Wong Kar-wai was born in Shanghai and moved with his family to Hong Kong at the age of five. His father was a sailor who later managed a nightclub, informing some of the subject matter in Wong's future films. His mother was a housewife. Wong's family was part of a wave of Shanghai residents who moved to Hong Kong after the communist takeover of their home province, bringing a unique culture and very specific dialect to Hong Kong with them. Hence, Wong grew up as part of something of a distinct ethnic group, often feeling isolated within the greater context of the city as a child.
In 1980, Wong graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic. He studied graphic design, and soon after graduation took a job at Hong Kong's premier television station, TVB. After apprenticing in directing and screenwriting, Wong started working as a screenwriter in 1982. Through the late '80s, Wong worked on a variety of scripts across genres, including comedies, crime, thrillers, and fantasy. Having this variety of scriptwriting experience likely informed the genre-fluid nature of his feature films to come. In 1988, Wong made his first feature, As Tears Go By.
Early on in his career, Wong struck up a relationship with fellow Hong Kong director Jeff Lau. Together, they formed the In-Gear production company, allowing for a symbiotic creative relationship that still gave Wong plenty of leeway in his own filmmaking. Lau's output consisted of crowd pleasers that were often box office hits, such as his 1990 Stephen Chow comedy All for the Winner. Lau's mainstream appeal helped offset the financial risk of Wong's art films, affording Wong the ability to make movies that were more or less flops in a commercial sense. But Wong eventually left In-Gear to set up his own company, Jet Tone, where he produced Ashes of Time (1994), a wuxia film that was set to be his third feature.
While on a break from editing Ashes of Time, Wong made Chungking Express, also released in 1994, but earlier in the year than Ashes of Time. Chungking Express took his career to the next level by establishing him as a director par excellence who was on the same level as any of the other contemporary arthouse greats from around the world. While Ashes of Time, too, turned out to be a popular film in China, Wong would have to wait until the release of Fallen Angels (1995) to see again the same kind of acclaim that Chungking Express garnered.
The director's star only continued its rise from there, with his LGBTQ drama Happy Together (1997) earning him a Best Director award at Cannes and In the Mood for Love gaining near-universal critical praise and a litany of awards. That string of successes led to him garnering international funding for his film 2046 (2004)—a speculative fiction film about the year that Hong Kong will return to full control by the Chinese government, and the final entry in a loose trilogy also comprising Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Wong also got international funding for his first English language film, My Blueberry Nights (2007), starring Norah Jones, which is generally considered to be one of Wong Kar-wai's few misses.
Wong is still an active director. His most recent film, The Grandmaster (2013), was a return to classic Chinese genre by way of Wong's distinctive visual and narrative styles. He currently has a television series in the works that will be released through Amazon.