There are plenty of reasons to celebrate Wong Kar Wai in 2021. Aside from the fact that the filmmaker is busy at work on his first television series — the upcoming Blossoms — his oeuvre of films has been screening in cinemas and released as a comprehensive boxset.
While the new restorations have been received with a mixed reception by fans, one thing that remains adored, after all these years, are his music choices. From soundtracks comprising handpicked pop delights to full-blown orchestral scores, Wong Kar Wai has made music an indelible part of his cinematic prowess.
Which film shows Wong Kar Wai at his music curatorial peak? It’s difficult to compare, for sure, considering how each soundtrack is tailor-made to fit the mood and atmosphere for each film. But just like in the conversations surrounding his films, we figure we can afford to be a little pedantic in picking one over the other. In the spirit of the current restoration programme, we’ll cover the eight films being celebrated in this moment — from his 1988 debut As Tears Go By to the futuristic neo-noir of 2046.
8. Days of Being Wild (1990)
An early favourite for critics and fans, Days of Being Wild began an informal trilogy of heartache that would continue over the years (In The Mood For Love and 2046). While the film’s use of music is bracingly minimal — a technique that Wong would refine for dramatic effect in other films — there are intimate moments made grander thanks to Xavier Cugat’s music. The pioneer of Latin American dance music has several cuts featured.
The film’s title card also announces itself soundtracked to Los Indios Tabajaras’ ‘Always In My Heart’. There’s no doubt that the pull for this film remains the intoxicating drama at its centre. But in those moments where music unfolds, Wong Kar Wai makes it count.
7. Ashes of Time Redux (2008)
Ashes of Time was first released in 1994. However, what was deemed an unfinished movie by its director received a post-production overhaul more than a decade later, resulting in Ashes of Time Redux. This also led to a new soundtrack, this time featuring contributions by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Ashes of Time Redux draws from a tradition of Chinese folklore, resulting in a highly-choreographed wuxia film with a suitably epic score, accomplished by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia — who would go on to collaborate with the director on future films. Just like the film, its soundtrack is an anomaly in Wong’s work, but if you have a taste for the grandeur, this will suit you nicely.
6. As Days Go By (1988)
Days of Being Wild was the first to personify all the hallmarks of a classic Wong Kar Wai work. His debut As Days Go By, on the other hand, confidently displayed his mastery of wistful onscreen romance — but not without some red-blooded action.
The film balances neon melodrama with operatic violence, and its soundtrack is typical of its time: digital synths and hard rock guitars power some of its more exhilarating sequences, while its slower moments feature a ballad or two. In this case, a beautiful cover of Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’, performed by Sandy Lam in Cantonese. The mere fact that the film shares the name with a Marianne Faithfull classic bumps it up on this list.
5. 2046 (2004)
Don’t get us wrong: this soundtrack is fantastic. Its main theme, written by Shigeru Umebayashi, retains the sensual aura that he first established in 2000’s In The Mood For Love, with added orchestral pomp in the mix. It also features amazing selections from the work of Connie Francis, Georges Delerue, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and Xavier Cugat.
It is also where this work may fall short for some — it shares many of the same qualities as his previous film’s soundtrack without adding much to distinguish itself. However, with its timeless jazz and classical selections, along with original compositions by Umebayashi, it’s still easy to fall under its provocative spell.
4. Fallen Angels (1995)
Wong Kar Wai has proven to be an expert in older pop music. In the case of Fallen Angels, however, its soundtrack is distinctly contemporary.
While trip hop has become a genre synonymous with the 1990s, it was a fascinating new development for electronic and pop music at the time — no better style of music to embody the freewheeling and mysterious energy of Fallen Angels.
There’s no dusty needle-drops here: only waves of seductive dub rhythms, digital chimes, and the entrancing voice of Laurie Anderson. For eager-eared listeners, you’ll find its main theme lifts its hook off Massive Attack’s ‘Karmacoma’ as well. Its only link to the past are two reworks of 80s pop tunes: Teresa Teng’s ‘Forget Him’, remade into dream pop by Shirley Kwan, along with Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, in a rendition by a capella group The Flying Pickets.
3. Chungking Express (1994)
What’s there to say about Chungking Express’ music that hasn’t already been said? Other than its frequent use of The Mamas and The Papas’ sunshine pop hit ‘California Dreamin’’, there are few cinematic moments that can rival its use of Faye Wong’s incandescent cover of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’.
While the film’s main score features liberal use of synths, saxophones and melodic bass guitars to add to its atmosphere, Chungking Express is one of those instances where the term “jukebox movie” applies so perfectly. It captures a blip in time where the otherworldly presence of Cocteau Twins — covered in this soundtrack by Faye Wong with ‘Bluebeard’ — finally found itself a cinematic home. A formidable feat in itself, especially in a soundtrack that expertly juggles dream pop with reggae, jazz and classical music.
2. Happy Together (1998)
Set almost entirely in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Happy Together is a film featuring its two leads in an entirely foreign environment. Its soundtrack reflects this change of pace, featuring mostly South American music. This time, it’s Caetano Veloso’s lovesick cover of ‘Cucurrucucú paloma’ that sets the tone early in the film.
Featuring a wealth of tango instrumentals, a yearning cover of The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’ by Danny Chung, along with a psychedelic jam by Frank Zappa, the range displayed in these selections is breathtaking — although necessary when featuring in a movie with an equal dose of tumultuous and understated heartbreak.
1. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Is it really a surprise that this is number one? There is not much contention when it comes to In the Mood for Love and its place as Wong Kar Wai’s definitive masterpiece. We also argue that could apply to its soundtrack, which artfully fills in the blanks — or possibly conjures misdirections — in a story replete with unspoken desires.
The songs selected by Wong play both diegetically and non-diegetically in the film to a startling effect. A suite of lush Nat King Cole recordings are performed in Spanish, a folksy kroncong song is translated into English by Rebecca Pan, and there are scattered echoes of radio broadcasts playing traditional opera songs. And whenever there are no words, a swelling of strings emanate in its place. Pure magic.