The Young Master

WONG KAR-WAI is coolness incarnate: A global film-fest celeb who digs Martin Scorsese and MTV and supposedly never appears in public without his shades, the writer-producer-director of Chungking Express proves his hipness even further by calling us from his hometown of Hong Kong two hours late--and on his cellphone, no less. While the 37-year-old Wong walks the walk and talks the talk, he's preoccupied with the fact that today is his young child's birthday. Still, he graciously agrees to continue our interview until his phone battery runs out. Love, memory, expiration: The auteur couldn't have made a more clever tie-in to Chungking's themes if he'd planned it. And actually, given the degree of control he exerts over every aspect of his films, he probably did.

"I like to take risks," Wong says of Chungking Express, which he conceived, shot, and edited in a mere three months during a break from the filming of his epic sorcery tale Ashes of Time. "I made Chungking to get back to my instincts. But it was a little contradictory to the producer side of me, which needed to be practical." Wong says that the risk-taking side of him won out, in that the movie dares its HK audience to accept stars like Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung playing unglamorously against type. "Normally, directors ask actors to act, and I don't like that. I always want them to pull from their own characters, to be themselves. Usually, they're quite happy to do this; it's like a vacation for them. And they don't really know what I'm doing anyway."

Besides, Wong is the first to admit that the characters per se are less important than his larger mood. "In Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, the city is the main character--more than the actors," Wong says. "I tried in the films to capture the essence of the city: the sound, the music, the light, the pace, everything." Unlike John Woo or Ringo Lam, who have migrated to Hollywood, Wong says he plans to keep making films in the chaotic environment of Hong Kong.

"Because of the changes that are going to take place after 1997, the next five years or so will be very interesting," he says. "And I think a filmmaker should stay around to record those changes. For people in Hong Kong, next year is something of a deadline, but already we're starting to think about life after 1997. So in Chungking Express, I wanted to be optimistic by saying that you can still find human warmth in the city.

"At this moment especially," Wong adds, "we really need faith."

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