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One of the most exciting directors in contemporary world cinema, Wong Kar-Wai has refined a ravishing style reminiscent of a jazz musician's improvisational riffs. After nearly a decade of writing scripts for television and genre films, Wong made his directorial debut with 1988's As Tears Go By, a violent gangster melodrama frequently compared to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. He followed it with a couple of extremely different projects: 1990's Days Of Being Wild, about a young man's search for his real mother in the Philippines, and 1994's Ashes Of Time, a sprawling period epic about swordsmen in ancient China. But Wong didn't find a significant audience in America until Chungking Express was released through longtime fan Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder imprint in 1994. Originally intended as a trio of Hong Kong stories, Chungking Express was cut down to two charming pop romances; the third storyline formed the basis for 1995's Fallen Angels. In 1997, Wong won Best Director at Cannes for Happy Together, a luminous road movie examining the tumultuous relationship between gay lovers in Argentina. He returned to Cannes three years later with his new In The Mood For Love, an intimate and moving portrait of the friendship between two unhappily married lonelyhearts in 1962 Hong Kong, featuring indelible lead performances by iconic actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Wong recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his memories of the period, shooting without a script, his trouble with finishing his films, and the changes in Hong Kong since the city was turned over to the Chinese.
The Onion: You've been quoted as saying that shooting In The Mood For Love was the most difficult experience of your career. Why?
Wong Kar-Wai: At first, we wanted to make a film in Beijing and call it Summer In Beijing. It was a love story about two homeless citizens working in Beijing. But because we had to shoot in Mainland China, we had to submit the script for approval from the censors, and they had problems with it, so we had to move the production back to Hong Kong and completely change the story. Then we started In The Mood For Love. At that time, we had some difficulties scheduling the lead actor and actress. Maggie was going to make a film with Steven Spielberg called Memoirs Of A Geisha, and Tony was going to make another film in Tokyo. So we finally started with a very simple story about two people in 1962 Hong Kong, but somehow we came across this Asian financial crisis, and it created big problems. We had to stop the production, and at one point we even thought of giving it up altogether. Luckily, we found new investors for the film, but then Tony had other commitments, so production stopped again and Maggie went back to Paris. At first, we thought In The Mood For Love would take something like three months to shoot, so we committed to make another film  at the end of last year. That film takes place in Bangkok, so we moved production there. So at one point, we were shooting both films back-to-back at the same time, which became extremely difficult, because the other story takes place 50 years into the future. It was like falling in love with two different people at the same time. After we finished part of 2046, we started the production of In The Mood For Love again in Bangkok, because in the process of shooting part of 2046 in Bangkok, we saw some things that would be extremely good for In The Mood For Love. So we eventually moved it there. It was very chaotic. Somehow, we spent 15 months on these films.
O: I know you had to rush to get In The Mood For Love completed in time for Cannes. What were you doing in the days leading up to that first screening?
WKW: The reason we wanted to send the film to Cannes is because it would never have been completed otherwise. Somehow, we fall in love with the films and don't want to let go, but financially and physically we cannot afford it. So when the film was invited, I said, "We will go to Cannes," because even though we hadn't finished the cutting, we had to have a deadline. We needed to have a point where we could finally let go of it. But the schedule was extremely tight, and we requested that it be the last film to show at the festival. We were still working on the subtitles the morning before the screening. The version we showed there was the pre-mix version, so it was presented in mono. Now it's in Dolby stereo, so the sound is a great improvement.
O: Why did you choose early-'60s Hong Kong as the setting for the film?
WKW: At first, we thought the story was just about these two people, but then we realized it was really about the period, 1962 Hong Kong. I was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong the year I was five. In those days, there were a lot of people moving from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and they lived in their own isolated part of the city. They had their own culture, they had their own language, and they had their own music and cinema. For me, it was a very memorable time. In those days, the housing problems were such that you'd have two or three families living under the same roof, and they'd have to share the kitchen and toilets, even their privacy. I wanted to make a film about those days, and I wanted to go back to that period, because at that time, we still knew all our neighbors. And nowadays, we don't even know who lives next-door to us.
O: Do you feel you had to adjust stylistically to suit the period and the story?
WKW: We tried to create the film from our memories. And in our memories, everything moves much slower, so we could not work like we did with Chungking Express. It had to be much more classical. Unlike Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love isn't like a pop song, but closer to chamber music.
O: What is the nature of your collaboration with [cinematographer] Christopher Doyle? How has it developed over time?
WKW: We always work like musicians. I'm the bandleader, and he's one of the musicians. To me, it's like we have sessions and I invite [my cast and crew] and we jam. So actually, we don't discuss much, and we don't have to work out things every day, like the light or the color or the camera angles. We know each other very well already.
O: Working without a script, are there days when you don't get any usable footage at all?
WKW: Even with scripts, you can have nothing in the can after shooting. Normally, it won't happen, because you're always expecting something you can salvage. Because I'm also the producer of my films, I make certain that we always come away with something.
O: Could you talk about 2046?
WKW: Well, we wanted to make this film because in 1997, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years without any changes. So 2046 is the last year before the promised date. We wanted to make a film about promises, and we wanted to make a film to explore how things can change in life.
O: Because you had to shoot some of 2046 at the same time as In The Mood For Love, are the two films connected in your mind?
WKW: Yeah, it's extremely difficult, because we had to treat them separately, but to do so would be schizophrenic. So at the end, I decided to treat these two films as one film, like different chapters. As a result, there are elements from each one that bleed into the other.
O: How has the Hong Kong film industry changed since the city was given back over to China?
WKW: At first, everybody expected massive changes. We were afraid of censorship, and we were afraid our films would run into the same problems Chinese films had in the past. But it was like an anticlimax. On the good side, we can still make films the way we like. We don't have censorship problems in Hong Kong. On the down side, [our movies are] still considered foreign films, so if we want to release our films in China, that means we still have to compete with all the other films from around the world, like Mission: Impossible 2 and The Perfect Storm. Each year, the Chinese government has a set quota of 30 foreign films. And since Hong Kong films are considered imports, it's very difficult to get a film shown in China.
O: How does your vision of Hong Kong depart from the reality of the city?
WKW: Well, people are very surprised when they come to Hong Kong after seeing my films, because my version of it is quite different than Hong Kong in reality. So my films are never about what Hong Kong is like, or anything approaching a realistic portrait, but what I think about Hong Kong and what I want it to be.
O: How did you come to develop your improvisational approach to filmmaking?
WKW: I never studied film formally at school, but as a kid, I spent most of my time in cinemas. In those days, we didn't speak the language, we didn't have many friends or relatives, and my mother loved film, so we spent a lot of time going to movies. Later, I worked at TV stations and became a writer. At a certain point, a producer asked me if I wanted to make a film. In my first film, we always tried to have a script and work in a normal way, but I was constantly changing things during shooting. Because I worked as a scriptwriter for 10 years, I understood that directors always wanted to change what was originally written, to improve on it. In my case, I've always thought in terms of images, so as these images occur to me, I have to continue to revise the plan in order to accommodate them.
O: When you went to shoot In The Mood For Love, were there certain films or paintings or photographs that influenced the way you wanted it to look?
WKW: I wanted to make the film like Hitchcock, because what intrigued me about this story was that it's about the relationship of these two people set against this neighborhood. The neighbors are like spies. The story is governed by the reactions of these two characters under the observations of their neighbors. So I wanted to treat it like a Hitchcock film, where so much happens outside the frame, and the viewer's imagination creates a kind of suspense. Vertigo, especially, is something I always kept returning to in making the film.
O: Do actors have a hard time adjusting to your style?
WKW: Normally, filmmakers would just write a script and cast people to act as certain characters in the story. But in my way of doing things, I have the actors in my mind already, so I'm trying to borrow something that's unique to them. The characters have a very natural connection to the actors themselves.
O: Many of your films have certain patterns of repetition in them. Could you explain why you return to things again and again in your work?
WKW: We are always in a routine. Most of my films deal with people who are stuck in certain routines and habits that don't make them happy. They want to change, but they need something to push them. I think it's mostly love that causes them to break their routines and move on. That's why we always want to repeat shots, to show the routines and the changes as they happen.