IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The end of a love affair with director Wong Kar Wai

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 26, 2013

It was in the back row of a cinema at Shaw Lido that I realised I had come to the end of the affair.

As Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi spouted pseudo-meaningful lines onscreen, trying to convince the audience that their characters in The Grandmaster shared a grand but unrealised love, I faced the fact that after 10 long years, it was time for me to call it quits with its director Wong Kar Wai.

Like a wronged partner who clings to the belief that the other half will one day change for the better, for years I had kept the faith: that the film-maker's best was yet to come; that his next film would match or even surpass the glory of his heyday.

In times of doubt, I would remind myself of that fateful night I fell in love with the auteur's art. I was 20 and alone at home, late at night. Surfing channels, I saw that Days Of Being Wild (1990) was showing on Channel 8.

The screen was small. There were frequent commercial breaks to shill a steamboat restaurant, the kind of advertisement that airs only on late-late-night TV. There was a horrible Mandarin dub so shrill, it grated slivers off my eardrums. Yet, I was glued to the TV, spellbound by the melancholic story unfolding. As I watched the cathartic scene in which - spoiler alert - Leslie Cheung's lost soul of a character sits in the train, dying from a gunshot wound, I realised I was holding my breath, overcome by the emotion of it all.

I went on to watch every single Wong Kar Wai feature film in existence. There were hits and misses but, overall, I was a happy inhabitant of Wong's world of claustrophobic interiors, ambiguous intentions, suppressed yearning, sparse yet resonant dialogue and commanding soundtracks.

Unfortunately, having caught up with his back catalogue, along came 2046 (2004). It was with this film, in my opinion, that the above characteristics started to fossilise into caricature, weighing down the story rather than moving it along. Wong's follow-up, My Blueberry Nights (2007), his venture into English- language cinema, was truly hard to swallow. Still I went into The Grandmaster thinking that Wong could not offer worse than that half-baked pie. I was wrong.

It is painful, but sometimes a fan has to accept that the time has come to part ways with an artist you previously adored. It is always sad to renounce a fandom. It is part of your sense of self to say you like a particular musician, author or film-maker, using their aesthetic sensibility as shorthand for your own identity.

But no matter how forgiving a fan you might be, there sometimes comes a day when you realise that the artist just keeps regurgitating the same old thing. Several authors I once enjoyed are like that: John Irving, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster. I also fear director Wes Anderson is going that route - his most recent Moonrise Kingdom (2012) was well received, but I personally found it so twee that my teeth hurt.

Some artists are canny enough to quit while they are ahead. Take the late J.D. Salinger who - even if he reportedly never stopped writing - stopped publishing in 1965 and subsequently has left legions of fans obsessively rereading his small output while praying for more. The same goes for award-winning film-maker Steven Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement from directing even though his recent films have been as acclaimed as ever.

But, of course, it is egotistical to dismiss an artist as past his prime just because his work does not appeal to you anymore. Maybe it really isn't him - maybe it is you.

If Wong was the affair of my 20s, Radiohead was the crush of my teens. Their angsty anthem Creep (1992) is perhaps the most well known of the band's pre-Kid A (2000) period, but most of my favourite songs are from the album that directly preceded Kid A, OK Computer (1997). The ironic serenity of No Surprises, the cynicism of Fitter Happier, the doom and gloom of Exit Music (For A Film): to a disaffected and somewhat pretentious teenager, Thom Yorke was my voice.

Naturally, then, I could not wait to listen to Kid A. I can still remember standing outside HMV and feverishly tearing the shrink wrap off my newly purchased album so that I could shove the CD into my Discman... and listening in befuddlement to the wails and whines that emerged from my headphones. Kid A marked the departure of Radiohead from rock melodies to electronic rhythms. It also marked the end of my epic adolescent romance.

I am obviously quite alone in my sentiments: Kid A won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album and Radiohead are today one of the few bands which manage to have mainstream recognition while still retaining their indie credibility. I still mourn the loss of "my" Radiohead, but one thing I cannot accuse the band of is rehashing the same old thing. They are innovative; it was me who did not wish them to change, who wanted them to stay in the 1990s forever.

Having entered my 30s, I am now more careful about whom I give my heart to. Nowadays, I tell people that I like individual titles rather than an artist. I will check out a book or film if the storyline appeals to me, or buy a song I've heard and liked, but I will not necessarily go on to try the rest of that artist's oeuvre.

With this approach, I am no doubt missing out on the connections, the echoes and the development of certain themes which make the study of a single artist's body of work so rewarding. Yet, this approach also exposes me to a wider range of art, while protecting me from forming an emotional attachment to fallible, all-too-human artists.

As for Kar Wai - thanks for everything. Your movies have moved me, but I probably won't bother to catch your next film. Then again, perhaps I've written you off too soon. Maybe, one day, we will again be Happy Together (1997).

ysteph@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 26, 2013

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