In America, Hong Kong cinema is known for its martial arts or "gun fu" action movies, as exemplified by John Woo. In the mid-90's, Woo's crossover appeal and Hollywood successes helped, amongst other things, to bring more attention to Hong Kong cinema, including his compatriot Wong Kar-Wai. The irony is that while Wong may share a handful of stylistic similarities, the tone and focus of his films is almost entirely oppositional to the stereotype of the Hong Kong action flick.
Wong Kar-Wai deals with the realms of sense, memory, and longing more than storyline. The best way to describe them is that he's trying to recreate the feeling of sitting in a dimly-lit bar, nursing your favorite drink while a fantastic song plays on the jukebox, thinking of the one that got away. They're also extraordinarily difficult to describe literally in a complimentary fashion, but that doesn't stop fans from trying.
His two most accessible and probably best films are Chungking Express and In the Mood For Love. The former was Wong's breakthrough, released in 1994, focusing on an all-night food stand in the Chungking neighborhood of Hong Kong. A diptych, it focuses on the love lives of two local cops, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung (who would later reunite as the stars of Woo's Red Cliff). Kaneshiro stars in the first half. Having just gone through a terrible breakup, he desperately tries to reconnect with his ex, and failing that, finds a hitwoman who happens to be the only person he wants to talk to about the whole thing, while all she wants is sleep.
Tony Leung's second half is more memorable thanks to an indelible performance by Chinese pop star Faye Wong (most well-known in America for singing the theme to Final Fantasy VIII). Playing a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she becomes obsessed with Leung's cypher of a character, breaking into his apartment, cleaning and replacing every part of it, even as he narrates that "I have an excellent memory." Later, Faye Wong's obsession leads to the defining scene of the film. She skips work to go to Leung's apartment using the excuse that she's paying the electricity bill, which never gets paid, causing the entire shop to lose power and get lit by candlelight. Wong Kar-Wai's obsession with light and lush, gorgeous city life create among the most beautiful shots you'll ever see.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVSyDsMmbEo - the scene starts at around 9:10, and continues into the next segment. Although Chungking Express is, apparently, available on YouTube, Wong's sensual camerawork demands high-quality viewing. Unsurprisingly, Chungking Express was selected by Criterion as its first film to be released on Blu-Ray.
Chungking Express notably also helped, perhaps unfortunately, usher in the era of indie-quirk, where characters have defining habits as much as traits. Faye Wong's charming stalker is matched in the first half by Takeshi's obsessive purchasing of cans of pineapple with the expiration date of his attempts to rebuild his relationship.
In the Mood for Love is a simpler tale of connections nearly made and love nearly won and lost. Wong Kar-Wai uses perhaps his two most iconic actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, as the leads (like the Coen brothers, Wong has a stable of actors he dips into). They share an apartment complex, and discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. They form a fumbling friendship with the shape of a romance, though never consummated, and in the end, they lose each other through their inability to make a move.
But a description of the storyline completely fails to measure the impact of the film. The camera caresses Maggie Cheung's wardrobe of cheongsams, and Tony Leung embodies the quiet desperation of his character. It's my favorite of Wong's films, and yet I'm virtually incapable of describing it.
Both of those films have more experimental pseudo-sequels. Chungking Express led to what was originally its third story, Fallen Angels, while In the Mood for Love spawned a somewhat more direct sequel, 2046. 2046 is arguably the most ambitious and least coherent of Wong's films. It follows Leung's character from In the Mood for Love as he fails to mend his broken heart with a string of women and authoring science fiction short stories taking place in the year 2046. The film bounces between his affair with a beautiful courtesan, his writing affair with his landlord's daughter, his memories of a female gambler who acted as his teacher, and his stories of a train in the future for the broken-hearted. It's a gorgeous, deeply affecting mess.
Fallen Angels follows a hitman and his agent as they become romantically entangled. Its scenes of extreme violence play out like a perfunctory action movie, as if Wong wanted the trenchcoats and badass without anything more than the minimum of the genre's attachments. It's arguably his most visceral, direct film, filled with fantastic images and moments, although it lacks some of the emotional resonance that Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love contain.
The idea that Wong Kar-Wai wants the accoutrements of a genre without the other expectations is even more true of Ashes of Time, his martial arts epic. Describing Ashes of Time as a "martial arts epic" is part of the problem - it's entirely personal in scope, and what little martial arts are shown exists more in effect than in cause or action. The film is about the idea that these men and women are near-superhuman swordsmen, but are crippled by their own lost loves and failures. Unsurprisingly, Wong focuses on the latter. It's another incoherent mess, but an affecting and beautiful one.
Wong Kar-Wai made his American debut a few years ago with the somewhat disappointing My Blueberry Nights. It's filmed in his signature style, with a broken-apart stories of lost loves in bars, casinos, and restaurants, but it never entirely coheres despite one fantastic segment with Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, as well as a great performance from Natalie Portman. It's hard to say exactly why it doesn't work, but my guess is that Wong's work is so specific, so stylized, so artificial, so dependent on creating a mood, that any slight flaw makes the whole house of cards fall apart. It's not terrible, and may act as a gateway for Americans into Wong's works, but I find it one of his weakest films.
Wong is inextricably linked to his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Wong's debut feature, As Tears Go By didn't include Doyle, and is considered a straightforward genre piece (it's the only one I haven't seen). His first film with Doyle, Days of Being Wild, includes several of his favorite actors (like Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung) and begins his run of odd, beautiful films, but still feels unfinished. The characterization is particularly weak, with the main character's womanizing being too-easily explained by his relationship with his horrifically manipulative mother.
Characterization is also the weak point of the last of Wong's films, Happy Together. Focused on a dysfunctional gay Hong Kong couple in Buenos Aires, both its subject matter and its cinematography are more jarring than most of his other films. Most of his characters have some level of darkness balanced by charm or kindness, but Happy Together lacks that all-around except for one minor character. It's easily his most difficult film.