The man behind Wong Kar-wai’s iconic movie posters

Wong San-mun. Michael Chiu, Still / Loud.

Behind the scenes of the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival, beyond its daring directors, entrancing actors and progressive indie films, is a talent integral to the film industry – graphic designer Wong San-mun.

Wong is responsible for designing this and last year’s key visuals for the HKIFF. He is the first designer that the festival commissioned as artistic director for two consecutive years.

Fully-bearded and dressed in a fisherman’s bucket hat, baggy linen pants, and distressed blazer, he is exactly the street chic-looking creative you would imagine of being capable and conscientious enough to design a poster that would encapsulate the overarching theme of this year’s HKIFF, which focuses on how Hong Kong films have evolved after the handover.

Wong has over 20 years of experience and started his career working with famed photographer Wing Shya to create album covers for Hong Kong pop artists – most notably Eason Chan. He then went solo, concentrating on freelancing to allow himself a better work-life balance.

eason chan CD
Copyright © Universal Music (Hong Kong) Limited.

We met a pensive Wong at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, narrating his thought process behind the minimalist blue and purple promotional poster with an origami boat-shaped feature of the number “41” – representing the 41st anniversary – that he created for the HKIFF.

Versed in Buddhist philosophy, reflective and highly introspective, Wong began by highlighting the importance of directors like Fruit Chan and Pang Ho-cheung in inspiring him. Their roles in portraying the shifting relationship between Hong Kongers and mainlanders tie into the theme of this year’s HKIFF – a remembrance of late Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang.

“It’s essentially about capturing the feeling of reflection and discovering what we don’t know about ourselves,” he said. “That’s why the ‘41’ looks like a boat on a journey at sea under the sky.”

wong san-mun
Copyright © HKIFF Society (Left) and Michael Chiu, Still / Loud (Right).

Another key feature to his design is the depiction of a child with his back facing the audience. The image of the child is taken from Yang’s influential movie Yi Yi, which portrays the struggles of a Taiwanese family and their search for a deeper level of self-awareness.

“When you see yourself in the mirror, you only see one side of yourself and you need to discover and be aware of the things you can’t see – your values and thoughts,” said Wong. “The conversations that we have the most is not with other people, but ourselves – and that’s the feeling I wanted to come across with my poster. This is why you see an image of a child with his back turned away from us.”

Wong’s balanced, peaceful and zen-like aesthetic arouses a state of deep thought. The clean background and proportional colour-blocking allows viewers to focus on the main character of the image. It’s a true representation of his aesthetic, which is a contrast from his most famous film posters for Wong Kar-wai’s Eros, Happy Together and 2046, which are much more stylised and saturated.

wong san-mun movie poster
Copyright © Block 2 Pictures Inc./春光映畫有限公司.

“It was very flexible working with [Wong Kar-wai],” added Wong. “His style is very bold, but I managed to keep the image simple without any trendy elements. If you look at the posters now, you would still find it relevant.”

There is a timelessness to Wong’s approach, which make his film posters and recent work for the HKIFF ever more enticing and approachable. Hong Kong’s creative scene is often criticised for its trend-driven nature, but Wong ignores the temporary, for something more substantial.

So it’s fitting that he also helped the HKIFF re-design the Firebird Award this year, which will be awarded to a young, upcoming director – a director who will also be aiming to create films that are timeless classics.