UK-China Film Collab’s Alexei Hampson explores the receptions of recent exhibition of a Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at the British Film Institute.

I would like to start by announcing that although I may dabble in film analysis for some parts of the article, the focus is not to review Wong Kar Wai’s critically acclaimed filmography. If it was, I imagine it would be a lousy reiteration of dozens of other reviews that have cropped up over the last few decades, each executed by a far more exceptional writer than myself. For this piece I am more interested in exploring WKW’s popularity here in the U.K? Do his films speak to people more than ever right now?

The BFI launched the WKW retrospective back in February. Confined to our homes and deep into the third wave of the pandemic, we had to settle for the breath-taking visuals and dreamlike narratives of WKW on our TVs and laptops. While we can appreciate the auteur’s work on our tiny screens at home, this was never going to live up to the restored 4K cinematic experience. The BFI knew this however and had planned to exhibit his filmography in cinemas with the easing of lockdown.

A few days after the cinemas were open again for reduced capacity on the 17th of May, BFI spread the news of the much anticipated ‘World of Wong Kar Wai’, a retrospective set for screenings in July. WKW’s films had been virtually available for BFI subscribers from February until early April, and so we were left high and dry for a few months before his films were available again in a cinematic setting. Evidently, the anticipation was well worth it; the screenings of WKW’s notorious canon were sell out shows all throughout the month. I think there are a number of reasons to be attributed to the success of the retrospective, of which I will explore a few.

Firstly, the giddiness and excitement of sitting in a cinema after an arduous year is certainly not a feeling of the past quite yet. This is not to say people were rushing out to screenings without a bother of what they were going to see, but the end to a long cinema hiatus is likely to have encouraged BFI followers to trust that any of the stellar range of films on offer at the Southbank were worth watching. Furthermore, the half capacity seating in correspondence with COVID guidelines meant that selling out a show was not going to be too difficult a task. That said, there were plenty of new blockbusters airing through July for people to stumble into if they were simply searching for a cinematic experience. Who filled the bookings then? Established fans of WKW? Or perhaps newcomers?

To answer these questions, we must consider the director’s popularity here in the U.K. WKW is not a household name, and why would he be? I think that many people in Britain will consistently settle for Western film and television, seldom striving to find what the East has to offer. This complacency stems from something quite sinister; a mindset plagued by scorn, disinterest and snobbery, reeking of a cultural prowess that has transfixed our society since the British Empire. Delving into this weighty topic is for another time, but to it is important to note on when attempting to understand why WKW will likely never be a well-recognised name in the West.

Nonetheless, seeing the response on Twitter to the BFI’s announcement in May of the WKW retrospective did shed light on the scope of the small but dedicated British fanbase of the master filmmaker’s work. That loyalty and eagerness was validated in July, as we saw the screenings sold out across the board. The tantalising 4K restoration was sure to have piqued the interest of those purchasing tickets, but I imagine it served more as the cherry on top, rather than a deal breaker.

This wonderful showcase was programmed and curated by Ann Lee, freelance writer and editor, whose pieces have been regularly published by the Guardian and the Metro. I reached out to her on Twitter to inquire about her thoughts on the retrospective, and why now more than ever WKW’s films might speak to people. She had this to say:

“I think his films do speak to people at this time. He is a director who understands profoundly what loneliness is like and communicates that in a poetic, visually arresting and charming way. His characters are all stuck with only their memories and regrets to keep them company. I think after lockdown and the pandemic, feeling lonely and stuck is a feeling that we are all familiar with.”

People did not go to see WKW’s films at the BFI in July because they believed his films were some kind of remedy to appease their lockdown loneliness. However, they might have left that screening feeling reassured to be at peace with the loneliness they harbour and to see that there is an undeniable beauty to it. To be lonely, to long for someone romantically or platonically; these feelings serve to remind us of human nature, to remind us we are still alive. In his films we see his solidarity for the solitary.

While WKW’s popularity cannot be considered ubiquitous here in the U.K., his canon is so well regarded among his British fanbase that a month-long retrospective at the BFI proved to be a resounding success. Many of his films do speak to some of us now more than ever, as his exploration of loneliness resonates with the audience’s collective suffering of missed opportunities and solitary existence during lockdown. But I also believe that many of WKW’s films will resonate with us on multitude of levels no matter the context. And such is why he is considered a master of his field.