As the 1997 hand-over of Hong Kong to China approached, such directors as John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam looked West. The most prominent Hong Kong director who didn’t make the trip to Hollywood was Wong Kar-wai. Ironically, though, he hasn’t made a complete film in Hong Kong since then.

The director’s first post-1997 film was Happy Together, shot mostly in Argentina with a coda in Taipei. It was supposed to be released before the hand-over, but Wong has a problem with schedules and, lately, locations. In the mid-’90s, he made Chungking Express while his abstract martial-arts film Ashes of Time was shutting down. The creation of his latest feature, In the Mood for Love, is even more complicated. It begins with an unmade film called Summer in Beijing, for which Wong met Hong Kong’s new Chinese overlords on their own turf.

“We wanted to make a film about two Hong Kong citizens working in Beijing,” explains Wong by phone from a stop in Los Angeles. “It’s kind of a love story. We had to shoot in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square. At that time, a lot of filmmakers wanted to make films about the Tiananmen Square event in ’89. So the censors thought we might be using this title to make a film like that. In the end, we decided to stop that production and go back to Hong Kong and make another film.”

Before leaving, Wong shot for two days in Beijing without permission. “We tried to edit something out of that two days’ shooting,” he says. “It’s quite nice.”

Wong then considered shooting Summer in Beijing in Macau—at a restaurant he’d call “Beijing.” That idea mutated into a trilogy about food, which gradually became In the Mood for Love, the elliptical tale of two early-’60s next-door neighbors (played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) who discover that their spouses have become lovers, but who, despite their obvious attraction, decide—apparently—not to do the same. Elements of the food trilogy remain in the movie, although the theme was more pungent on the set: Wong hired Shanghainese chefs to prepare the meals that the characters, most of them recent expatriates from Shanghai, would have eaten at the time.

“At first, we think it’s a very simple project. Two characters and a cast I had worked with before,” says Wong, who uses “we” and “I” almost interchangeably. “We think it will take only three months, four months to finish the whole thing. Right after we start shooting, we come across this Asian financial crisis, so we have to stop the production and find new investors. Finally, we find new investors, but then the actors are not available, because Maggie has to prepare for her role in Spielberg’s film, and Tony has to make a film in Tokyo.”

Ultimately, Spielberg postponed Memoirs of a Geisha, the film in which he had cast Cheung. “Of course I’m very happy, so we can have more time with Maggie,” Wong recalls. By then, however, the director had already begun his next film, 2046, in Bangkok. When In the Mood for Love resumed, Wong decided to move it, too, to Bangkok, which he thought resembles circa-1962 Hong Kong more than Hong Kong itself.

Ultimately, making In the Mood for Love took 16 months, and Wong concedes that he stopped working on it only because he had to get a finished version to last spring’s Cannes Film Festival. (Even after Cannes, he tinkered with it a bit more.) In constructing the final cut, Wong eliminated most of the footage shot in Hong Kong and excised a scene that would have changed the film’s feel dramatically: one in which the unrequited not-quite-lovers go to bed together.

Wong calls his form of editing “a process of destruction. For a lot of filmmakers, they shoot a lot of footage and the process of editing is putting all this material together. For us, we always try to get rid of the things we don’t want first and then see what’s left behind. We’re very sure about what we don’t want.”

Both Leung and Cheung have said they were shocked at what was missing from the finished film. “It was horrifying,” Cheung told the Village Voice of her first viewing.

Of course, Wong’s actors have come to expect surprises. The director doesn’t give them a full screenplay, although he denies reports that he works entirely without one. “A lot of people think that the way we work is without a script. We just walk into the set and then we improvise,” he says. “But this is not true. Most of the time, we have a story to start with, and we have a script before we start shooting. We have a script of that scene.”

Wong says that this approach has its origins in his 10 years of writing scripts for Hong Kong TV and movie studios. “I understand about directors. Whenever directors get a script, they always want something better; they always want a change. In my case, because I’m the director and also the writer, even though I have a complete script before shooting, I still think I will change it all the time. I just want to save these problems.

“The reason that you want to write the script is that there’s something that intrigues you,” he continues. “And it’s different every day. When you start the movie and you see there’s something that’s happening on the set, you just want to catch it. Some things you cannot write on paper. It’s been a hundred years since we had cinema, and things should not be written in words if they can be written by light and by music.”

Music is crucial to Wong’s movies, many of which take their titles from songs. “I always have music in my mind when I start a film. First of all, music to me is a rhythm. With In the Mood for Love, before we start shooting, I want the film to be like a waltz. I have that music in my mind already. It described the relationship between these two characters,” he says of Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s waltz, composed for a Suzuki Seijun film. “It’s like a dance.”

The pop standard “I’m in the Mood for Love” doesn’t appear in the film, and Wong didn’t think of it until the last minute. “We called the film In the Mood for Love because we need a title before we send the film to Cannes. We have a Chinese title, but it’s difficult to translate into English. So I look for a title, and then I pick up a CD by Bryan Ferry and I think In the Mood for Love seems to be a good title for this film.”

Characteristically, In the Mood for Love connects to both past and present Wong films. It’s been called a sequel to the director’s second feature, 1990’s Days of Being Wild, although, he says, “we tried to make [the] two films as different as possible. But somehow during shooting, Maggie was very frustrated by the costumes, because she’s confined. She tried very hard to portray a woman in 1962. I told her, ‘We know the story happened in 1962, but you don’t have to act like a woman in 1962.’ I told her, ‘In Days of Being Wild you played [a] girl in 1960, and it was perfectly natural.’ She told me, ‘They’re not the same person.’ And I said, ‘I think you should consider this person as the same person, just 10 years older.’ And somehow it just worked with her. And so in the end when I see In the Mood for Love compared to Days of Being Wild, to me it’s not like a Part 2 or a sequel, but it’s like Days of Being Wild 10 years older.”

The new film is also entwined with 2046, complete with an inside joke: When Cheung’s character goes to visit Leung’s at a hotel, he’s staying in room 2046. The planned film takes its musical cues from opera, Wong notes, and “is actually about promises. Because in 1997, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years without change. The year 2046 is the last year of this promise. We want to explore if anything will change.”

If 1997 and 2046 are crucial moments for Wong, so are 1962 and 1966, the years that In the Mood for Love opens and closes. The former is when the 5-year-old Wong arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai, and the latter is the time of the Cultural Revolution and related anti-colonial riots in Hong Kong. “This is the first time for [Shanghai exiles] to realize that Hong Kong is easily influenced by things happening in China, and that in a short period they are not going back to China. So lots of people just move to other cities. And the rest, because they can’t move, they have to realize they will stay for a long time in Hong Kong. They have to consider themselves people who live in Hong Kong. I think it is one of the critical moments in Hong Kong history.”

For a director who has come to accept that he’s a person who lives in Hong Kong, Wong spends a lot of time away. He’s done location work in China, the Philippines, Argentina, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Thailand, and he plans to shoot part of 2046 in Korea. He denies, however, that this reflects any ambivalence about his decision to remain based on the island.

“It’s like a journey,” he says. “You try to go away from it, but you’re [always] coming back. Actually, our stories are always about people in a certain kind of routine who want to break away from that, because they think something’s wrong with their life, and they’re not happy with it. They need some reason to break away from it, because of love or because of out-of-love.

“We like to shoot films outside Hong Kong because it’s a team,” he adds. “It’s like a traveling circus, and I like the idea of that.”

In fact, he says, “it really doesn’t matter where you make a film. It’s the material. It’s a chemistry between the man and the space. A couple weeks ago, I was in Hamburg and I was asked if I could make a film there. I said, ‘Yes, I can make a film about two foreigners in Hamburg.’ But I can’t make a film about the people in Hamburg because I don’t know them in the same way.” —Mark Jenkins