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Publication Date : 30-01-2013
Acclaimed film-maker Wong Kar Wai has influenced countless film students
If you were getting into film-making or film studies a decade ago, there was a good chance that you would have been hit by the Wong Kar Wai fever.
Respect as well as adoration for the Hong Kong auteur director of such works as Happy Together (1997) and In The Mood For Love (2000) was so great that many budding film-makers at the time would emulate or borrow signature touches from his works.
Home-grown film-maker and visual artist Kent Chan, 28, estimates that as many as 30 per cent of his own student contemporaries were influenced by Wong.
Adds Chan, who had studied for a bachelor of arts degree in film at Lasalle College of the Arts from 2006 to 2008: "I think most film-makers who picked up film-making in the late 1990s and early- to mid-2000s would have gone through a Wong Kar Wai phase.
"The visuals in Wong's films are always very pretty, but it's also about how they touch on nostalgia, and pop culture, and the sense of longing. It's very romantic in a way and every other film-maker wanted a bit of that."
Chan had recently held a solo exhibition at The Substation, where he archived all of the 700 films shown as part of the building's Moving Images film programme. He found at least six films, made between 2003 and 2010, "to be very Wong Kar Wai" in style.
"It's not surprising," he says. "Everyone has gone down that road before."
Gisli Snaer, head of the Puttnam School of Film at Lasalle College of the Arts, adds: "Wong Kar Wai is one of the film-makers heavily researched within our film studies module when students write their papers."
The 56-year-old Wong's latest movie is The Grandmaster, a gongfu flick starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen.
The film, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, Janurary 30, is about famed martial arts expert Ip Man (Leung) and his interactions with other gongfu masters from around China.
Award-winning film-maker Royston Tan, 36, readily admits to being influenced by Wong during his own "formative years" as a student film-maker.
The director, best known for the hit feature film 881 (2007), says: "Every film-maker goes through the Wong Kar Wai-copying stage at one point or another, so they shouldn't bother denying it. I think it's perfectly fine and healthy and normal, because many of his films are so stunning, both visually as well as in the storytelling."
Tan graduated from Temasek Polytechnic in 1997 with a diploma in visual communications. He says his graduation film, Adam. Eve. Steve (1997), for example, was "definitely one" which drew inspiration from Wong's movies.
Recalling with a chuckle, he says: "There're a lot of voice-overs in Wong Kar Wai films, and my film was about 80 per cent voice-over. He also used the wide-angle lens a lot, something which I borrowed. I actually watched his old films over and over again, just to see how he used these techniques."
It is perhaps unsurprising why so many budding film-makers would have liked Wong so much or, in Tan's words, "completely idolised him".
During what many film buffs consider Wong's peak period - that is, the late 1990s to early 2000s when he made a string of acclaimed works including Happy Together and In The Mood For Love - the Hong Kong-based auteur was among the most prominent Asian film-makers of the time.
He was, and is, noted not just for the stories in his films, which often dealt with emotional longing, but also for his sumptuous visual aesthetics and skill in setting moods.
As Tan describes, Wong was one of the rare directors who "went beyond" the norms in film-making.
"There were very few films in the 1990s that broke many rules and Wong broke all the rules. And that was very inspiring, because his films were so different," Tan says.
The Shanghai-born film-maker's 1990 film Days Of Being Wild won Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards, while Happy Together earned him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Singaporean film-maker Victric Thng, 38, says that he was "charmed" by Wong's "mastery of imagery".
He says: "Wong can say a lot with very few but well-crafted images. There is a very strong emotional current in all of his images and it was this film language that enchanted me deeply. During my early days of film-making especially, I thought I could ride on his style to express myself in my own films."
But all of the Singaporean film-makers whom Life! spoke to were also quick to say that as much as they are influenced by another person, it is important to find their own voice.
Award-winning director Anthony Chen, 28, admits that his old short films G-23 (2005) and Hotel 66 (2010) were "subconsciously inspired" by Wong, especially in the art direction department. That said, he is glad to have "grown past" the Wong Kar Wai phase now.
He says that "Wong's films are gorgeously beautiful to look at, so of course if one absorbs these qualities, they make for cinematic eye candy". But as Wong's style is "so unique", he adds, you would be teased if you blatantly copied it.
What Chen is referring to is Wong's signature touches such as slow tracking shots and the use of sumptuous colours and stylised visuals.
Wong's continued use of such trademark techniques has led some former fans to think he is merely repeating himself.
Local film-makers who were once greatly influenced by Wong also say that they have not enjoyed his recent works as much.
Chen says: "I do feel slightly let down by Wong's more recent works 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). There seems to be too much indulgence going on in the visuals, which lose sight of the punches he used to throw in his previous narratives in terms of emotions and storytelling.
"There seems to be a repetition of style and formula but without any breakthroughs."
Thng adds: "I think he started going downhill when he made 2046. His more recent films just did not speak to me as much. They are still beautiful to look at, but I just feel like the emotions are not the same as before."
In recent years, Wong's influence appears to have diminished among student film-makers too.
Michael Kam, a course manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, says: "Currently, there are very few, if any, student film-makers whose works show a strong influence by Wong Kar Wai.
"Quite a number of student film-makers these days are more influenced by recent Hollywood films that they've been exposed to instead, with several citing Christopher Nolan as someone they look up to."
Nolan is the celebrated film-maker whose works include Memento (2000), Inception (2010) and the Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012).
Of course, there are the exceptions. Budding film-maker and screenwriter Shane Mok, 25, who is now studying for a bachelor of arts degree in film at Lasalle, is one who still finds Wong's works "intriguing".
He hopes to emulate Wong's "marriage of aesthetics and narrative" in his own works in future.
The third-year student says: "His visual execution is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also creates the atmosphere in which viewers can embody the emotions of the characters. I want to create content that speaks to people emotionally too."
As long as a work is not a blatant imitation of Wong's works, film-makers here are generally rather forgiving of his influence.
Thng says: "There is a difference between a good try and trying too hard. A good try is when filmmakers look up to him and adopt some of his style, but use that experience as a journey which they eventually grow out of.
"Trying too hard is when they don't bring in any of their own interpretations."
Tan adds: "The basic storytelling is very important. Without all the Wong Kar Wai-style gimmicks and the cosmetic look, you need to know if you still have a proper narrative underneath it all."
Another local film-maker, Bertrand Lee, 35, puts it most succinctly.
"The one advantage of being influenced by Wong is that everyone says your work is 'very Wong Kar Wai'," he says. "But the con of being influenced by him is also that everyone says your work is 'very Wong Kar Wai'."