Wong at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival
17 July 1958 |
Wong Kar-wai, BBS (born 17 July 1958) is a Hong Kong Second Wave filmmaker, internationally renowned as an auteur for his visually unique, highly stylised, emotionally resonant work, including Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), 2046 (2004) and The Grandmaster (2013). His film In the Mood for Love (2000), starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, garnered widespread critical acclaim. Wong's films frequently feature protagonists who yearn for romance in the midst of a knowingly brief life and scenes that can often be described as sketchy, digressive, exhilarating, and containing vivid imagery.
- 1 Biography
- 1.1 Early life and career beginnings (1958–1989)
- 1.2 Developing style (1990–1994)
- 1.3 Breakthrough (1994–1995)
- 1.4 Widespread recognition (1996–2000)
- 1.5 International work (2001–2007)
- 1.6 Commercial success (2008–present)
- 1.7 Personal life
- 2 Influences
- 3 Recognition and impact
- 4 Filmography and awards
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Early life and career beginnings (1958–1989)
Wong Kar-wai was born on 17 July 1958 in Shanghai, the youngest of three siblings. His father was a sailor and his mother was a housewife. By the time Wong was five years old, the seeds of the Cultural Revolution were beginning to take effect in mainland China and his parents decided to relocate to British-ruled Hong Kong. The two older children were meant to join them later, but the borders closed before they had a chance and Wong did not see his brother or sister again for ten years. In Hong Kong, the family settled in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, and his father got work managing a night club. Being an only child in a new city, and speaking only Mandarin, Wong has said he felt isolated during his childhood; he struggled to learn Cantonese and English, only becoming fluent in these new languages when he was a teenager.
As a youth, Wong was frequently taken to the cinema by his mother and exposed to a variety of films. He later said: "The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies". At school he was interested in graphic design, and earned a diploma in the subject from Hong Kong Polytechnic in 1980. After graduating, Wong was accepted onto a training course with the TVB television network, where he learned the processes of media production. He soon began a screenwriting career, firstly with TV series and soap operas, such as Don't Look Now (1981), before progressing to film scripts. He worked as part of a team, contributing to a variety of genres including romance, comedy, thriller, and crime. Wong had little enthusiasm for these early projects, described by film scholar Gary Bettinson as "occasionally diverting and mostly disposable", but continued to write throughout the 1980s on films including Just for Fun (1983), Rosa (1986), and The Haunted Cop Shop of Horrors (1987). He is credited with ten screenplays between 1982 and 1987, but claims to have worked on about fifty more without official credit. Wong spent two years co-writing the screenplay for Patrick Tam's action film Final Victory (1987), for which he was nominated at the 7th Hong Kong Film Awards.
As Tears Go By
By 1987 the Hong Kong film industry was at a peak, enjoying a considerable level of prosperity and productivity. New directors were needed to maintain this success, and – through his links in the industry – Wong was invited to become a partner on a new independent company, In-Gear, and given the opportunity to direct his own picture. Gangster films were popular at the time, in the wake of John Woo's highly-successful A Better Tomorrow (1986), and Wong decided to follow suit. Specifically, unlike Hong Kong's other crime films, he chose to focus on young gangsters. The film, named As Tears Go By, tells the story of a conflicted youth who has to watch over his hot-headed friend – a plot that has been compared to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1971).[note 1]
Because he was well acquainted with the producer, Alan Tang, Wong was given considerable freedom in the making of As Tears Go By. His cast included what he considered some of "the hottest young idols in Hong Kong": the singer Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung. As Tears Go By was released in June 1988, "packaged as a commercial enterprise" according to Bettinson, and the film was popular with audiences. It was also a critical success, with several journalists including Wong in the "Hong Kong New Wave". While it was a conventional crime film, critic David Bordwell said that Wong "[stood] out from his peers by abandoning the kinetics of comedies and action movies in favour of more liquid atmospherics." As Tears Go By received no attention from Western critics upon its initial release, but was selected to be screened during Directors' Fortnight of the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
Developing style (1990–1994)
Days of Being Wild
For his follow-up film, Wong decided to move away from the crime trend in Hong Kong cinema, to which he felt indifferent. He was eager to make something more unusual, and the success of As Tears Go By made this possible. Developing a more personal project than his previous film, Wong picked the 1960s as a setting – evoking an era that he remembered well and had a "special feeling" for. Days of Being Wild focuses on a disillusioned young adult named Yuddy and those around him. There is no straightforward plot or obvious genre, but Stephen Teo sees it as a film about the "longing for love". Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung rejoined Wong for his second film, while Leslie Cheung was cast in the central role. Hired as cinematographer was Christopher Doyle, who became one of Wong's most important collaborators, photographing his next six films.
With its popular stars, Days of Being Wild was expected to be a mainstream picture; instead it was a character piece, more concerned with mood and atmosphere than narrative. Released in December 1990, the film earned little at the box office and divided critics. Despite this, it won five Hong Kong Film Awards, and received some attention internationally. With its experimental narrative, expressive camerawork, and themes of lost time and love, Days of Being Wild is described by Brunette as the first typical "Wong Kar-wai film". It has since gained a reputation as one of Hong Kong's finest releases. Its initial failure was disheartening for the director, and he could not gain funding for his next project – a planned sequel.
Ashes of Time
Struggling to get support for his work, in 1992 Wong formed his own production company, Jet Tone Films, with Jeff Lau. In need of further backing, Wong accepted a studio's offer that he make a wuxia (ancient martial arts) film based on the popular novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong. Wong was enthusiastic about the idea, claiming he had long wanted to make a costume drama. He eventually took little from the book other than three characters, and in 1992 began experimenting with several different narrative structures to weave what he called "a very complex tapestry". Filming began with another all-star cast: Leslie, Maggie, and Jacky Cheung returned alongside Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Charlie Young, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai − the latter of which became one of Wong's key collaborators.
Set during the Song dynasty, Ashes of Time concerns a desert-exiled assassin who is called upon by several different characters while nursing a broken heart. It was a difficult production and the project was not completed for two years, at a cost of HK$47 million. Upon release in September 1994, audiences were confused by the film's vague plotting and atypical take on wuxia. Film scholar Martha P. Nochimson has called it "the most unusual martial arts film ever made", as fast-paced action scenes are replaced with character ruminations and story becomes secondary to the use of colour, landscape, and imagery. As such Ashes of Time was a commercial failure, but critics were generally appreciative of Wong's "refusal to be loyal to [the wuxia] genre". The film won several local awards, and competed at the Venice Film Festival where Christopher Doyle won Best Cinematography. In 2008, Wong reworked the film and re-released it as Ashes of Time Redux.[note 2]
During the long production of Ashes of Time, Wong faced a two-month break as he waited for equipment to re-record sound for some scenes. He was in a negative state, feeling heavy pressure from his backers and worrying about another failure, and so decided to start a new project: "I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film." Conceived and completed within only six weeks, the new project ended up being released two months before Ashes of Time.
Chungking Express is split into two distinct parts – both set in contemporary Hong Kong and focusing on lonely policemen (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who each fall for a woman (Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong). Wong was keen to experiment with "two crisscrossing stories in one movie" and worked spontaneously, filming at night what he had written that day. Peter Brunette notes that Chungking is considerably more fun and lighthearted than the director's previous efforts, but deals with the same themes. At the 1995 Hong Kong Film Awards it was named Best Picture, and Wong received Best Director. Miramax acquired the film for American distribution, which according to Brunette "catapulted Wong to international attention". Stephen Schneider includes it in his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die with the summary: "While other films by Wong may pack more emotional resonance, Chungking Express gets off on sheer innocence, exuberance, and cinematic freedom, a striking triumph of style over substance".
Wong continued to work without break, expanding his ideas from Chungking Express into another film about alienated young adults in contemporary Hong Kong. Chungking had originally been conceived as three stories, but when time ran out Wong developed the third as a new project instead: Fallen Angels. Although it contained new characters, Wong conceived both films as complimentary studies of Hong Kong; he later said, "to me Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long."
Fallen Angels is broadly considered a crime thriller, and contains scenes of extreme violence, but is atypical of the genre and heavily infused with Wong's fragmented, experimental style. The loose plot again involves two distinct, subtly overlapping narratives, and is dominated by frantic visuals. The film mostly occurs at night and explores the dark side of Hong Kong, which Wong planned intentionally to balance the sweetness of Chungking: "It's fair to show both sides of a coin". Takeshi Kaneshiro and Charlie Young were cast again, but new to Wong's films were Leon Lai, Michelle Reis and Karen Mok. Upon release in September 1995, several critics felt that the film was too similar to Chungking Express and some complained that Wong had become self-indulgent. Film historians Zhang Yingjin and Xiao Zhiwei commented: "While not as groundbreaking as its predecessors, the film is still different and innovative enough to confirm [Wong's] presence on the international scene"
Widespread recognition (1996–2000)
While his reputation grew steadily throughout the early 1990s, Wong's international standing was "thoroughly consolidated" with the 1997 romantic drama Happy Together (1997). Its development was influenced by the Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, which occurred that year. In the lead-up, Wong was frequently asked his opinion and was widely expected to address the event in his next film. He later explained, "Since I didn't know what to respond, the best way of avoiding the question was to go and shoot elsewhere." Inspired by his love of South American literature, he decided to set his next film in Argentina. The issues of the Handover were nevertheless important: knowing that homosexuals in Hong Kong faced uncertainty after 1997, Wong decided to focus on a relationship between two men.[note 3] He was keen to present the relationship as ordinary and universal, as he felt Hong Kong's previous LGBT films had not.
Happy Together tells the story of a couple (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung) who travel to Buenos Aires in an effort to save their relationship. Wong decided to change the structure and style from his previous films, as he felt he had become predictable. Teo, Brunette, and Jeremy Tambling all see Happy Together as a marked change from his earlier work: the story is more linear and understandable, there are only three characters (with no women at all), and while it still has Doyle's "exuberant" photography it is more stylistically restrained. After a difficult production period – where a six-week shoot was dragged out to four months – the film was released in May 1997 to great critical acclaim. It competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where Wong became Hong Kong's first winner of the Best Director Award (an achievement he downplayed: "it makes no difference, it’s just something you can put on an ad.")
In the Mood For Love
In his 2005 monograph, Brunette gives the opinion that Happy Together marked "a new stage in [Wong's] artistic development", and along with its successor – In the Mood For Love (2000) – showcases the director at "the zenith of his cinematic art." The latter film emerged from a highly complicated production history that lasted two years. Several different titles and projects were planned by Wong before they evolved into the final result: a romantic melodrama set in 1960s Hong Kong that is seen as an unofficial sequel to Days of Being Wild.[note 4] Wong decided to return to the era that fascinated him, and reflected his own background by focusing on Shanghainese émigrés.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai play the lead characters, who move into an apartment building on the same day in 1962 and discover that their spouses are having an affair; over the next four years they develop a strong attraction. Teo writes that the film is a study of "typical Chinese reserve and repressed desire", while Schneider describes how the "strange relationship" is choreographed with "the grace and rhythm of a waltz" and depicted in "a dreamlike haze by an eavesdropping camera". The shoot lasted 15 months, with both Cheung and Leung reportedly driven to breaking point. Wong shot more than 30 times the footage he eventually used, and only finished editing it the morning before its Cannes premiere. At the festival, In the Mood For Love received the Technical Grand Prize and Best Actor for Leung. It was named Best Foreign Film by the National Society of Film Critics and nominated in the same category by BAFTA. In subsequent years it has been included on lists of the greatest films of all time. Wong said after its release: "In the Mood For Love is the most difficult film in my career so far, and one of the most important. I am very proud of it."
International work (2001–2007)
While In The Mood For Love took two years to complete, its sequel – 2046 – took double that time. The film was actually conceived first, when Wong picked the title as a reference to the final year of China's "One country, two systems" promise to Hong Kong.[note 5] Although his plans changed and a new film developed, he simultaneously shot material for 2046, with the first footage dating back to December 1999. Wong immediately continued with the project once In The Mood For Love was complete, reportedly becoming obsessed with it. In Bettinson's account, it "became a behemoth, impossible to finish".
2046 continues the story of Chow Mo-wan, Leung's character from In the Mood For Love, though he is considered much colder and very different. Wong found that he did not want to leave the character, and commenced where he left off in 1966; nevertheless, he claimed "It's another story, about how a man faces his future due to a certain past". His plans were vague and according to Teo, he set "a new record in his own method of free-thinking, time-extensive and improvisatory filmmaking" with the production. Scenes were shot in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and Bangkok. Actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li were cast to play the women who consume Mo-wan, as the character plans a science fiction novel titled 2046. The film premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but Wong delivered the print 24 hours late and still was not happy: he continued editing until the film's October release. It was Wong's most expensive and longest-running project to date. 2046 was a commercial failure in Hong Kong, but western critics gave positive reviews. Ty Burr of The Boston Globe praised in as an "enigmatic, rapturously beautiful meditation on romance and remembrance", while Steve Erikson of Los Angeles Magazine called it Wong's masterpiece.
Eros and My Blueberry Nights
Before starting on his next feature, Wong worked on the anthology film Eros (2004), providing one of three short films (the others directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh) that centre on the theme of lust. Wong's segment, titled "The Hand", starred Gong Li as a 1960s call girl and Chang Chen as her potential client. Although Eros was not well received, Wong's segment was often called the most successful.
Following the difficult production of 2046, Wong wanted his next feature to be a simple, invigorating experience. He decided to make an English-language film in America, later justifying this by explaining: "It’s a new landscape. It’s a new background, so it’s refreshing." After hearing a radio interview with the singer Norah Jones he immediately decided to contact her, and she signed on as the lead.[note 6] Wong's understanding of America was based only on short visits and what he had seen in films, but he was keen to depict the country accurately. As such, he co-wrote the film (one of the rare times a screenplay was pre-prepared) with author Lawrence Block. Titled My Blueberry Nights, it focused on a young New Yorker who leaves for a road trip when she learns that her boyfriend has been unfaithful. Cast as the figures she meets were Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn.
Filming on My Blueberry Nights took place over seven weeks in 2006, on location in Manhattan, Memphis, Ely, and Las Vegas. Wong produced it in the same manner as he would in Hong Kong, and the themes and visual style – despite Christopher Doyle being replaced by cinematographer Darius Khondji – remained the same. Premiering in May 2007, My Blueberry Nights was Wong's fourth consecutive film to compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Although he considered the film a "special experience", critics were not enamoured by the results. With common complaints that the material was thin and the product uneven, My Blueberry Nights emerged as Wong's first critical failure.
Commercial success (2008–present)
Wong's next film was not released for five years, as he underwent another long and difficult production on The Grandmaster (2013) – a biopic of the martial arts teacher Ip Man. The idea had occurred to him in 1999 but he did not commit to it until the completion of My Blueberry Nights. Ip Man is a legendary figure in Hong Kong, known for training actor Bruce Lee in the art of Wing Chun, but Wong decided to focus on an earlier period of his life (1936–1956) that covered the turmoil of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.[note 7] He set out to make "a commercial and colourful film". After considerable research and preparation, filming began in 2009. Tony Leung Chui-wai rejoined Wong for their seventh film together, having spent 18 months being trained in Wing Chun. Zhang Ziyi played Ip's wife, providing the film with romance alongside the martial arts spectacle. The "gruelling" production lasted intermittently for three years, twice interrupted by Leung fracturing his arm, and is Wong's most expensive to date.
The Grandmaster is described by Bettinson as a mixture of popular and arthouse traditions, with form, visuals, and themes consistent with Wong's previous work. Three different versions of the film exist, as Wong shorted it from its domestic release for the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, and again for its US distribution by the Weinstein Company.[note 8] Described in Slant Magazine as his most accessible film since his debut, The Grandmaster won twelve Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and received two Academy Award nominations (Cinematography and Production Design). Critics approved of the film, and with a worldwide gross of US$64 million it is Wong's most lucrative film to date.
In February 2015, the Asian media reported that Wong's next project will be titled Blossoms. It is based on a book by Jin Yucheng, which focuses on numerous character in Shanghai from the 1960s to the 2000s. When asked about his career in 2014, Wong told The Independent, "To be honest with you, I feel I’m only halfway done."
Wong and his wife, Esther, have one child – a son named Cheng. The director is known for always appearing in sunglasses, which James Motram of The Independent says adds "to the alluring sense of mystery that swirls around the man and his movies."
Wong is wary of sharing his favourite directors, but has stated that he watched a range of films growing up – from Hong Kong genre films to European art films. They were never labelled as such, and so he approached them equally and was broadly influenced. The energy of the Hong Kong films had a "tremendous" impact according to Brunette, while some of the international names associated with Wong include Martin Scorsese, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bernardo Bertolucci. He is often compared with French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Academic Curtis K. Tsui has argued against the idea that Wong's output feels European, writing that he is "one of the most distinctly "Chinese" of the Hong Kong directors working today". Wong's most direct influence was his colleague Patrick Tam, who was an important mentor and likely inspired his use of colour.
Outside of cinema, Wong has been heavily influenced by literature. He has a particular affinity for Latin American writers, and the fragmentary nature of his films came primarily from the "scrapbook structures" of novels by Manuel Puig and Julio Cortázar, which he attempted to emulate. Haruki Murakami, particularly his novel Norwegian Wood, also provided inspiration, as did the writing of Liu Yichang. The television channel MTV was a further influence on Wong. He said in 1998, "in the late eighties, when it was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction."
Recognition and impact
Wong is an important figure in contemporary cinema, regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. His reputation as a maverick began early in his career: in the 1996 Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, Wong was described as having "already established a secure reputation as one of the most daring avant-garde filmmakers" of Chinese cinema. Authors Zhang and Xiao concluded that he "occupies a special place in contemporary film history", and had already "exerted a sizeable impact". With the subsequent release of Happy Together and In the Mood For Love, Wong's international standing grew further, and in 2002 voters for the British Film Institute named him the third greatest director of the previous quarter-century. In 2015, Variety named him an icon of arthouse cinema.
East Asian scholar Daniel Martin describes Wong's output as "among the most internationally accessible and critically acclaimed Hong Kong films of all time". Because of this status abroad, Wong is seen as a pivotal figure in his local industry; Julian Stringer says he is "central to the contemporary Chinese cinema renaissance", Gary Bettinson describes him as "a beacon of Hong Kong cinema" who "has kept that industry in the public spotlight", and Film4 designate him the filmmaker from China with the greatest impact. Together with Zhang Yimou, Wong is seen by historian Philip Kemp as representing the "internationalisation" of East Asian cinema. Domestically, his films are generally not financial successes but he has been consistently well-awarded by local bodies. From early on he was regarded as Hong Kong's "enfant terrible", one of their most iconoclastic filmmakers. Despite this he has been recognised in both cult and mainstream circles, producing art films that receive commercial exposure. He is known for confounding audiences, as he adopts established genres and subverts them with experimental techniques.
Both Stringer and Nochimson claim that Wong has one of the most distinctive filmmaking styles in the industry. From his first film As Tears Go By he made an impact with his "liquid" aesthetic, which Ungerböck claims was completely new and quickly copied in Asian film and television. His second film, Days of Being Wild, is described by Brunette as "a landmark in Hong Kong cinema" for its unconventional approach. Nochimson writes that Wong's films are entirely personal, making him an auteur, and states, "Wong has developed his own cinematic vocabulary, with an array of shot patterns connected with him". Stringer argues that Wong's success demonstrates the importance of being "different".
In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll – whereby industry professionals submit ballots to determine the greatest films of all time – In the Mood For Love was ranked 24th, the highest ranked film since the 1980s and the sixth greatest film by a living director. Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild both ranked in the top 250; Happy Together and 2046 in the top 500; and Ashes of Time and As Tears Go By also featured (all but two of Wong's films to that point) .
Filmography and awards
Wong's oeuvre consists of ten directed features, 16 films where is he credited only as screenwriter, and seven films from other directors that he has produced. He has also directed commercials, short films, and music videos, and contributed to two anthology films. He has received awards and nominations from organisations in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. In 2006, Wong accepted the National Order of the Legion of Honour: Knight (Lowest Degree) from the French Government. In 2013, he was bestowed with the Order of Arts and Letters: Commander (Highest Degree) by the French Minister of Culture. The International Film Festival of India gave Wong a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
|Year||Title||Chinese title (English Translation)|
|1988||As Tears Go By||旺角卡門 Wong gok ka moon|
|1990||Days of Being Wild||阿飛正傳 Ah fei zing zyun (The Legends of Ah Fei)|
|1994||Chungking Express||重慶森林 Chung Hing sam lam (The Forest of Chungking)|
|Ashes of Time||東邪西毒 Dung che sai duk (The Evil East And The Toxic West)|
|1995||Fallen Angels||墮落天使 Do lok tin si (Fallen Angels)|
|1997||Happy Together||春光乍洩 Chun gwong cha sit|
|2000||In the Mood for Love||花樣年華 Fa yeung nin wa|
|2007||My Blueberry Nights||藍莓之夜 (Night Of Blueberries)|
|2013||The Grandmaster||一代宗師 Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster Of An Era)|
- Wong later admitted that he borrowed Robert De Niro's character from Scorcese's film, but claimed that he was mainly inspired by the experiences he had as a young man when he was friends with a low-level gangster.
- In an interview, Wong explained the reasoning and difficulties behind the restoration: "The laboratory where we stored all our negatives went bankrupt overnight following the Asian economic crisis in 1997. So on short notice we had to retrieve all the materials ... we noticed that some of the original negatives and sound tapes had deteriorated into pieces. We decided to rescue the film ... We spent the first few years searching for missing materials ... [Eventually] we realized that a 100-percent restoration of the original version was out of the question, so we trimmed out the parts that were beyond repair and replaced them with other options. From there we embarked on another five-year journey from restoration to redux".
- Lisa Stokes and Michael Hoover believe Happy Together is even more strongly linked to the Handover, as they argue that the relationship of the main characters represents that of China and Hong Kong. Jeffrey Tambling agrees this is a viable interpretation. Wong has denied this, but admits that the title is a reference to his hope that "we could all be happy together after 1997".
- In the Mood For Love is set two years after Days of Being Wild, and in both films Maggie Cheung's character is named Su Li-zhen.
- The Chinese government stated in 1997 that for 50 years Hong Kong was guaranteed to stay the same and keep its capitalist economy. Wong said: "2046 is the last year of this promise and I thought it would be interesting to use these numbers to make a film about promises."
- Jones had never acted before, but Wong had a history of casting singers in his films and said it felt "very natural". He also liked "the idea of this being her first movie and my first movie in English, which made us equals." Wong insisted that she not take acting lessons.
- Wong began the project when there had not been any other Ip Man biopics, but in the time it took him to make The Grandmaster three others were released first: Ip Man (2008), Ip Man 2 (2010), and The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010).
- Wong has said that he was obliged to keep the film under two hours for the US release, but "I didn't want to do it just by cutting the film shorter ... I just wanted to tell the story in a different way." He restructured the material, making it more linear and focussing more on the character of Ip Man, and included new scenes not seen in the Chinese version. Some critics have argued that the US version is inferior.
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