese filmmaker and the festival director Thierry Frémaux about his life and career.
Asked about his early influences during the master class, held in front of a packed house at the majestic Théâtre des Célestins ahead of the evening’s award ceremony, Wong said he moved with his family from Shanghai to Hong Kong as a child in 1962 before the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Since the family had no friends or relatives in Hong Kong and did not speak Cantonese, Wong regularly went to the movies with his mother.
“It’s all because of my mother. My mother is a big film buff – she enjoyed watching movies. The fact that we didn’t have any friends and relatives in this new city, the only thing she liked to do was take me to the cinema. We spent almost every day watching films – French films, Hollywood films, Italian films, films from Taiwan and local productions. This was sort of my film school, my education.”
One time his father took him to see a “romantic love story,” only to get scolded afterwards by his wife and others for bringing a child to a Federico Fellini movie.
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In those days, kids didn’t have many choices, Wong explained. “Radio and film were my basic hobbies.” After years of watching films day after day, Wong realized film was what he wanted to do “and at a certain point you feel, well, maybe I can do it better.”
In addition to importing a lot of films, Hong Kong was in the 1960s also the center of entertainment for all the Chinese regions, including Mandarin-language films for the lucrative export market and Cantonese opera films for the local audience, with kung fu movies coming later.
“Hong Kong was good at producing genre because they needed the market,” Wong said. “The local market didn’t support the productions. Most of the revenue came from the overseas market. The starting point for young filmmakers was always a genre film. That never bothered me. …The genre is basically a means. This is how I started working.”
Everything changed with the arrival of Bruce Lee, however. After returning to his native Hong Kong from is Hollywood stint as Kato in “The Green Hornet,” Lee introduced a new concept: “He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s also very charming, and he’s fearless.” Prior to Lee, Hong Kong kung fu movies centered on more mature stars and older characters who were more like teachers and who liked to lecture, Wong explained.
Due to his work in the U.S., Lee also had international appeal. “Overnight he becomes the biggest star in Hong Kong and around Asia and finally in the United States. No one was bigger than Bruce Lee before. … Bruce Lee was very unique. He came at the right time and with the right talents.”
It was, however, a wave of young filmmakers in the late 1970s who had studied in Europe and the U.S. that transformed Hong Kong cinema, Wong explained. Prior to that, big studios like Shaw Brothers had primarily shot their films in studios, but these young filmmakers embraced documentary techniques and took their cameras out onto the streets “to capture real aspects of the city and new storytelling.”
The massive success of John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” in 1986 triggered huge demand for gangster films, leading to Wong’s big break, 1988’s “As Tears Go By.”
“Instead of telling a story of two heroes, we are telling the story of losers who are trying to be heroes.”
Wong added, “I’ve been very, very lucky because at the time the industry was beginning its so-called golden age of Hong Kong filmmaking. There was a lot of money around, there was a lot of opportunity and people were encouraged to do something different, something interesting,” Wong explained, adding, “Even Chris Doyle came to Hong Kong.”
“And I never left,” Wong’s longtime cinematographer yelled from the audience. Doyle went on to praise the interpreter sitting on stage next to Wong: “I’ve never heard a more beautiful translation of his bulls***.”
Standing up later to answer a question about the challenges faced by actors working on Wong’s films, often with constantly changing scripts, Doyle paid tribute to the cast members who had regularly worked with the filmmaker, among them Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung.
“Our Maggies, and our Tonys and our Leslies, they don’t give a s***,” Doyle said. “They are there for us. It’s the most astonishing, beautiful thing. … I think it’s a different attitude – it’s changing in China, by the way, it’s changing very much. But in our films, people we’ve worked with, they’re not actors. They’re participants. They’re people who dare to go into this space. … The actors are there for us, not for themselves.”
On his 1997 romantic drama “Happy Together,” starring Leung and the late Cheung, Wong said he wanted to make a gay drama because he wasn’t sure if he would be allowed following Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China that year. Searching for the farthest point on the globe from Hong Kong, Wong settled on Argentina as the setting for the film. Despite the far-off locale, “Happy Together” is very much about Hong Kong film, Wong said.
Wong went on to thank the Cannes Festival, which Frémaux also heads, for its support over the years and “most of all, it’s become the time for me to stop shooting my film. With the schedule, you have to send a print to Cannes and that’s the only reason we have to stop at that point.”
“But with ‘The Grandmaster’ you went to Berlin,” countered Frémaux.
“I’ll come back,” Wong replied.
Commenting on “The Grandmaster,” a 1930-set martial arts drama starring Leung, the director said that perhaps it “should be not just a film but should be given a bigger canvas.”
“I’m very happy – I’ve been very lucky to be able to do what I wanted to do. … In the future it is the same path, which is the work and challenge of making the films that I want. I think that will be the best future for me.”
A screening of Wong’s 1995 crime drama “Fallen Angels” followed the award ceremony.