2004Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong
he cult of Wong Kar-wai constitutes, to be sure, a unique breed of cinephilia, not to be grouped in with your average art-movie buffs and certainly not your typical Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts. They’re not satisfied with being merely entertained or enlightened, moved or impressed sitting in that darkened theatre; they demand nothing short of rapture.
Wong is the most romantic filmmaker working anywhere in the world today, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. I can think of no other director who better understands what it feels like it to fall in love, and who expresses so palpably and in such minute, resonant detail the turbulent inner lives of his love-stricken characters. He has an uncanny knack for somehow finding vibrant new life within potentially tired romantic territory. His 1995 Fallen Angels, for example, concludes with his heroine riding off into the night on the back of her beau’s motorbike. This sort of happily-ever-after ending runs the risk of seeming trite, but with the Flying Pickets’ acapella cover of Yazoo’s “Only You” playing over the soundtrack and Michele Reis’ character confiding via voice-over that although she knows she’ll soon be dropped off at home (which is to say, the moment is too perfect to last) “right now [she’s] feeling such lovely warmth,” Wong miraculously turns the sequence into the single most perfect closing moment of the decade.
Wong’s previous feature, 2000’s In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, is the most ravishingly romantic movie ever made. Period. The only film I can think of that even comes close in this regard is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. And that was made in 1927.
The romance here is diluted by the giant "Hooters" sign just out of frame...
Set (mostly) in 1962 Hong Kong, the film focuses on the relationship between neighbors Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), who simultaneously realize their spouses, each constantly away “on business,” are engaged in an affair. Drawn together by coincidence and curious about how the affair began, they decide to role-play (Mr. Chow as Mrs. Chan’s husband, Mrs. Chan as Mr. Chow’s wife). The roles gradually dissolve, however, as the two begin to develop strong feelings for one another.
When it was revealed that Wong’s follow-up would be a companion piece to In the Mood for Love (itself a very loose sequel-of-sorts to Wong’s 1990 Days of Being Wild) the anticipation among the Wong faithful reached a fever pitch, easily comparable to the level of excitement with which, say, the first Star Wars was awaited (albeit by a very different set of fans). Since then, we’ve waited as patiently as possible, with only Wong’s video for DJ Shadow’s “Six Days” and an ad he directed for BMW to tide us over until this mystery masterpiece, vaguely described as “futuristic,” arrived.
The wait is over.
2046 is Wong’s most complex film to date, playing in stark contrast to In the Mood for Love, his most structurally compact work. Seamlessly moving back and forth in time, leaping from reality to fantasy while all the while observing the symbiotic nature of the two, this is a film that definitely requires multiple viewings to get one’s head fully around. (After three viewings, I’m positive there’s still quite a bit that I haven’t yet picked up on.) The film is so thoroughly emotionally, visually, and aurally engaging, however, that I never felt at all like I was merely trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle.
The significance of the titular number is itself ambiguous. 2046 is, for one, the year in which China’s 50-year arrangement with Hong Kong expires. It’s also the number of the hotel room checked out by Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love. In the new film, Chow attempts to rent the same room number as his temporary residence at another Hong Kong hotel, but because it’s being refurnished, he has to settle for 2047. Room 2046 is instead occupied by a series of short-term lovers for Mr. Chow, including a never-better Zhang Ziyi in one of the year’s most indelible performances.
The filming of the new Cory Hart video will begin in ten minutes...
2046 is, too, the title of Mr. Chow’s novel, about which he notes, “I made it as bizarre and erotic as possible, without crossing the line. The readers liked it. Some didn’t take to the science-fiction angle. But all 2046 meant to me was a hotel room number. I made up the whole thing, though some of my own experiences may have found their way in...” This is a strikingly self-reflexive gesture on Wong’s part as this observation could, seemingly, have come directly from him, commenting on the reception (and conception) of his latest effort. 2046 is indeed Wong’s most “bizarre,” “erotic,” and sci-fi-leaning outing to date, though with its hypnotic, fetishizing mobile shots and swooning soundtrack, it could never be mistaken as the work of anyone else.
At the end of In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow whispers his secret into a hole and then fills the hole with mud so that the secret will remain unrevealed, a custom explained in 2046. In this film, Chow is a more cynical, hardened man than he was before, with Tony Leung newly sporting a gigolo’s mustache. He seems to break the hearts of women not out of cruelty or indifference so much as a sort of subconscious defense of his own still unhealed romantic wounds. The scene in 2046 where Chow casually refuses to be faithful to Zhang Ziyi’s Bai Ling, herself a reformed slut who has fallen hard for Chow despite her better instincts, is among the most heartbreaking moments in Wong’s entire oeuvre. The main reason the scene proves so poignant is that you can read so much of what’s going on just below the surface, within the hearts of these characters, from the expressions that flash suddenly across their faces, the momentary looks in their eyes. Wong is lauded most often as a cutting-edge cinematic stylist, but he’s also an acutely perceptive director of actors.
In one of the key scenes in the earlier film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are standing together under shelter from the night rain while he muses thoughtfully on the way that feelings can just creep up on you as if from out of nowhere. All of Mr. Chow’s subsequent relationships, as we see in this later film, play out (from his perspective at least) as mere echoes of his doomed affair with Mrs. Chan. If In the Mood for Love was, above all, a meditation on love catching us off-guard at the least opportune of moments, 2046 is about how it can continue to haunt us for a lifetime.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-11-05