[FILM] 2046: A Film Odyssey
- 2046: A Film Odyssey
For four years, Wong Kar-wai fought to bring his vision to life.
What's the result? A romantic masterpiece
BY RICHARD CORLISS
Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is a ladies' man. He knows how to attract
them and keep them at a distance. Having been burned in an earlier
affair, he is loath to reveal to them the ache of lost love at his
core. Yet he needs a woman; he seems happy only when he can nod off,
in a taxi, on a kind lady's shoulder. He sounds like a weary cynic,
but underneath he is like every Wong Kar-wai character: a melancholy
romantic. And he has the bruises to prove it.
Chow is the hero of 2046, Wong's first feature since In the Mood for
Love four years ago. Like that film and most of the others that have
made him the most respected and imitated writer-director in Hong
Kong, perhaps in all Asia, it is a stethoscope monitoring the
troubled hearts of people who have the attitude but not always the
aptitude for love. At $15 million and more than two hours in length
(20 minutes longer than any of his earlier pictures), 2046 is the
grandest project of a man who, in an age of coarse and facetious
movies, has the mission to reestablish the romantic tone of the
grandest old filmswhere two beautiful people would gaze into each
other's eyes and go about breaking each other's hearts.
That makes Wong, 46, the cinema's reigning romantic. But in his dark
shades and friendly hipness, he is too cool to plead totally guilty
to that charge. "Romanticism means you follow your heart more than
your mind," he said last week as he alighted in Hong Kong during a
hectic promotion tour that took him to Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou
and Beijing. "If that's the case, my films are 75% romantic; the
other 25% is the realities, the problem solving and luck." As for
himself, he laughs and says he's "60% romantic." Which sounds like
the other 40% is talking.
The release of 2046 was delayed by realities, problem solving and
luck, most of it bad. The SARS epidemic disrupted filming last year.
The futuristic computer imagery, which opens the film in dazzling
fashion, took more time than expected. Mostly, though, Wong is a
notorious perfectionist in an industry that believes fast is good.
(Johnnie To, Hong Kong's top auteur of commercial films, has directed
13 features in the four years since In the Mood came out.) Wong
promised that 2046 would open at the Cannes Film Festival this May,
yet he kept shooting until days before the premiere. The film missed
a scheduled screening and had to be shown later that night. For his
trouble, Wong and 2046 went home without a prize.
Wong's work habits may exasperate those around him. But a question
remains: is the movie good? And the answer is no. It's wonderfula
rich, glamorous and acutely human work with superb performances by
Leung and the four gorgeous actresses.
It's clever, too. "The idea for the film," says Wong, "comes from the
promise the Chinese government gave to the Hong Kong people: 50 years
of no change" in its political and economic systems after the 1997
handover by Great Britain. "So 2046 is the last year of that promise.
And I think, is there anything that is so unchanged in people's
lives? When we fall in love we wonder: Will they change? Will I
change? How can we make this moment last forever? So we start with
When last seen, at the end of in the Mood for Love, Chow was mourning
a failed affair with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and making a
pilgrimage to the ruins of Angkor Wat. He was told that to bury a sad
secret, one should find an ancient hole, whisper the secret into it,
then cover it up. That was 1967. It's a few years later, and Chow has
taken residence in room 2046 of the Oriental Hotel, where several
bewitching women cross his path. One is Lulu (Carina Lau), who traps
herself in a series of volcanic affairs. "She didn't mind sad
endings," Chow notes in the film's narration. "The male lead could
change, as long as she was the leading lady." Chow's cast of sexual
co-stars changes almost nightly. His hotel-room bedsprings squeal
like a medieval torture device in the unwilling ears of his next-door
The neighbor is Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a dance-hall hostess and
prostitute. Her arguments with Chow over his lady guests veer into
flirtation, and soon she too is making his bedsprings squeak. Bai
Ling makes one rash transaction: she gives her heart to Chow, who
wants her only as a playmate. The one sedate lady in the hotel is its
owner's older daughter Jingwen (Faye Wong), pining over a broken
affair with a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura). She encourages Chow, a
journalist who writes erotic books on the side, to switch to science
fiction. Soon she is helping him write a novel called 2046, in which
Chow creates an android version of Jingwen. The novel is set in a
futureworld where people go to recapture lost memories. Chow can't
escape his memories: of Su Lizhen and another woman with the same
name, a casino gambler (Gong Li) who once did him the favor of
allowing him to fall in love with her.
Confused? The plot is complex in print but pellucid on the screen.
With the dexterity of a cardsharp, Wong shuffles the present, the
recent past and the distant future, mixing reality, memory and
fantasy. The main action of the movie takes place on consecutive
Christmas Eves in the late '60s, but each scene has reverberations of
others from Chow's past and from the novel. What anchors each of the
stories for the viewer are the faces of the actresses. No
explanations are needed when Zhang is lasering a stare as bold as a
shout or Lau is sobbing herself to sleep or Gong Li is flashing an
imperious gaze. Or when Faye Wong, in our last glimpse of her, is
captured in a slow-motion, slowly encroaching close-up that fades
just as she is about to smile. It is an imagea kiss from the camera
of desirability that can be fully appreciated only when it slips
"Love is a matter of timing," Chow observes. "It's no good meeting
the right person too soon or too late." Chow intersected with all
these women too soon or too late. Wong Kar-wai got all of them at the
apogee of their craft and allure. That's part of his filmmaking
process: to sculpt the role to the performer. "If you want to make a
film with an actor or actress, there must be something that attracts
you. I'm trying to exploit that quality, which they might not even be
aware of. So I normally don't ask actresses to play other people.
It's just: 'Be you.'"
Before actors join a Wong Kar-wai film, the director says, "They
don't know the whole story, but they know their story. Zhang Ziyi,
because she knows she's going to play a ballroom dancer in the '60s,
has to be given a lot of homework. I have to give her all of these
films from the period, so she can understand the gestures, the
actions. And also I give her all the costumes, because she has to get
those manners down. Gong Li's character is a gambler, so Li headed
down to Macau incognito to watch gamblers at work. She's very
serious. She needs to have a lot of preparation. Faye Wong, she
doesn't need to do that because we've worked [together] before, and
she always tries to make herself very relaxed."
It makes one wonder how he will direct Nicole Kidman on a film
project that may materialize next year. Wong is teasingly oracular on
the plot and setting: "The only thing I want to say is I always
conceive of Nicole Kidman as the woman in a Hitchcock film. I think
the woman in Hitchcock is always very dangerous, or in danger. And
Nicole is both."
Directing one of the world's most famous and adventurous actresses
might be intimidating for someone who, as he notes, "didn't go to
film school. I don't have any technical training. The way I make
films is the only way I know." But he knows his mad method works, in
large measure because of two men who have been his closest
collaborators on most of his films. William Chang, the editor,
production designer and costume designer, is both the architect and
the first critic of Wong's vision. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle
matches the director's artistry and energy with a luscious camera
style that sees beyond surfaces into essences. He takes ravishing
pictures of troubled souls.
Wong, of course, is their inspirer. And to begin a project, all the
inspiration he requires is one strong, suggestive image. "You need to
have the image," he says. "Sometimes you can start with the look of
an actress or a certain space. In Eros, I started with the image of a
In an age when many serious directors, especially in Europe, are
making films with graphic sex, Wong remains a gentleman in matters of
the groin. 2046 does have one vigorous bedroom encounter, with the
nude Leung and Zhang Ziyi attractively entangled. But the erotic
knockout punch is a kisssudden, brutal, passionate and 35 seconds
longbetween Leung and Gong Li. They go at each other like two
drowning strangers giving each other CPR. Now that's sexy.
"To describe a so-called love scene, or intercourse, is very boring,"
Wong says, reluctant even to use the word sex. "There must be a point
to your focus. In Eros, it's about the hand, not the actual act."
The Hand, his contribution to the three-part Eros (the other parts
are by Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh), has no nudity;
all sex is suggestive. But the film is called Eros, not Sex; and his
episode is throbbingly erotic, as well as a fable about love, lust,
loyalty and the ravages of ego in a beautiful young woman who will
not always be young or beautiful.
In 1963, a tailor's apprentice named Zhang (Chang Chen) is called to
the apartment of a notorious courtesan, Miss Hua (Gong Li, again). As
he waits for his audience the sounds of lovemaking trouble and arouse
him. Miss Hua, when she greets him, notices his excitement, orders
him to remove his trousers and caresses him with her expert hand. It
could be said that Hua is merely extending Zhang a professional
courtesy. But she is also humiliating the young manand, she must
know, earning a new devotee with a sexual gesture that means little
to her, everything to him.
Over the years, Hua's web of erotic and financial alliances unravels.
Wealthy lovers tire of her imperiousness; the gigolo she supported
(and whose exertions Zhang overheard that first day) has found
younger flesh to exploit. She can't pay the tailor bills, yet Zhang
remains her faithful couturier and courtier, flattering Hua on her
waist size, whispering compliments to a woman in need of them and,
finally, secretly, paying for the dingy hotel room she's forced to
move into. Gratitude, or desperation, leads her to ask, "Do you have
a wife yet?" "No." "How about me?" It is an eloquent three words with
at least three meanings: an expression of noblesse oblige, an
admission of defeat and an acknowledgment of how much this tradesman
has meant to her.
Their last meeting reprises, as in a symphony, the motifs of the
first movement but with a new gravity and tenderness. A touch of the
hand, a kiss on the face, a few tears and their time is over. In this
cinematic short storyas delicate as Guy de Maupassant's, as terse
and acute as Raymond Carver'sWong touches on his old themes of
romance and remorse. Chang Chen, looking like a younger Tony Leung in
mustache and '60s clothing, gives a mature performance; but Gong Li
is the eye magnet. As Hua the regal manipulator, she ages and
diminishes, allowing the viewer to escort her on her appointment with
tragedy. Give the lady a big hand.
Wong is not perpetually stuck in the 1960s, though his past three
films reside there. He had planned to set The Hand in 1930s Shanghai,
and shoot it in that city, but the SARS outbreak restricted travel
around Asia, forcing him to film in Hong Kong. As fears of an
epidemic intensified, the entire production was disrupted, with some
Taiwan crew members having difficulty getting to Hong Kong. "Their
wives just went crazy," Wong says. "They couldn't accept their
husbands working on such a dangerous film, in such a dangerous city.
But the men still came."
In the end, nothing could prevent Wong finishing 2046.
A four-year shoot might seem torture to some directors. Not this
one. "For me," he says, "to make films is like a circus. We should
just go from one town to another, always on the road, stopping when
we think we should stop. To me, if there's no Cannes, you can make
2046 for another year." Is it a circus or a love affair, whose ending
he both dreads and prays for? As Chow says in the movie, "You can't
leave 2046. You can only hope it leaves you." Filmmaking for Wong Kar-
wai is like an addiction, benign but incurable.
"It's very hard," he acknowledges. "At the end you just want to get
away from it. A few weeks ago, we finished the final mix. And I
realized that you have to say goodbye to this project, and you feel
very, very ..." His voice trails off. "I know it's not easy. I know
it's not a normal practice to make a film for four years. And I'm not
sure we'll be able or willing to do that again in the future. This is
a very special film. It is the hardest to let go. But you have to let
go. And that's it."
Which is stronger: his love for the challenge and camaraderie of
making a film or the heartache he feels when it's over? Maybe the two
emotions are equally potent, since Wong makes movies that blend those
two subjects: the coming together, the drifting apart. The maker of a
film as splendid as 2046 should be eager to let it go, to share his
treasure with the world. Instead there's an emptiness worse than
postcoital or postpartum depression. That's the secret, whispered
into a hole, by a man who is 60% romantic, 40% showman and 100% movie
artist. He's like Chow in 2046, watching the most amazing woman walk
out of his life.
In 2046 Jingwen reads a story Chow has written about her and finds
the ending too sad. Could he please change it? We are happy to do
that for Wong Kar-wai. He should realize that his unhappy ending is,
for others, a beguiling beginning. His vanished beloved can now find
a new suitormillions of moviegoers, who will embrace the beautiful
creature, who are ready to be put in the mood for love.
Reported by Bryan Walsh/Hong Kong