×

Wong Kar-wai Honored in Lyon, Talks Early Influences, Bruce Lee, Hong Kong Handover and Bigger Canvas for ‘Grandmaster’

The director receives the Lumière Festival’s 2017 Lumière Award

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.

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.”

CREDIT: Festival Lumière / Jean-Luc Mège Photography

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.

More Film

  • Photo taken July 18, 2019, from

    Japan's Kyoto Animation Suffers Deadly Arson Attack

    An arson attack on the Kyoto Animation company on Thursday morning has injured several dozen people and killed at least one. Emergency services in Kyoto City received a call around 10.35 a.m. local time reporting an explosion on the first floor. The blaze quickly spread across the whole of the three story building. According to [...]

  • sith trooper

    Sith Trooper Revealed From 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

    “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” revealed a new storm trooper uniform Wednesday at San Diego Comic Con as part of a special exhibit celebrating the evolution of the storm trooper design. Dubbed the Sith trooper, the new uniform sports all-red armor plates with a matching red and black blaster. Also decorating the armor is [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is sponsoring a rescued lion to honor director [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content