You will fall in love only once. Obstacles will prevail. The rest of your life is spent recovering. --Alice Dallow, "Things Wong Kar-wai Taught Me About Love," Senses of Cinema
Like a lot of us who've encountered the uniquely heartbreaking In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai has spent a long time trying to recover from it. The filmmaker conceived his follow-up feature, 2046, as a Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi epic set in the year of the title--an apparent means of escape from Love and its early '60s period melodrama. But the name of the new film carried other, hauntingly familiar connotations: It's the number of the hotel room where Love's Su Li Zhen and Mr. Chow nearly consummated their secret affair (an editor's blade intervened at the climactic moment); and it's the last year, as per Deng Xiaoping's pledge, in which the director's native Hong Kong will remain systemically unchanged by the Chinese takeover of 1997.
For better or worse--inevitably, in any case--only a few minutes of Wong's futuristic vision made the belated final cut of 2046. In the end, which he managed to delay until past the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival, the recovering romanticist auteur simply couldn't let go of the Love story--continued here via Chow's ongoing struggle to put his ill-timed infatuation behind him. Like the whole of 2046, those few minutes of spaced-out sci-fi are enough to suggest that change is a relative prospect at best. We may be blessed in 40 years with transit at lightning speed, but the human heart will still take a lifetime or more to heal. In Wong's future, you can revisit your memories, but you can't come back; even androids dream of forgetting.
Distance, however unattainable, is a desired state in 2046, a film whose intellectual provocations don't always enable the viewer (I'm tempted to say patient) to procrastinate the processing of its too-intense sights and sounds. This may be a film about loss, but Wong is in full possession of his near-supernatural ability to direct our feelings through the purest properties of cinema. There are colors, shades of red in particular, that suggest the world of romance as an open wound; there's music, including Nat King Cole's mournful "Christmas Song," strategically repeated to leave marks on your brain, not all of them welcome; and there's a kiss (also not entirely welcome) that's at once the hottest and most disturbing of any to hit a movie screen since the one in Notorious from 1946.
But back to distance. The future of 2046 doesn't belong to the filmmaker, technically speaking, but to his protagonist (Tony Leung), a man whose failure to hook up with the love of his life has turned him into a hack writer of would-be escapism as well as a serial ladykiller, an emotional sadist, a mean bastard with a black heart and a brazenly chintzy mustache. When he's not at the typewriter fantasizing his pulpy cross between Barbarella and 2001 (both released in 1968, the year before 2046 leaves its characters to drown in their own tears), Leung's Chow practices his equally tacky art of seduction--which, like the prose, is hardly ineffective.
No fewer than four women (I'm tempted to say victims) variously surrender themselves to Chow's undeniable charms. There's Jing (Faye Wong), the relatively resilient daughter of the man who owns the hotel where Chow plies his cruelly flirtatious trade; Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a prostitute who's far less adept than Chow at concealing emotion; Mimi, a.k.a. Lulu (Carina Lau), whose bleeding heart gives way to a crimson stain on her bed; and the so-called Black Spider (Gong Li), whose alleged other moniker, revealed to Chow late in the game, might be one of this professional gambler's most successful hustles.
Oh, yeah: A fifth woman--Maggie Cheung's Su Li Zhen--appears intermittently as well, but only long enough to disappear. Teasing us with her presence, she seems to register almost subliminally, befitting her status as Chow's nagging apparition, the ghost of Love lost.
As much as any movie with the possible exception of Vertigo, 2046 is the cinematic epitome of what a shrink calls repetition compulsion--the desire to do what's dangerous again and again in a futile attempt to get it right, the inevitable failure of the effort allowing yet another try, yet another failure, on and on. With 2046, Wong dares to shatter the mirror image of his most celebrated movie and let the shards fall where they may, just as Chow destructively reprises his love-'em-and-leave-'em number at least four times, with diminishing returns. Memory is a messy thing and so is 2046: Bouncing as if at random among the stories of Chow's several surrogate Su Li Zhens, the narrative is (dis)organized in the manner of a scarred lover's semi-coherent search for the source of his pain--which he'll never find unless he looks at himself. "I made it up," Chow says of his fiction. "But some of my own experiences found their way into it."
Can obsessive narcissism make for great cinema, if nothing else? Hopelessly in love with Love, 2046 moves beyond mere melancholy to become self-pitying and at times even pathetic--as the private continuance of a dead relationship often is. Wong not only loads the movie with sentimental homages to his own images of the past (my favorite has Faye Wong appearing to trace an airplane's flight as she did in Chungking Express); he also deliberately flirts with self-parody in sensual close-ups of rain battering a street lamp, a key sliding into a lock, a drop of water dripping slowly...slowly...from a faucet. Many of the shots in this, Wong's first film in Cinemascope, devote half their width to the likes of dark curtains and crack-filled walls, as if to say that the potential to expand one's horizons will always remain unrealized under pressures as confining as these. The movie is ravishingly beautiful, of course, but the celluloid seems to have been processed to emphasize the graininess of the image--to suggest that these vivid memories are already deteriorating. (Thus Wong, staring down the dawn of digital exhibition, also weeps for celluloid and all its gorgeous imperfections.)
If Love's mood approximates the exquisite ache of an eternal maybe, of love without sex, 2046 works somewhat in the opposite direction, deepening its big-bang theory of human relations to inch itself as close as pop can come to philosophy. What the movie ultimately addresses, through its repeated scenes of lovers in the throes of separation, is the unanswerable question of how we take leave--of our memories, of ourselves, our relationships. In 1966 or 2046 (or 2005), it takes a lot less than death to part us from one another. But how much less? Is there a good way to let someone go? And what if you can't? In 2046, the callous Mr. Chow learns to share his secret--the one he whispered into a mud hole at the end of Love--with another living soul. He makes a gift of his hurt to allow someone else's love to grow. But in the end, Wong is too honest about human nature, too knowing about the fundamental violence of love, to let Chow live happily ever after. The climactic smile on the heartbreaker's face might signify his new satisfaction with self-sacrifice as a rule of the game, but I'm not so sure.
Whether or not a reviewer of a movie about separation anxiety needs to sweat his own ending, I'm giving the last word to Wong Kar-wai, whom I asked in Cannes whether he had mastered not only the fine art of filmmaking, but of forgetting.
The only comforts from reality, the only rewards you can get, actually, are memories. Even though a relationship doesn't work in reality, it stays in your memories. Sometimes it's good; sometimes it hurts. Our memories are selective... But we can't always select what we want to remember...
Also in this issue: Tony! Tony! Tony! The seductive star of '2046' reveals the method of his mood by Terri Sutton
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