Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Taking Down Wong Kar-Wai: A Polished Turd is Still a Turd

There are three categories of auteur filmmakers. There are the great artists like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. Then there are others, like Federico Fellini, who know what they are doing but whose styles don't agree with everyone. Then there is the final category: the pseudo-auteur like Jean-Luc Godard. This is the director who has deluded themselves into thinking they are a super-genius but produce garbage. This is not the same thing as just being a bad director like Michael Bay or Irwin Allen. Bay and Allen are at least honest about the quality of the films they make. A man like Godard, on the other hand, has the balls to consistently produce crap, pretend its art, and then delude his audience into thinking that his lazy hack films are something deeper.

Yes, as many of my readers can testify, I still maintain that Jean-Luc Godard produces nothing but garbage. And I'm not alone in that regard. Two extremely well-regarded filmmakers: Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, also despised his lazy films and his incompetence as an artist. But I'm not here to rant about Godard. I'm here to take down another one of these pseudo-auteurs thanks to my class. This man is none other than the critically-acclaimed Wong Kar-Wai, a director who has received an international reputation, known for films such as As Tears Go By, Days of Being WildAshes of Time, and In the Mood For Love.

A lot of people seem to think this guy is some sort of genius. My prof seems to think so. So does Wimal Dissanayake, from wrote an entire book on Ashes of Time. So far, I've seen nothing to convince me. It seems like every film of his I get forced to watch only makes me hate this man even more. This is a man with no direction or any idea what he is doing. He doesn't even bother to write scripts; he literally just shoots a bunch of random footage, basically making it up as he goes along, and then hopes it will all come together in post-production. His films are incoherent and impossible to follow. His characters are one-dimensional at best.

Wong Kar Wai's biggest issue, aside from not being very good at telling coherent narratives, is his inability to recognize the blatant misogyny that carries through his work. Many of his films, including Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, and to a lesser extent Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, reduce women to passive supporting roles. His men are always active figures, and the women are generally dependent on a man, rarely being entitled a role in the main action. His men routinely fail to treat women with respect, and in many cases it would seem they have never heard of consent as they often display repeated attempts to have sex after the girl has refused.

We see this with the protagonist in Days of Being Wild, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a man who routinely mistreats women, apparently seeing them as nothing more than sex objects. The character of Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) repeatedly refuses his advances, but these are ignored. Instead, Yuddy only continues to have sex with her while she laughs even after failing to consent. This includes a scene where, for absolutely no reason and no obvious causal motivation, Yuddy tries to reach under her skirt and touch her vagina. This is a man who obviously fails to realize how consent is supposed to work, and yet we are supposed to relate to him?

In the film, Yuddy seduces and abandons two women. The first of these is Li-zhen, a woman who is first seen working at a snack bar. After coercing her into dating him, Yuddy proceeds to take her to his apartment (apparently while also having another girlfriend over at the same time) and essentially proceeds to rape her. Li-zhen repeatedly refuses Yuddy's advances and yet he continues to force himself onto her. This continues throughout their section of the film. Keep in mind that Yuddy, who is sexually harassing a young woman (in one scene even trying to touch her vagina for absolutely no reason), is supposed to be the hero. This is the person Wong Kar-Wai expects us to relate to, which leaves open a lot of questions about what he was thinking when making this film.

Eventually, after multiple sequences glorifying Yuddy's unnecessary abuse of Li-zhen, she opts to leave. This would seem like a smart move, if not for the direction Wong chooses to take. After finally leaving Yuddy, Li-zhen instead becomes dependent on support from a male police officer (Although cops appear in several of his films, Wong Kar-Wai seems to have a peculiar aversion to showing women in law enforcement). The film also makes a bizarre narrative choice by leaving Yuddy, making Li-zhen and the unnamed police officer the center of attention for a large portion of the film, only to then ditch them both and return to Yuddy's perverse antics.

In Days of Being Wild, Li-zhen finally ditches the abusive protagonist, only to immdiately become dependent on another man.

Somewhat bizarrely, there actually seems to be a major contradiction in Wong Kar-Wai scholarship in that nobody can agree on what his third film was. Some say it was Ashes of Time. Others say it was Chungking Express. The main reason for this contradiction is because Wong quickly made Chungking Express during a break in the production of Ashes of Time but the former was released after the latter. Either way, both films present questionable depictions of women and continue to show the misogyny that has persisted through this man's filmography.

Ashes of Time only features two notable female characters, both of whom are needlessly dependent on men. The first of these is Brigitte Lin, who plays a mentally ill women that becomes dependent on protagonist Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung again). This illness manifests itself as a split personality, with her acting as the Murong twins Yin and Yang who are at odds with one another. Eventually she ends up living with Ouyang, and disappears. Frustratingly the film presents an opportunity to turn her into a strong character with the implication that she becomes a warrior... only to immediately forget about her. In other words, the films keeps her as long as she remains feminine, and abandons her as soon as she has a chance to do something worthwhile.

Even worse is the other major female character, who doesn't even get a name. She is literally credited as "girl with mule" and displays total unneeded dependence on men. Her first appearance consists of her explaining that her brother was killed by a gang of bandits, and she offers Ouyang a basket of eggs and mule to avenge him. Ouyang refuses, prompting the girl to do the logical thing... go to the edge of the village in the middle of the desert and just wait for a man to come and accept her offer. She becomes weirdly determined as well.

But why does she have to do this? Her entire story revolves around waiting for a man to come and do the job for her, which eventually occurs in the form of Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung). Once again, she is depicted as a passive victim at best, and depends on men to come to her rescue. Why can she not get her own revenge against the bandits who killed her brother. She literally sits around in the middle of a desert for days waiting for Hong Qi to accept her offer. Would it not have been a more interesting plotline for the peasant girl (Wong doesn't even allow her the dignity of getting a name) to take up the sword and then confront the bandits herself?

Now I know what you're thinking, and I've heard it before. Yes, I have had people try to refute my statement by pointing to Wong Kar-Wai's most recent film The Grandmaster. It is true that this pseudo-biopic of Bruce Lee's mentor actually has women taking part in fight sequences. That said, this is at best one exception. Keep in mind that Wong has made nine feature films so far and this is the only one to break the pattern. If an artist spends most of his career producing bigoted work, then turns around and makes one comparatively progressive piece, does that excuse the bigotry that is otherwise consistent? I would say no, it doesn't. The Grandmaster is one exception produced by a man who has otherwise consistently produced works glorifying misogyny.