2021 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Chasing Restorations, from Wong Kar-Wai to Wonder Woman

World of Wong Kar-Wai

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

Despite the slightly larger than one-inch barrier of a global pandemic shutting cinema doors, there has likely never been a better time to be a cinephile. Streaming services from Mubi to Shudder have opened up the doors to a year-round film festival experience at home. Twitter has provided a global forum to share ideas and ephemera about one’s particular corner of the film world. Publications like this very one are a platform for critical writing from voices across the discipline that has expanded our notion of the canon beyond Roger Ebert’s Great Movies. Lost” films have been found, festivals grant more access than ever to a broader range of participants and Disney has provided a suitable villain to rally against. 

Yet the total dominance of our digital cinema platforms has also forced cinephiles to reckon with their own assumptions and understanding of the medium. The 4K restoration of Wong Kar-wai’s feature films has been one of the most hotly-anticipated re-release projects of recent years. A collaboration between Wong, Janus Films and L’Immagine Ritrovata, it presents the Hong Kong filmmaker’s golden period, 1988 to 2008, in ostensibly the best way that current technology will allow. Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046 are essential texts for the modern cinephile, soon to be released by Criterion in a box set titled World of Wong Kar-Wai.

World of Wong Kar-Wai

After Wong’s movies began streaming at Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema, fans noticed that these were not the classic films as they remembered them. Aspect ratios were changed, scenes shortened, colours graded entirely differently. Wong released a statement explaining his decisions, which can largely be surmised as him attempting to get closer to his original vision. It is easy to see why, for films of such vivid poetry, this felt like tampering with alchemy. People had discovered versions of Wong’s films on DVD and, undoubtedly, through torrents. These sensuous films have resonated with viewers, as the director’s 90s run of contemporary Hong Kong-set films remain a high watermark for punkish, romantic, political and unmistakably cool filmmaking. Wong is one of the most high-profile living auteurs, usually in the first dozen or so names an emerging cinephile learns about when discovering international or art-house films of the type celebrated in Lincoln Center retrospectives. It is little wonder that their perceived ownership of these films should feel challenged, particularly as the director’s original vision is filtered through 20 years of progress and memory. 

There is little separating this kind of fan revolt from the movement to release “The Snyder Cut.” Zack Snyder’s Justice League was critically reviled and rejected by audiences (insofar as anything with a billion dollar gross can be rejected), but many of the film’s bugs — it’s bright colour palette, its snarky dialogue, Superman’s CGI top-lip — were inventions of Joss Whedon, who took over the film when Snyder was unable to complete it following the death of his daughter. Now, through the magic of Warner Bros, Snyder is at work fixing his film for HBO Max. Some have said there is no cultural “need” for this new cut, and the insistence by its evangelists of Snyder’s Howard Roark-ian importance does harden one to the notion of the four-year-old blockbuster re-cast as a four-hour TV event. But in a period of total dominance by Disney, expanding the Marvel universe ever further into corporate synergy, Zack Snyder’s Justice League aka The Snyder Cut now seems appealingly sui generis as the work of a major Hollywood artist at the peak of his creative freedom. The hostility of Snyder evangelists against those who fail to see the director’s genius on screen led many to see #releasethesnydercut advocates as a toxic movement by a toxic fandom. Nonetheless, it now exists, and although it is difficult for a quote-unquote “serious cinephile” to see the project as worthy a cause as the Wong restorations, its existence and the fact of its production gives Zack Snyder’s Justice League as much material significance as World of Wong Kar-Wai

In the streaming age, the wants and needs of the cinephile are hopelessly intwined. Everything is on the screen before us, and planet lockdown has granted infinite hours of viewing time. Which version of Cinema Paradiso, or Fanny & Alexander, or Heaven’s Gate should one watch? The scorn of others and my own indecision has held me back from seeing these three variably significant 20th century films. But then, at what point have we seen a film? Have you really seen something like Heaven’s Gate without reading Stephen Bach’s account of the production in Final Cut? Does any of this stuff play on a laptop at all? I have sat through films at festivals from acclaimed directors who I am so unfamiliar with that their latest work simply occurs before me. The lights are on, but no-one is home. An artist like Pedro Costa, for example, requires a sustained level of interest. Each film is a continuation of the last. How does Vitalina Varela work without Horse Money, or the previous 30 years of the director’s work? Perhaps art galleries like video installations so much because a long piece of work can be experienced in a chunk by a viewer. They move on when they are bored. In the cinema, it’s different. And what of sleep? Is it an invalid response to doze at Delphine Seyrig peeling potatoes? If it seems disrespectful to the great Chantal Akerman to do so, then consider how comforted and at peace one’s mind must be to trust her with your dreams. Maybe I have taken the following Abbas Kiarostami quote too close to heart: “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater.”

This might be why cinephiles are often anoraks and collectors. How else to prove (to yourself) that you have really seen a thing but to own it, hold it, have it before you. One recalls the DVD trend of “Unrated” editions of films like American Pie: The Wedding, which featured more cleavage for your buck. Indeed, why settle for anything less? Now that DVD is over, there is a new fear: that streaming services will change unsavoury elements of classic films at will. They already have done that. A fairly innocuous Back to the Future scene was cut last year for adult content. One wonders why people with an interest in cinema pay for Netflix at all — it’s an incomplete product sold as the real deal. 

Wong’s films initially came to prominence in the USA when Rolling Thunder (Quentin Tarantino’s label within Miramax) released Chungking Express in 1996. Miramax infamously rose to prominence by hacking parts out of independent festival titles like Cinema Paradiso and Like Water for Chocolate . Their cuts created divergent histories of cinema, and reshaped the market for international cinema in the USA. Miramax’s intervention with Wong’s The Grandmaster — cutting half an hour and adding explanatory intertitles for an English-speaking audience assumed ignorant of non-linear historical storytelling — is the stuff of infamy, and another reason to be thankful for The New Cinephilia’s access to both. There is no “real” version, as both have a history and significance in the culture. They can be streamed, therefore they are.

At the time of writing, Wellesnet.com has just announced that filmmaker Brian Rose is working on a new version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons that will restore the famously lost scenes through animation. One assumes that deepfake technology would be a more logical completion for this Frankenstein project. Welles, who rarely made a film that can be considered completed or uninterfered with, is still considered perhaps the great American filmmaker. His interest in conflicting perspective, showmanship and unreliable narration has made him the perfect collision of artist with the form. The fact that his is a biography built of apocryphal stories only makes a film like Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) into a richer text. To what extent is this a specific feature of Welles, and not a filmmaker like Snyder? For that Randian architect of great aesthetic monuments, the mangled Justice League is a ding in his armour. It’s better to blow it up and start again. 

Likewise, Wong’s perfection — the tactile Christopher Doyle cinematography, the slow motion, the sumptuous performances — seems specific to the method of its delivery. To know that Wong believes an aspect ratio can be an aberration is a difficult pill to swallow. But swallow the pill of cinema we must, in this limitless cyber realm of images and sound. If we are to enjoy the fruits of its labour, then we must take it all. Accept new versions, accept revisions, accept revisiting and rediscovering films you had consigned to history. Miami Vice and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me were panned on release, and now they are the internet’s favourite films. May Fallen Angels 4k and Zack Snyder’s Justice League join them.

Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.