Legendary Director Wong Kar Wai Talks Film, Fashion, and His Artistic Vision For This Year's Costume Institute Exhibition

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Wong Kar Wai is one of the greatest living directors of our time, so imagine our delight when we got to spend a few minutes with him this morning at the press preview for the Costume Institute’s forthcoming exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The famed auteur was on hand to talk about his role as the Artistic Director for the special exhibition, which aims to seamlessly blend eastern and western cultures through a mix of cinema, fashion, and the museum’s impressive array of Chinese art and artifacts. As is the custom, this highly anticipated exhibition will be kicked off in style with the Costume Institute gala, aka the Party of the Year. The glamorous—and very exclusive—event is organized by Vogue and, this year, sponsored by Yahoo.

The mild-mannered Wong might be the most qualified to execute such an ambitiously creative vision. With a Chinese Buddhist mural hanging behind him, he quoted both an ancient proverb and Coco Chanel during his brief, but eloquent speech at the museum on Monday morning. “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only,” he said quoting the designer. “Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, it’s what’s happening.” More of his sage wisdom as well as his thoughts on east versus west, below. Plus, why he believes this exhibition will bring everyone closer together.

Yahoo Style: Your seminal film In the Mood For Love is a constant reference to the fashion set, and even inspired a Prada collection. Did you ever imagine fashion would be so inspired by your films?

Wong Kar Wai: The original title for In the Mood for Love was called A Story About Food. The idea was to tell a love story through different courses. This was inspired by a book, The Physiology of Taste, which I was reading at that time. So I thought at that point, that it may inspire some chefs in restaurants, but the fact that the fashion community embraced it is a big surprise for me.

YS: How important are the costumes to your films?

WKW: One thing about that book: the writer said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” So in a way, it’s also about the look of a person. In the film, the character Maggie Cheung plays has been changing different outfits in every scene, so for me it’s not about the fashion, the costume basically is about her mood. It’s the way to see her mood changing from one scene to the other.

YS: Do you believe that this is an important step in merging cultures in a mainstream way?

WKW: Last year, Spike Jonze made the film, Her, in which he actually incorporated shots of modern Shanghai into his vision of the near future. I think this is the first time in the history of American cinema to associate China with the future, so it’s really encouraging. So like the title of exhibition suggests, Americans always see China through the looking glass and I think it’s about time with technology and of the growing economic relationship between these two countries, I think it’s natural and better for all of us to have a better understanding of each other.  

YS: Where do you go to find inspiration?

WKW: What’s so great about inspiration is sometimes it finds you when you’re not looking. Like Coco Chanel says, it’s in the sky, it’s in the streets. It’s the way that we live. I remember that there is a Chinese saying, I think it’s from Bruce Lee, he said, “You can never invite the wind, but you have to keep your window open.” I think that’s the right approach.

YS: What’s your process for developing a visual identity for a film?

WKW: To make films, it always begins with two words: what and how. First of all you have to find a story or what are you going to tell? And you have to find a way to tell it visually. And these two stages come hand in hand. Without the directions or without the story, the visuals are just a bunch of beautiful images. It doesn’t make any sense.

YS: How did this collaboration with Vogue and the Met come about?

WKW: It was last year. I was intrigued when they came to me with this concept of the exhibition. First of all, I think fashion and cinema are two individual art forms that are closely associated to each other. As I filmmaker, there is an interesting story to tell here. And to explore what has been lost in this translation between the dialogue between Chinese cinema and fashion.

YS: What is your hope when people attend the exhibition and when they leave it?

WKW: I think the concept of in the sky there is no distinction of east and west. I hope the scale of this exhibition, and the amazing collections that we have on both the western fashions and the Chinese artifacts, will make the audience realize that the show is not a show to reinforce difference, but to bring us closer.

YS: Can you give us a hint as to what your artistic plans are for this exhibition?

WKW: It has to incorporate the four elements: mirror, flower, water, and wood. They are concept between Chinese cinemas and Western fashion. It’s a bright Eastern moon finding its reflections in western waters, so it’s really about the reflections and the fascinations or the fantasies or the originals. We are trying to divide the show like a chronology—the imperial stage until today. In each of the spirit we have a motif: it’s cinema, objects, the political icons, and historical icons. So I think it’s going to be very, very interesting. The production is going to be massive.

YS: Obviously In the Mood for Love is an important film that everyone should see before attending this exhibition. What other films that you’ve created do you think are paramount to this show?

WCW: All of my films basically are the different stage of myself. So it’s like meeting me in different stage, almost like photo albums. Pick one, and you will find something.

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