Directors: Wong Kar-wai–Master of Mood and Style

One of the world’s most accalaimed filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai is a Hong Kong director, screenwriter, and producer.

His films are characterized by nonlinear narratives, atmospheric music, and vivid cinematography, manifest by bold, saturated colors.

A pivotal figure of Hong Kong cinema, Wong is considered a contemporary auteur, and ranks third on Sight & Sound’s 2002 poll of the greatest filmmakers of modern times.

Born in Shanghai, Wong emigrated to British Hong Kong as a child with his family. He began a career as a screenwriter for soap operas before transitioning to directing with his debut, the crime drama As Tears Go By (1988).

While As Tears Go By was fairly successful in Hong Kong, Wong moved away from the contemporary trend of crime and action movies to embark on more personal filmmaking.

Days of Being Wild (1990), his first venture into such direction, did not perform well at the box office. It however received critical acclaim, winning Best Film and Best Director at the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards.

His next film, Ashes of Time (1994), was met with mixed reception because of its vague plot and atypical take on the wuxia genre.

The production of Ashes of Time was time-consuming and left Wong exhausted; he subsequently directed Chungking Express (1994) with hopes of reconciling with filmmaking.

The film, expressing a more lighthearted atmosphere, catapulted Wong to international prominence, and won Best Film and Best Director at the 1995 Hong Kong Film Awards.

Wong consolidated his worldwide reputation with the 1997 drama Happy Together, for which he won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.

The 2000 drama In the Mood for Love, revered for its lush visuals and subtle storytelling, established Wong’s trademark filmmaking styles.

Among his other work are 2046 (2004) and The Grandmaster (2013), both of which received awards and nominations worldwide.

Wong Kar-wai was born on July 17, 1958 in Shanghai, the youngest of three siblings. His father was a sailor and his mother was a housewife.

By the time Wong was five years old, the seeds of the Cultural Revolution were beginning to take effect in China and his parents relocated to British-ruled Hong Kong. The two older children were meant to join them later, but the borders closed before they had a chance and Wong did not see his brother or sister again for ten years.

In Hong Kong, the family settled in Tsim Sha Tsui, and his father managed a night club. Being an only child in a new city, Wong felt isolated; he struggled to learn Cantonese and English, and only became fluent in these languages as a teenager.

Wong was frequently taken to the cinema by his mother and exposed to a variety of films. He later said: “The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies.” At school he was interested in graphic design, and earned a diploma from Hong Kong Polytechnic in 1980.

After graduating, Wong was accepted onto training course with the TVB television network, where he learned media production.

He began screenwriting, firstly with TV series and soap operas, such as Don’t Look Now (1981), before turning to film scripts.

As part of a team, he contributed to a variety of genres including romance, comedy, thriller, and crime. These early projects were occasionally diverting and mostly disposable.

He wrote Just for Fun (1983), Rosa (1986), and The Haunted Cop Shop of Horrors (1987). He is credited with 10 screenplays between 1982 and 1987, but claims to have worked on about fifty more without official credit.

Wong spent two years writing the screenplay for Patrick Tam’s action film Final Victory (1987), for which he was nominated at the 7th Hong Kong Film Awards.

By 1987 the Hong Kong film industry was at a peak, enjoying prosperity and productivity. New directors were needed to maintain this success, and Wong was invited to become a partner on a new independent company, In-Gear, and given the opportunity to direct his own picture.

Gangster films were popular in the wake of John Woo’s successful A Better Tomorrow (1986), and Wong decided to follow suit. Unlike other crime films, he chose to focus on young gangsters. The film, named As Tears Go By, tells the story of a conflicted youth who has to watch over his hot-headed friend.

Alan Tang gave him considerable freedom in the making of As Tears Go By. His cast included “the hottest young idols in Hong Kong”: singer Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung.

As Tears Go By was released in June 1988 and was popular with audiences. While it was a conventional, it emphasized “liquid atmospherics.” As Tears Go By received no critical attention, but it was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight of the 1989 Cannes Film Fest.

“I could have continued making films like As Tears Go By for the rest of eternity but I wanted to do something more personal after that. I wanted to break the structure of the average Hong Kong film.”—Wong on the transition from his first film to Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong decided to move away from the crime trend in Hong Kong cinema, eager to make something unique, and the financial success of As Tears Go By made this possible. Developing a more personal project than his previous film, Wong picked the 1960s as a setting – evoking an era he remembered well and had a “special feeling” for.

Days of Being Wild, a film about the longing for love, focuses on a disillusioned young adult, Yuddy, and those around him. There is no straightforward plot or obvious genre. Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung rejoined Wong for his second film, while Leslie Cheung was cast in the central role. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle became Wong’s most important collaborator, shooting his next six films.

Days of Being Wild was a character piece, more concerned with mood and atmosphere than narrative. Released in December 1990, the film earned little at the box office and divided critics.

It won five Hong Kong Film Awards, and received some attention internationally. With its experimental narrative, expressive camerawork, and themes of lost time and love, Days of Being Wild, first typical Wong Kar-wai film, has since gained reputation as one of Hong Kong’s finest releases.

However, its initial failure was disheartening, and he could not gain funding for his next project–a planned sequel.

Struggling to get support, Wong formed his own production company, Jet Tone Films, with Jeff Lau in 1992. In need of further backing, Wong accepted a studio’s offer to make a wuxia (ancient martial arts) film based on the popular novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong. Wong was enthusiastic about the idea, long wanting to make a costume drama. He took little from the book other than three characters, and in 1992 began experimenting with several different narrative structures to weave what he called “a very complex tapestry.”

Filming began with another all-star cast: Leslie, Maggie, and Jacky Cheung returned alongside Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Charlie Young, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who would become Wong’s key collaborator.

Set during the Song dynasty, Ashes of Time concerns a desert-exiled assassin called upon by several different characters while nursing broken heart. It was a difficult production and the project was not completed for two years, at a cost of HK$47 million.

Upon release in September 1994, audiences were confused by the film’s vague plotting and atypical take on wuxia. It was a fast-paced actioner, with character ruminations, in which the story becomes secondary to the use of color, landscape, and imagery.

As such, Ashes of Time was a commercial failure, but critics were generally appreciative of Wong’s “refusal to be loyal to the wuxia] genre”. The film won several local awards, and competed at the Venice Film Fest where Doyle won Best Cinematography. In 2008, Wong reworked the film and re-released it as Ashes of Time Redux.

During the long production of Ashes of Time, Wong faced a two-month break as he waited for equipment to re-record sound for some scenes. He was in a negative state, feeling heavy pressure from his backers and worrying about another failure, and so decided to start a new project: “I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film.” Conceived and completed within six weeks, the new project ended up being released two months before Ashes of Time.

Chungking Express is split into two distinct parts, both set in contemporary Hong Kong and focusing on lonely policemen (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who each fall for a woman (Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong).

Wong was keen to experiment with two crisscrossing stories in one movie and worked spontaneously, filming at night what he had written that day. Chungking is considerably more fun and lighthearted than the director’s previous efforts, but deals with the same themes.

At the 1995 Hong Kong Film Awards it was named Best Picture, and Wong received Best Director. Miramax acquired the film for American distribution, which catapulted Wong to international attention.

While other films by Wong may pack more emotional resonance, Chungking Express gets off on sheer innocence, exuberance, and freedom, a striking triumph of style over substance.

“Whereas Chungking was sunshiny and suffused with bright, lovely daytime colors, Fallen Angels is more about neon, and nighttime, and grunge. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong.

Wong expanded his ideas from Chungking Express into another film about alienated young adults in contemporary Hong Kong. Chungking Express had originally been conceived as 3 stories, but when time ran out, Wong developed the third as a new project, Fallen Angels, with new characters. Wong conceived both films as complementary studies of Hong Kong: “To me Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long.”

Fallen Angels is a crime thriller, and contains scenes of extreme violence, but is atypical of the genre and heavily infused with Wong’s fragmented, experimental style.[46] The loose plot again involves two distinct, subtly overlapping narratives, and is dominated by frantic visuals.[47] The film mostly occurs at night and explores the dark side of Hong Kong, which Wong planned intentionally to balance the sweetness of Chungking: “It’s fair to show both sides of a coin”.[8] Takeshi Kaneshiro and Charlie Young were cast again, but new to Wong’s films were Leon Lai, Michelle Reis and Karen Mok. Upon release in September 1995, several critics felt that the film was too similar to Chungking Express and some complained that Wong had become self-indulgent.[48] Film historians Zhang Yingjin and Xiao Zhiwei commented: “While not as groundbreaking as its predecessors, the film is still different and innovative enough to confirm [Wong’s] presence on the international scene.”

While his reputation grew steadily throughout the early 1990s, Wong’s international standing was “thoroughly consolidated” with the 1997 romantic drama Happy Together (1997).[50] Its development was influenced by the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, which occurred that year. Wong was widely expected to address the event in his next film; instead, he avoided the pressure by choosing to shoot in Argentina.[51] The issues of the handover were nevertheless important: knowing that homosexuals in Hong Kong faced uncertainty after 1997, Wong decided to focus on a relationship between two men.[52][note 5] He was keen to present the relationship as ordinary and universal, as he felt Hong Kong’s previous LGBT films had not.

Happy Together tells the story of a couple (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung) who travel to Buenos Aires in an effort to save their relationship. Wong decided to change the structure and style from his previous films, as he felt he had become predictable.[8] Teo, Brunette, and Jeremy Tambling all see Happy Together as a marked change from his earlier work: the story is more linear and understandable, there are only three characters (with no women at all), and while it still has Doyle’s “exuberant” photography, it is more stylistically restrained.

After difficult production period – where a six-week shoot was dragged out to four months – the film was released in May 1997 to great critical acclaim.[58] It competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where Wong became Hong Kong’s first winner of the Best Director Award[59] (an achievement he downplayed: “it makes no difference, it’s just something you can put on an ad.”)

Happy Together marked a new stage in Wong’s artistic development”, and along with its successor – In the Mood for Love (2000) – showcases the director at the zenith of his art.

The latter film emerged from a highly complicated production history that lasted two years. Several different titles and projects were planned by Wong before they evolved into the final result: a romantic melodrama[61] set in 1960s Hong Kong that is seen as an unofficial sequel to Days of Being Wild.[62][note 6] Wong decided to return to the era that fascinated him, and reflected his own background by focusing on Shanghainese émigrés.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai play the lead characters, who move into an apartment building on the same day in 1962 and discover that their spouses are having an affair; over the next four years they develop a strong attraction. Teo writes that the film is a study of “typical Chinese reserve and repressed desire”,[66] while Schneider describes how the “strange relationship” is choreographed with “the grace and rhythm of a waltz” and depicted in “a dreamlike haze by an eavesdropping camera”.

The shoot lasted 15 months, with both Cheung and Leung reportedly driven to their breaking points.[68] Wong shot more than 30 times the footage he eventually used, and only finished editing the film the morning before its Cannes premiere.[69] At the festival, In the Mood for Love received the Technical Grand Prize and Best Actor for Leung.[70] It was named Best Foreign Film by the National Society of Film Critics.[71] Wong said after its release: “In the Mood for Love is the most difficult film in my career so far, and one of the most important. I am very proud of it.”[72] In subsequent years it has been included on lists of the greatest films of all time.

While In the Mood for Love took two years, its sequel, 2046, took double that time. The film was actually conceived first, when Wong picked the title as a reference to the final year of China’s “One country, two systems” promise to Hong Kong.

Although his plans changed and a new film developed, he simultaneously shot material for 2046, with the first footage dating back to December 1999. Wong immediately continued with the project once In the Mood for Love was complete, reportedly becoming obsessed with it.

2046 continues the story of Chow Mo-wan, Leung’s character from In the Mood for Love, though he is colder and different. Wong found that he did not want to leave the character, and commenced where he left off in 1966; nevertheless, he claimed: “It’s another story, about how a man faces his future due to a certain past”.[79] His plans were vague and according to Teo, he set “a new record in his own method of free-thinking, time-extensive and improvisatory filmmaking” with the production.[80] Scenes were shot in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and Bangkok.[62] Actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li were cast to play the women who consume Mo-wan, as the character plans a science fiction novel titled 2046. The film premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but Wong delivered the print 24 hours late and still was not happy: he continued editing until the film’s October release.

It was Wong’s most expensive and longest-running project to date. 2046 was a commercial failure in Hong Kong, but the majority of western critics gave it positive reviews, praising it as an enigmatic, rapturously beautiful meditation on romance and remembrance.

Before starting on his next feature, Wong worked on anthology film Eros (2004), providing one of 3 shorts (the others directed by Antonioni and Soderbergh) that center on the theme of lust.

Wong’s segment, “The Hand”, starred Gong Li as a 1960s call girl and Chang Chen as her potential client. Although Eros was not well received, Wong’s segment was the most successful.

He decided to make an English-language film in America, later justifying this by explaining: “It’s a new landscape. It’s a new background, so it’s refreshing.”

After hearing radio interview with the singer Norah Jones he immediately decided to contact her, and she signed on as the lead. Wong’s understanding of America was based only on short visits and what he had seen in films, but he was keen to depict the country accurately.[88][91] As such, he co-wrote the film (one of the rare times a screenplay was pre-prepared) with author Lawrence Block.[89] Titled My Blueberry Nights, it focused on a young New Yorker who leaves for a road trip when she learns that her boyfriend has been unfaithful. Cast as the figures she meets were Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn.

Filming on My Blueberry Nights took place over seven weeks in 2006, on location in Manhattan, Memphis, Las Vegas, and Ely, Nevada.[89] Wong produced it in the same manner as he would in Hong Kong,[93] and the themes and visual style – despite Doyle being replaced by cinematographer Darius Khondji – remained the same.[94] Premiering in May 2007, My Blueberry Nights was Wong’s fourth consecutive film to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.[95] Although he considered it a “special experience”,[89] critics were not enamoured by the results.[6] With common complaints that the material was thin and the product uneven, My Blueberry Nights emerged as Wong’s first critical failure.

Wong’s next film was not released for 5 years–The Grandmaster (2013), a biopic of the martial arts teacher Ip Man. The idea had occurred to him in 1999, but he did not commit until the completion of My Blueberry Nights. Ip Man is a legendary figure in Hong Kong,[98] known for training actor Bruce Lee in the art of Wing Chun, but Wong decided to focus on an earlier period of Ip’s life (1936–1956) that covered the turmoil of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.[5][99][note 9] He set out to make “a commercial and colourful film”.[100] After considerable research and preparation, filming began in 2009.[100] Tony Leung Chui-wai rejoined Wong for their seventh film together, having spent 18 months being trained in Wing Chun.[5][101] The “gruelling” production lasted intermittently for three years, twice interrupted by Leung fracturing his arm, and is Wong’s most expensive to date.

The Grandmaster is described by Bettinson as a mixture of popular and arthouse traditions, with form, visuals, and themes consistent with Wong’s previous work.[102] Three different versions of the film exist, as Wong shorted it from its domestic release for the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, and again for its US distribution by the Weinstein Company.[100][note 10] Described in Slant Magazine as Wong’s most accessible film since his debut,[104] The Grandmaster won twelve Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director,[105] and received two Academy Award nominations (Cinematography and Production Design).[106] Critics approved of the film,[107] and with a worldwide gross of US$64 million it is Wong’s most lucrative film to date.

When asked about his career, in 2014, Wong told The Independent, “I feel I’m only halfway done.”

In November 2016, he was set to take over an upcoming film about the murder of Maurizio Gucci from previous director Ridley Scott, but in October 2017 he was no longer involved.

In September 2017, Amazon Video issued a straight-to-series order for Tong Wars, TV drama to be directed by Wong. It focuses on the gang wars that occurred in nineteenth-century San Francisco,[111] but Amazon later dropped the series.[112] Regarding his next film, the Asian media has reported that it will be titled Blossoms and based on Jin Yucheng’s book of the same name, which focuses on numerous characters in Shanghai from the 1960s to the 2000s.[113] Blossoms is also slated to become a web series for Tencent in which Wong produces.

In May 2019, Wong announced the 4K restoration of his entire filmography, which was released in 2021 for the 20th anniversary of In the Mood for Love. The restoration was carried out by the Cineteca di Bologna’s film restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata. Criterion Collection released Wong’s restored filmography as a box set in the US in March 2021.

Wong and his wife, Esther, have one child.

The director is known for always appearing in sunglasses, which adds “to the alluring sense of mystery that swirls around the man and his movies.”

In 2009, Wong signed a petition in support of director Roman Polanski, after Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in relation to his 1977 charge for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.

Filmmaking

“Wong has a heady mix of influences, ranging from modernist novels to narrative, visual and aural motifs drawn from local films and popular culture. High and low, new and old, and local and global are all thrown onto a blank canvas, one that assumes shape … [only during the] editing process.”—Giorgio Biancorosso, in Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image[119]

Wong is wary of sharing his favorite directors–he watched Hong Kong genre films to European art films. They were never labelled as such, and so he approached them equally and was broadly influenced. The energy of the Hong Kong films had a “tremendous” impact.

Art professor Giorgio Biancorosso: Wong’s international influences include Martin Scorsese, Antonioni, Hitchcock, and Bertolucci.

Some of his favorite contemporary filmmakers include Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino. He is often compared with New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Wong’s most direct influence was colleague Patrick Tam, an important mentor and likely inspired his use of color.

Wong has been heavily influenced by literature. He has a particular affinity for Latin American writers, and the fragmentary nature of his films came primarily from the “scrapbook structures” of novels by Manuel Puig and Julio Cortázar, which he attempted to emulate.[6][62] Haruki Murakami, particularly his novel Norwegian Wood, also provided inspiration, as did the writing of Liu Yichang.[124]

The television channel MTV was a further influence on Wong. He said in 1998: “In the late eighties, when MTV was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction.”

Method and Collaborators

Wong has an unusual approach to film making, starting production without a script and generally relying on instinct and improvisation rather than pre-prepared ideas.[8][125] He has said he dislikes writing and finds filming from a finished script “boring”.[17] According to Stokes & Hoover, he writes as he shoots, “drawing inspiration from the music, the setting, working conditions, and actors”.[126] In advance, the cast are given a minimal plot outline and expected to develop their characters as they film.[89] To capture naturalness and spontaneity, Wong does not allow for rehearsals[101] while improvisation and collaboration are encouraged.[126] He similarly does not use storyboards or plan camera placement, preferring to experiment as he goes.[21] His shooting ratio is therefore very high, sometimes forty takes per scene, and production typically goes well over schedule and over budget.[77] Tony Leung has commented that this approach is “taxing on the actors”, but Stokes & Hoover speculate that Wong’s collaborators endure it because “[the] results are always unexpected, invigorating, and interesting.”–Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong’s “defining collaborator”

Though Wong admits to being controlling, he has formed several long-lasting partnerships and close collaborators. In 2013, he said: “It is always good to work with a very regular group of people because we know how high we can fly and what are the parameters, and it becomes very enjoyable.”[101] Two men have been instrumental in developing and achieving his aesthetic: production designer William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.[6][128] Chang has worked on every Wong film and is a trusted confidant, responsible for all set design and costuming.[31][92] Doyle photographed seven of his projects, all from Days of Being Wild to 2046. Stephen Schneider writes that he deserves “much credit” in Wong’s success, as his “masterful use of light and colour renders every frame a work of art”.[129] Wong’s other regular colleagues include writer-producer Jeffrey Lau, producer Jacky Pang, and assistant director Johnnie Kong.

Wong often casts the same actors. He is strongly associated with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who has appeared in seven of Wong’s feature length films.[130] Wong describes him as a partner, stating, “I feel like there is a lot of things between me and Tony that is beyond words. We don’t need meetings, talks, whatever, because a lot of things are understood.”[91] Other actors who have appeared in at least three of his films are Maggie Cheung, Chang Chen, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and Carina Lau.

Wong’s art films focused on mood and atmosphere, rather than following convention.[131] His general style is described by Teo as “a cornucopia overflowing with multiple stories, strands of expression, meanings and identities: a kaleidoscope of colors and identities”.[132] Structurally, Wong’s films are typically fragmented and disjointed,[133] with little concern for linear narrative,[134] and often with interconnected stories.[135] Critics have commented on the lack of plot in his films,[136] such as Burr who says: “The director doesn’t build linear story lines so much as concentric rings of narrative and poetic meaning that continually revolve around each other”.

Similarly, Brunette says that Wong “often privileges audio/visual expressivity over narrative structure”.[137] Wong has commented on this, saying “in my logic there is a storyline.”

Key to Wong’s films is the visual style, often described as beautiful and unique. The colors are bold and saturated, the camerawork swooning, resulting in “signature visual pyrotechnics”.

One of his trademarks is the use of step-printing, which alters film rates to “[liquefy] hard blocks of primary color into iridescent streaks of light.”

Wong aesthetic include slow motion, off-center framing, the obscuring of faces, rack focus, shooting in the dark or rain, and elliptical editing. Wong’s fondness for playing with film stock, exposure, and speed.

Trademark of Wong’s cinema is use of music and pop songs.

Biancorosso describes it as the “essence” of his films; a key part of the “narrative machinery” that can guide the rhythm of the editing. He selects international songs, rarely cantopop, and uses them to enhance the sense of history or place. Music “proved crucial to the emotional and cognitive appeal” of Wong’s films.

Wong’s dependence on music and his heavily visual and disjointed style has been compared to music videos,[148] but detractors claim that they are “all surface and no depth”.[9] Academic Curtis K. Tsui argues that style is the substance in Wong’s film, while Brunette believes that his “form remains resolutely in the service of character, theme, and emotion rather than indulged in for its own sake”.[149]

Wong is an important figure in contemporary cinema, regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation.[150][151] His reputation as a maverick began early in his career: in the 1996 Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, Wong was described as having “already established a secure reputation as one of the most daring avant-garde filmmakers” of Chinese cinema.[152] Authors Zhang and Xiao concluded that he “occupies a special place in contemporary film history”, and had already “exerted a sizeable impact”.[153] With the subsequent release of Happy Together and In the Mood for Love, Wong’s international standing grew further,[154] and in 2002 voters for the British Film Institute named him the third greatest director of the previous quarter-century.[155] In 2015, Variety named him an icon of arthouse cinema.[156]

The East Asian scholar Daniel Martin describes Wong’s output as “among the most internationally accessible and critically acclaimed Hong Kong films of all time”.[157] Because of this status abroad, Wong is seen as a pivotal figure in his local industry; Julian Stringer says he is “central to the contemporary Chinese cinema renaissance”,[158] Gary Bettinson describes him as “a beacon of Hong Kong cinema” who “has kept that industry in the public spotlight”,[77] and Film4 designate him the filmmaker from China with the greatest impact.[6] Together with Zhang Yimou, Wong is seen by the historian Philip Kemp as representing the “internationalisation” of East Asian cinema.[159] Domestically, his films were generally not financial successes, but he has been consistently well-awarded by local bodies.[17] From early on, he was regarded as Hong Kong’s “enfant terrible” and one of their most iconoclastic filmmakers.[160] Despite this, he has been recognised in both cult and mainstream circles, producing art films that receive commercial exposure.[161] He is known for confounding audiences, as he adopts established genres and subverts them with experimental techniques.[162]

“Wong stands as the leading heir to the great directors of post-WWII Europe: His work combines the playfulness and disenchantment of Godard, the visual fantasias of Fellini, the chic existentialism of Antonioni, and Bergman’s brooding uncertainties.”—Ty Burr of The Boston Globe

Wong has one of the most distinctive filmmaking styles. From his first film As Tears Go By, he made an impact with his “liquid” aesthetic, which was completely new and quickly copied in Asian film and television.

His second film, Days of Being Wild, is described a landmark in Hong Kong cinema for its unconventional approach.

Wong’s films are entirely personal, making him an auteur. Wong has developed his own cinematic vocabulary, with an array of shot patterns connected with him. Wong’s success demonstrates the importance of being “different”

On the Hong Kong Film Awards Association’s 2005 list of The Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures, all except one of his films up to that time made the list. Days of Being Wild (1990) placed at number three, the highest position for a post-1980s film; other films ranked were Chungking Express (22), Ashes of Time, As Tears Go By (88), Happy Together (89), and In the Mood for Love (90).

In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, industry professionals  determined the greatest films of all time, In the Mood for Love was ranked 24th, the highest-ranked film since 1980 and the sixth greatest film by a living director.

Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild both ranked in the top 250; Happy Together and 2046 in the top 500; and Ashes of Time and As Tears Go By also featured (all but two of Wong’s films at the time).[

Wong’s influence on contemporary directors: Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Lee Myung-se, Tom Tykwer, Zhang Yuan, Tsui Hark, and Barry Jenkins.

On May 24, 2018, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree by Harvard University.

Wong’s oeuvre consists of 10 features, 16 films where is he credited as screenwriter, and 7 films from other directors he has produced. He has also directed commercials, short films, and music videos, and contributed to two anthology films.

He has received awards and nominations from organizations in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

In 2006, Wong accepted the National Order of the Legion of Honor: Knight (Lowest Degree) from the French Government. In 2013, he was bestowed with the title of a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest order, by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.