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Director of
gay-themed Happy Together hits the big time

Director of
gay-themed Happy Together hits the big time

For his English-language debut My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai didn't have to churn out a B-movie for a Hollywood studio. Instead, he called his own shots, working with his own production company to make a movie about an American road trip that drew some big stars: Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz.

The Hong Kong director even persuaded Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones to make her movie debut. Wong's stellar reputation in the West, despite spending most of his career making moody Chinese-language art-house movies, is testimony to his visual flair and his painstaking approach to filmmaking.

Quentin Tarantino is credited with having been a major booster; his distribution company, Rolling Thunder, released Wong's Chungking Express in the United States in 1996. Some, however, are baffled by Wong's popularity among Western critics and filmmakers.

Critics have followed Wong's work since the late 1980s. His movie As Tears Go By screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. In a report about the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1991, film critic Tony Rayns praised Wong's film released that year, Days of Being Wild, in Sight and Sound magazine, calling it a ''gorgeous evocation of Hong Kong in 1960.''

In a later review, Rayns called the film, about a Hong Kong playboy, ''a tour de force of nonlinear narrative, atmospherics, poetic rhythms, and visual writing.'' Then came Chungking Express, which the Village Voice gave a rave, calling it ''a lyrical marvel, a Jules and Jim for our anonymous time,'' referring to the classic 1962 Francois Truffaut love story. Chungking Express was also the first of Wong's movies that Weisz, who appears in My Blueberry Nights, saw, the actress told the Associated Press. Weisz said it was ''very romantic and passionate and visually unlike anything else.''

After Chungking Express, U.S. distributors picked up Fallen Angels and Happy Together, the gay romance that won Wong best director at Cannes in 1997. By 2001, Wong had already established a solid American following. His romance In the Mood for Love was shown in 74 theaters and made a respectable $2.7 million, according to the box-office-tracking Web site Box Office Mojo.

In Europe, Cannes continued to beckon. Four of Wong's movies have competed for the top Golden Palm prize, including Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, his 2004 movie 2046, and this year's My Blueberry Nights, which is scheduled to be released in the United States and Europe in November. Stephen Teo, who wrote a book on Wong, said the director ''really nurtures a character. He really directs an actor to the best of his ability.... Wong Kar-wai gives actors that kind of range, that kind of opportunity to fully express themselves with their expressions, their gestures,'' Teo said.

Teo added that Wong is unique in that he's an Asian producing sensual imagery with nostalgic soundtracks from the 1960s--the type of art-house fare that moviegoers expect from European filmmakers. Portman, who appears in My Blueberry Nights, told the AP she's impressed with Wong's ''all-encompassing ability to convey very specific feeling through music, lighting, pacing, and, of course, actor direction.''

She called Happy Together ''one of the greatest films about love ever made.'' Others, however, say Wong is overrated and has carefully built up his image. Michael Berry, author of Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers, said Wong cultivates an aura of mystery by rarely granting interviews and wearing his trademark sunglasses.

Patrick Tam, an acclaimed Hong Kong director who edited Days of Being Wild, said in an interview in the book Wong Kar-wai's Movie World that he thinks Wong has been on the decline. He called In the Mood for Love, about the romance between a man and a woman whose spouses are having an affair, ''showy.''

''You're very conscious of the art direction, the packaging, the music, the slow motion...but the relationship between the two characters didn't touch me,'' Tam said. Tam told the AP he didn't understand why Wong's work was so popular in the West. ''I think it is fair to say that fashion or popularity are unexplainable and very often have nothing to do with the true quality of a piece of work,'' he said. (Min Lee, AP)

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