“Pleasure,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “is a safer guide than either right or duty.” Surely this is true when it comes to watching films. While cinema can be edifying, most of us go to the movies to be set free from our daily lives and carried off to a world richer, more delightful, and more resonant than our own. Few films do that better than those of Wong Kar Wai, the Hong Kong auteur whose iconic sunglasses are more famous than many other directors’ movies. With his blend of pop exuberance and alienated melancholy, he is one of those rare filmmakers whose work is always recognizably their own: you can feel his presence in every ticking clock (there are scads), in every shiver of photogenic heartbreak, in every moment of inspired silliness—such as a policeman talking to his bar of soap. Yet even as they’re devoutly personal, Wong’s films also define a late-twentieth-, early-twenty-first-century cultural moment, both in Hong Kong—where his success upped the artistic ante in a notoriously money-mad film industry—and on international screens. Like Haruki Murakami on the literary scene, WKW became the first Asian filmmaker to occupy the leading edge of cool globally.
Along the way, Wong has, of course, won countless awards and honors. In Sight & Sound’s most recent international critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time (from 2012), In the Mood for Love was the only member of the top twenty-five to come from this millennium. Yet one finds the true measure of his achievement out in the world, where his influence is plainly apparent in acclaimed work that’s as crazily diverse as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Matthew Weiner’s television series Mad Men (which introduces its hero, Don Draper, with a shot borrowed directly from WKW), Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (where, oddly, Wong is cross-pollinated with Andrei Tarkovsky).
If anything, audiences are even more smitten. Wong makes movies that viewers everywhere fall in love with—it’s not for nothing that Time critic Richard Corliss dubbed him “the most romantic filmmaker in the world.” As is evident from the films in this collection—seven of his most beloved features, plus his radiant anthology episode The Hand—WKW has a sensibility that is equal parts high and low, mass and mandarin. His work marries the larger-than-life glamour of golden-age-Hollywood studio moviemaking (“I like stars,” he says) to a quicksilver formal daring inspired by everyone from Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Tennessee Williams and Nan Goldin.
Mean Streets: Rites of Passage
Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature—a rare example of a work of personal cinema with broad popular appeal—delivers all the elements of his future career in one spectacular, bravura throw-down.
Bugs Bunny in the Shaolin Temple
In a string of wildly entertaining films released between the late seventies and the mideighties, Jackie Chan paved the way to his international stardom by turning himself into a real-life cartoon character.
Nanny: Troubled Water
With the full force of her imagination, director Nikyatu Jusu examines the complicated nature of Black motherhood, as well as the importance of Black communion as an antidote to racial oppression.
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