Wong Kar-wai book considers his films as artworks rather than socio-cultural indicators - book review

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 11:59am

The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-wai
by Gary Bettinson
Hong Kong University Press

As one of Hong Kong's most written-about filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai may not be an obvious subject for yet another book. But as scholar Gary Bettinson points out in The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-wai, the culturalist approach - which looks for correlations between films and social phenomena - in writing about the director has left room for more fundamental film analysis.

In a beautifully reasoned introduction, Bettinson, a lecturer in film studies at Britain's Lancaster University, courteously calls out scholars who regard Wong's films as cultural allegories - in particular, Ackbar Abbas (whose 1997 book, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, represented a rarely disputed paradigm) and Stephen Teo (whose British Film Institute monograph on Wong, published in 2005, focused on identity issues).

Bettinson prefers to avoid broad cultural theories and examines the films "as artworks and as aesthetic objects". Each of the four main chapters tackles one aspect of Wong's filmmaking: musical style, visual style, narration and genre. Drawing on the ideas of film theorists David Bordwell (whose "film poetics" method is adopted here) and Kristin Thompson, and also the Russian formalists, Bettinson's close analysis of the films' aesthetic qualities is both informative and thought-provoking.

Bettinson's central assumption of an "aesthetic of disturbance" refers to his belief that Wong's works, while sensuous experiences, challenge existing cinematic form and viewer's perceptions with their fragmentary plots, their characters' moral ambiguity and the diffuse emotions they arouse. It's a slight conclusion - more or less expected from an assessment that didn't start out with a preconceived thesis.

However, his commentary has blind spots. For a Hong Kong publication that surveys a vast body of literature and critical responses, it's surprising to note the lack of attention to Chinese-language critique.

To cite one example, the anthology published by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society in 2004 - followed by a revised, expanded edition released just this month - would have made an interesting counterpoint to Bettinson's often astute observations.

Even when he tries to assert the iconic stature of Days of Being Wild (1990), Bettinson for some reason prefers to quote this writer (I ranked the film as the fifth greatest Hong Kong film on a top-100 list published in Time Out magazine in 2012) over the much more representative - and prestigious - lists by the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, on which the film ranked third and fourth, respectively.

While the "top-down" culturalist approach and the "bottom-up" poetics method are taken as a dichotomy here, there are strains to Bettinson's attempt to paint the latter as a cure for generalisation. In a section addressing intertextual appropriation, for instance, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats (2010) and Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy (2010) are conveniently described as heirs of In the Mood for Love (2000).

By treating the motifs of muffled whispers, flirtation with infidelity and role-playing as if they are owned by a certain auteur - instead of, say, regular occurrences in the lives of many people - Bettinson's account at times functions like a manual for serious film buffs.

Yet as Wong's biggest box office hit to date, 2013's The Grandmaster, further builds on its commercial success with a new 3D version, it's probably as good a time as any to reconsider Wong's body of work. Bettinson's carefully researched and meticulously written study turns our attention back to the basics: the sights, sounds and emotions with which the movies captivated us in the first place.