Monday, August 29, 2005

"2046": Where Romantics Go in Search of Lost Love


directed by Wong Kar-Wai
starring Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, others

It’s too early to tell, of course, but among today’s major filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai just may be the last true Romantic.

That may strike some as an odd conclusion to draw from his latest work. “2046,” after all, centers on a cad who plays callously with one woman’s heart while observing the anguished love lives of others who cross his path. But only a true believer in the power of love—soul-haunting, gut-wrenching love—could portray its wreckage with the kind of swooning lyricism that pervades every frame and shot of the film. As such, “2046” is the perfect follow-up to Wong’s “In the Mood for Love.”

Strictly speaking, it isn’t absolutely necessary to have seen “In the Mood for Love” to understand or appreciate “2046.” But the latter acquires infinitely greater meaning and resonance in the context of the former. (The two films are part of a loose trilogy that began with Wong’s “Days of Being Wild,” which I haven’t seen and therefore can’t comment on.) “In the Mood for Love” showed a polite, reserved young journalist, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), who lost the great love of his life (Maggie Cheung, seen here in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss flashbacks). Now, sporting a pencil mustache and a lothario’s smile, Chow writes dirty novels by day, combs the clubs of 1960’s Hong Kong at night, and steadfastly refuses to open his heart to Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, swimming through the movie in cheongsams even more extravagant than those from “In the Mood for Love”), the lovelorn call girl with whom he conducts a casual affair.

But it doesn’t take long to see that beneath the coolly impenetrable surface of his charm, Chow’s heart still bleeds for that which he’s lost. He takes room 2047 in a run-down hotel, the better to observe the comings and goings of Room 2046—because that room number carries a special significance from “In the Mood for Love.” Chow’s also writing a science fiction story called “2046,” about a train that goes to the year 2046, where people go to find lost memories. Not surprisingly, characters and events from his “real” life appear in his sci-fi narrative—most prominently, the daughter of his landlord (Hong Kong pop princess Faye Wong, who also starred in WKW’s “Chungking Express”), and her Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura), who connect (or do they?) despite language barriers and her father’s vehement disapproval. Still less surprisingly, Chow projects his own experiences on to his depiction of the forbidden romance, lending it an extra layer of elegiac melancholy. In the end, both his external and internal narratives intertwine and fold in on each other, so that no part can be clearly separated out as truth or (meta)fiction. Inconsistencies in dates and factual statements should hardly raise an eyebrow: Chow is nothing if not the quintessential unreliable narrator.

Not that narrative coherency is, or ever has been, WKW’s strong suit. It’s old news by now that “2046” was shown in an unfinished state at last year’s Cannes, where it met with a decidedly cool reception, and this initial response seems to have colored some of the subsequent critical reaction to the final film. Well, it shouldn’t have. Plot is secondary to what really matters to this director, namely, creating a mood of exquisite languor and an atmosphere charged with limitless, inexpressible romantic possibilities (most, if not all, sadly unrealized).

And oh, what a mood he creates, aided by longtime collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His Hong Kong is a place of cramped, ill-lit quarters, low ceilings, and rickety walls, yet at the same time a realm of sumptuous glamour and barely-contained passion, embodied in the sinuous curves of female forms clad in those gorgeous, maddeningly tactile cheongsams. And no one has ever made a plume of cigarette smoke such a potent symbol of both the immediacy of sex and the elusiveness of love. (I did, however, get a bit tired of seeing one pearly tear rolling down a woman’s cheek, which appears to be WKW’s other favorite motif, at least in this movie.) In contrast, the sterile, minimalist glitter of Chow’s sci-fi 2046 (or rather, the express train to 2046, where the women in his life are reimagined as kabuki-esque androids) highlights the themes of deferral, substitution, and love denied or realized too late.

All that said, I’m still forced to admit that “2046” isn’t as good as “In the Mood for Love.” While it’s just as poetic and mesmerizingly beautiful to watch, it isn’t nearly as poignant. That’s because the movie’s primary source of heat and angst—Bai Ling’s unrequited love for Chow—fails to generate the same pangs as the love story that fueled “In the Mood for Love.” Personally, I think Zhang Ziyi is too lightweight an actress to carry this storyline (or maybe she just pales in comparison to Maggie Cheung), though to be fair, her co-star doesn’t help her out much. With her, he merely smiles and smiles as he’s breaking her heart, with a kind of cruel gentleness that makes even the most sympathetic viewer (ok, me) want to slap him. This flatness is probably deliberate, but the fact remains that Leung shows much more depth in his interactions with the other women in the movie—Wong, of course, but also Gong Li and Carina Lau. His fleeting moments with Li and Lau made me wish that the movie had spent more time on Chow’s relationships with them and less on Zhang’s brittle yet headstrong China-doll beauty.

Still, “2046”’s lack of a romantic center is in some sense a logical consequence of its predecessor. Where “In the Mood for Love” was the tale of a man and a woman, “2046” is the tale of several women and a man who’s already checked out and observing them from afar. Both films are worth watching, especially in tandem. Only one, however, shows the tragedy of love; the other, its tragic aftermath.

RATING: *** 1/4


Blogger CC said...

I like Days of being wild much better than 2046. But "In the Mood of love" is by far the best.

10:30 PM  

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