A frantic-looking man points a gun at the camera.

The Man Who Mentored Wong Kar-wai

An examination of Patrick Tam's 'My Heart Is That Eternal Rose' and two cinematographers' bond through film

Courtesy of Kani

Words by Andy Crump

Imagining Wong Kar-wai as anything other than a master filmmaker and top contender for “coolest cat on the planet” takes brain-straining effort, unless the name “Patrick Tam” rings a bell. Even then, knowledge of both Tam’s work and the effect he’s had on Wong’s career certainly doesn’t imply that Wong was a laughable, awkward dork, once upon a time. It only tells us that his persona-defining hip sophistication required molding, and that Tam, while comparatively less renowned than Wong, gets to claim chief credit for the feat. 

Wong would exist in a reduced form sans Tam’s tutelage; with it, he’s secured status as a cinema legend. It was 1987 that marked the beginning of their mentor-mentee bond, when Tam directed the action vehicle Final Victory; Wong spent two years writing the movie’s screenplay for Tam to direct. From there, the pair would collaborate directly twice more, when Tam edited Wong’s second and fourth films, Days of Being Wild (1990) and Ashes of Time (1994). The association affords Tam street cred that, while not unwelcome, isn’t necessary, either, because the person responsible for inspiring Wong’s predilection for strong color palettes, for instance, must be fundamentally cool themselves. Besides: The only  evidence anyone needs of his 1980s modernist bona fides is his seventh feature, the action romance My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (1989), recently given a fresh coat of paint plus a limited theatrical run at New York City’s Metrograph

Wong’s debut, As Tears Go By, opened a year prior to Tam’s film, and is similarly molded around love doomed to die by its ecosystem’s nature; triad gangland politics are hostile to tenderness. But My Heart Is That Eternal Rose reads as an instruction manual for Wong’s movies going forward, in terms of technique as well as sensation. It’s a film about longing between star-crossed partners, fatefully splattered by a lot of climactic arterial spray.

The poster of "My Heart Is That Eternal Rose" by Patrick Tam.

Poster of "My Heart Is That Eternal Rose."

Courtesy of Kani

In Wong’s cinema, people pine. They brood. They’re often filmed in wide angles, and occasionally in a particularly herky-jerky slow motion; they’re always filmed in relation to bold colors and mood lighting. Much the same is true of Tam’s movies, too, and My Heart Is That Eternal Rose is especially demonstrative of these qualities. A retired gangster (Kwan Hoi San) bungles a favor for an old friend. His daughter, Lap (Joey Wong), and her crush, Rick (Kenny Bee), wind up caught in the disastrous aftermath. Rick hoofs it to the Philippines while Lap remains in Hong Kong, having made a devil’s pact with another gangster, Shen (Chan Wai-Man), to save her father’s life. 

Six years later, Lap is Shen’s mistress; Rick is a pro-grade hitman; Shen needs to whack a guy who’s about to testify against him in court. Rick takes the gig as a matter of course, and enjoys a short-lived reunion with Lap that ends in tears (and, once more,  copious violence). Misery loves company, but a third wheel will do fine in a pinch, and Cheung (Tony Leung), the triad youngster assigned as Lap’s driver, fulfills that role by yearning for her from the sidelines. 

If there’s an exterior detail capable of connecting Tam’s filmography with Wong’s, it’s Leung (who, by the way, is a high stakes competitor in the same “coolest cat” contest as Wong). Leung’s very name evokes a kind of slick melancholy. He plays men accustomed to loneliness and unwilling to let anyone see how much they hate being alone; he’s the sole occupant of a restaurant booth blanketed by a cumulonimbus of cigarette smoke, unhinging his jaw to jam a whole wonton in his mouth, as if in acknowledgment that he needs to eat but finds the whole enterprise embarrassing. But that’s the Leung of Wong’s cinema. The Leung of My Heart Is That Eternal Rose is wide-eyed and coltish, like a gawky calf figuring out how to put one hoof in front of the rest without tumbling into a tangle of splayed limbs. He isn’t the smoldering charismatic lion we recognize him as today, even if he is pretty darn cute.

A young man and woman sits at a small table. The woman stares at a glass in her hands.

Tam's cinema is full of brooding and melancholy.

Courtesy of Kani

That tragic asymmetrical love triangle is precisely tailored to the movie’s wistful spirit. But the torch Cheung carries for Lap reflects the thrumming urgency and unfulfilled heartache that’s core to Wong’s filmmaking, tooanother telltale sign of Tam’s effect on his student. Tam hinges My Heart Is That Eternal Rose on Rick and Lap’s feelings for each other; Cheung is simply an observing figure, though his interventions in the final act are essential. Bee and Wong (Joey, that is) play a far more central part than Leung in stirring up sensations of desire denied by circumstance. The movie is, after all, about them, a couple meant to be but never permitted to by the schemes of other people; the climactic gunfight serves as a grim punctuation mark on their unrealized romance. 

It’s a sequence common in Tam’s movies, with slight variations across the wuxia picture The Sword (1980), the romantic comedy Nomad (1982), and, unsurprisingly given its author, Final Victory , among others: Characters in search of purpose or meaning are repeatedly deprived of what they’re after, a cycle that, like any chemical reaction worth its atoms, builds inevitably to bloodshed. Early in his career, Wong hewed toward that cycle, too, applying tweaks here and there as Tam did in his own movies. Describing that tension between unrequited love and ruthless brutality as foundational for Wong wouldn’t be a stretch, and in fact, it might be an understatement. In As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild (1990), and Fallen Angels (1995), for instance, primary characters die in a hail of bullets; meanwhile, Chungking Express, a decidedly less violent film than each of these three, nonetheless counts a retaliatory pistol shot among its plot points. 

Visual motifs crop up alongside narrative themes further linking Wong’s vision with Tam’s, too. For one, there’s step printingthat “herky-jerky” slow-motion effect, seen in My Heart Is That Eternal Rose during a sequence where Cheung is saddled with the awful task of informing Lap that, just seconds earlier, a car struck and killed her dad in the street. Wong co-invented step printing with another cross-collaborator of his and Tam’s, legendary Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has served as the DP on all of Wong’s movies, starting after As Tears Go By and ending with 2046; where traditional slow-motion is used as a spatial tool, step printing is temporal, a way to hold the audience in a single moment even for just a little bit longer than normal, and causing the image to “smear” in the process. Step printing suggests movement while presenting inertiaa fitting visual metaphor for the shock Lap experiences at her father’s death.

Two men in suits look towards the camera in a dimly lit room at night.

"My Heart Is That Eternal Rose" falls in the emergent subgenre of action, Heroic Bloodshed.

Courtesy of Kani

As far as qualifications go this one is literally surface-level, somewhat like Leung’s quiet ennui. But in cinema, surface is substance. Doyle gives My Heart Is That Eternal Rose a vivid neon sheen that feels prototypical of the look Wong would go on to perfect over the next decade and change in his own work; he lays out the blueprint for a recurring image in several Wong movies, too, the backseat tenderness shot, where two characters sit in a taxi while one rests their head on the other’s shoulder. 

Here, Lap uses Rick for a pillow as they muse over the futility of their situation, bathed in evening’s deep green hues. They’re parked outside the now-defunct restaurant where Rick killed a corrupt cop (the great Ng Man-tat in a wonderfully oily cameo) during that fateful botched job half a decade prior. Rick is in disbelief that he’s come back to where his life took a turn for the worse; Lap wonders how different things might be for them had the job gone smoothly. “Do you regret coming back?” she asks. “Some things I never regret,” he replies. Then she tucks her beautiful, weary crown against his cheek, and for a beat, they get to enjoy something like peace with each other. 

The peace isn’t to last, of course, a hallmark both of My Heart Is That Eternal Rose’s subgenreheroic bloodshed, the house that John Woo and Ringo Lam built before Hollywood snatched it through creative eminent domainas well as Tam’s proclivities as a storyteller. Through the process of teacher-pupil osmosis, those proclivities are Wong’s, too, one proof among many of Tam’s influence a key throughline in Wong’s aesthetic. My Heart Is That Eternal Rose cements that influence in the relationship between these filmmakers. Thirty-five years on, the film remains critical for defining Tam, and by extension Wong as well. 

Published on April 23, 2024

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.