[2oo7 Update: This post, my 2005 first-impression review of 2046, is much too long… I know, I know. But reading through it again I was caught up in Wong Kar-Wai’s work as if for the first time. So I remember why I was so effusive and enthusiastic about it. I may just re-watch a few scenes of it tonight. If you haven’t discovered In the Mood for Love, or this, its glorious sequel, you’re in for an intoxicating ride.]
Wong Kar-Wai’s films are like nets… webs of image and event snag the edges of, and thus capture, a state of being or an idea that cannot be merely explained or directly paraphrased.
That is to say, Wong’s films ask us to receive an experience, to apprehend a mystery through a series of intense aesthetic encounters. These encounters stimulate emotions and understanding that could only come about from those sights and sounds. Mere storytelling or summary would never come close to conveying such a fragile and elusive qualities.
Wong’s classic and stylish romance In the Mood for Love was a masterpiece of subtlety, in which the filmmaker attempted — through close attention to the smallest details, the merest expressions, the slightest of gestures — to capture the unspoken and erotic charge between two people: a married man and a separately married woman. Viewers experienced the romantic chemistry between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen Chan through an accumulation of vivid moments when electricity hummed between them. We also cared for them and sympathized with them — their spouses were, after all, having an affair and leaving them lonely and sad.
In his new film, 2046, Wong has done it again. But he has also taken us one step further. It brings us back to Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai of Hero and Infernal Affairs) years later. Chow is angst-ridden over the loss of that precious connection with Su (played once again, in fleeting flashbacks, by Maggie Cheung). And now, as if he has joined us in the audience, Chow himself is trying to capture the quality of that connection again. He wants desperately to return to that state of being.
But he cannot.
Chow is a newspaper man who is shifting the focus of his writing from journalism to racy romance novels and sordid science fiction. In this way, he’s seeking to recapture and preserve that bliss he felt with Su. His endeavors lead us into a a sprawling, futuristic story set in a city full of pleasure-androids. This city resembles, above all, the dark Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Chow finds that even in the development of an outrageous fiction, he cannot give voice to his particular longings.
(After the show, my friend Martin Stillion compared it to Dangerous Liaisons, and he’s right on — it’s like Dangerous Liaisons meets Blade Runner in the aesthetic of In the Mood For Love.)
Mr. Chow also tries to capture his lost enchantment through fetishizing his past. In a place called the Oriental Hotel, he moves into hotel room 2047 so that he can spy on room 2046 — that was the number of the room in which he had indulged in that love affair.
As various women move into and out of that room, Chow becomes a peeping tom and a seducer at the same time, engaging in various affairs that only sharpen his longing for that original romance by falling short of it. In his desperate flings with these women, their “lovemaking” (which is anything but that) shakes the walls as if they are trying to break through to some unreachable state. But they never do. Each frenzied rendezvous intensifies the absence of true love by standing in stark contrast to it, and Chow finds he cannot commit to true love. Worse, as he watches each woman fall short of his standard, he proves incapable of treating them with respect.
And thus, 2046, a tale of one man’s bemused, detached, manipulative, and sometimes downright cruel behavior towards women, accentuates the value and rarity of true love by showing us how badly someone can regret losing sight of it. Worse, it shows what monsters we can become if we demand to obtain it, rather than giving it.
In one striking scene, Chow catches a glimpse of something richer. It’s Christmas Eve, and he’s moved to bless one of his ladies with a Christmas wish, which requires that he be quite selfless. That moment shines in the center of the film as a glimmer of hope, the closest we ever get to the appealing Eden.
Throughout the film, the number 2046 becomes the symbol of an unchangeable, glorious, idyllic state, the goal of all human longing. It’s a nostalgia-inducing hotel room. In Mr. Chow’s time-travel novel, it’s a mysterious and futuristic destination, a year in which people are rumored to find contentment but from which they cannot return. (Thus, there is always the possibility that they do not find peace at all. Chow can’t know for sure, because no one has ever come back with a report.)
It’s as if 2046 represents the rumor of heaven itself. We can believe it exists, and we can hope to reach it. But once we’re there… we’ll never return. That nagging sense of its existence stems from traces of memory, some sense that we have touched its borders before.
Sound too philosophical and nebulous for you? Don’t worry. There are a lot of good reasons to see 2046.
Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography savors the subtle grace of several fine actresses in a take-your-breath-away, “aren’t-women-confoundingly-fantastic” kind of way. No film that this reviewer has ever seen captures the beauty of its actresses so artfully, with such spectacular style and light.
Few films have ever concentrated so closely on colors and textures. Doyle, whose previous masterworks include Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, builds this film out of shots in which most of the screen is obscured by screens, walls, or curtains, so that we focus on a face or a figure framed in a narrow space. The effect of precise details bursting through the cracks of solid colors and swathes of shadow is fascinating. The way Wong and Doyle collaborate to glorify these actresses could almost qualify as a form of worship. (It’s up to you whether these images move you to worship the women or their Maker.)
The performances are all flawless. Tony Leung is suave, funny, and sometimes chilling, showing remarkable range and restraint. It’s remarkable how he makes us like and even care about such a licentious fool. With his pomade-slicked hair and his rakish moustache, he deliberately reminds us of Clark Gable or a more contemporary icon of cool like George Clooney, and yet I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.
Despite Leung’s achievement, the film belongs to Ziyi Zhang. She is a revelation in this film. I liked her before, especially in The Road Home, but here she nudges her way into Juliette Binoche/Audrey Hepburn territory. It’s hard to believe she’s real. And because she is the one character in the film who seems to have an inkling of becoming a better person and reaching for a higher form of love, our sympathies are swayed to her.
Zhang plays Bai Ling, an expensive prostitute who might give up her career for true love, if she can ever talk Mr. Chow into surrendering. Her flirtations turn to earnest pleas and ultimately desperation. She’s the beating heart of the film, and she deserves an Oscar nomination.
The other actresses are extraordinary as well. The otherworldly beauty Faye Wong (Chungking Express) gets to play both a writer AND a pleasure-robot. Few actresses could play an android so convincingly. Gorgeous, in a way, and yet unnervingly plastic, she prances about in what may be the coolest shoes ever filmed.
Did I mention that the always-dazzling Gong Li deserves praise too? After weeping over her husband’s gambling habits in To Live, now she gets to gamble herself.
Beauty communicates truth, regardless of artists’ intentions. Wonders like a black-gloved woman in an elegant silk dress, or light streaming past the window of a train, or dusk behind a neon hotel sign as it flickers to life, give us a sense that there is more here than meets the eye. These things are meaningful, reminding us that there is a mysterious life and meaningfulness in everything around us.
For all of the film’s stellar achievements, I would be irresponsible if I did not comment on the film’s eroticism. When erotic imagery is lurid and gratuitous, it tends to narrow a viewer’s perspective, inspiring baser appetites and self-centered thoughts. If erotic imagery is beautiful and respectful, it can inspire a sense of awe that provokes gratitude, reverence, and humility rather than the objectification of its source.
It would take a very narrow-minded viewer to see this film as an invitation to lust. Like the cruel lovers in Mike Nichols’ Closer, the characters of 2046 are far from role models. They’re deeply confused about the difference between love and lust, and they’re using each other to make up for the fact that they don’t have what it takes to develop the Real Thing. Mr. Chow is a profoundly sad and even deplorable character, wasting himself and damaging his lovers in arrogance and despair.
And whatever Wong wants to say about his longing for a true love that slipped through his fingers, 2046 can be seen as a cautionary tale. In spite of his longing for transcendence, Chow seems cursed to never reach what he desires, because he can’t get over himself. For all of his affairs, he holds on to the right to manipulate, leave, break promises, and do whatever the heck he wants. He’s an arrogant jerk, and we can learn from observing his mistakes.
Some will complain the film is too long. I was enthralled, beginning to end. Even if I ignored the plot entirely and just basked in the colors and textures, I’d come away feeling as if I’d been served an extravagant meal… and enjoyed it so much that I ate a few platefuls too many. Cinephiles who know more about Chinese history and Asian cinema than will probably arrive at different interpretations of the film. I look forward to seeing what they glean from it.
And what of the curious image that opens and closes the film… that of a woman leaning into a strange portal, a vacuous horn? It’s literally “open” to interpretation. To me, it certainly seems representative of the way we yearn for some other dimension, the way we lean into echoes in hopes of touching the source of the sound. We long for that state of being that all of our encounters with beauty and love bring back to our minds. The more we pursue that state of perfect love, the less we will be satisfied with lesser distractions.