“2046,” October 2004

The movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun between 1996 and 2010 are not available on the internet, so I am slowly trying to add them to this blog.

Someone once said that it wasn’t until Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express was screened at Cannes in 1994 that critics started saying Asia was the future of movies. Wong’s film was somewhat pretentiously hailed as the second coming of Godard, though Wong himself described Chungking as a “student film,” because he was still learning to direct the kind of movies he only saw in his mind. In the ten years since, his work has become increasingly assured, both visually and narratively. If Chungking and the follow-up, Fallen Angels (’95), seemed like collages of clever but disparate themes, Happy Together (’97) and In the Mood for Love (’00) were obsessive in their dedication to the idea that romantic love was the only theme worth making movies about.

Wong’s latest, 2046, is a sequel to In the Mood for Love–itself a sequel to Wong’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild–which chronicled a love affair between a married newspaper reporter, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), and a married woman, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), in 1962 Hong Kong. 2046 takes place five years later and focuses only on Mr. Chow, who remains psychically wounded by the memory of that affair.

Mood was about what happens to passion when it’s repressed. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan consummated their love only once, and their restraint lent the movie a palpable sexual tension that a more explicit film could never achieve.

The Chow that slithers through 2046 is almost a different being. He returns to Hong Kong after having lived for a time in Singapore, cynical and predatory. He’s something of a gigolo. He recently ended an affair with a dramatically melancholy woman (Gong Li, dressed for a funeral) who had a weakness for gambling. However, we only get to see him in action when he seduces a bar hostess named Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a neighbor of his at the stylishly run-down Oriental Hotel, which is the same place he carried out his single sexual assignation with Mrs. Chan.

Wong presents this affair as a series of transactions, a zero-sum game whose currencies are money and time. After weeks of flirtatious jousting as “drinking buddies,” Chow finally gets Bai Ling into bed and pays her for it. Much later, when Chow’s passions have cooled and Bai Ling comes to visit his apartment for emotional comfort, he tells her she can stay “for a price.” It’s the same old story–boy seduces girl, girl falls for boy, boy loses interest–only here it comes with a balance sheet.

Chow isn’t a complete jerk. Jin Wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the hotel owner, falls in love with Tak (Takuya Kimura), a Japanese businessman who’s living there temporarily. Her father hates the Japanese and forbids his daughter to see him any more. After Tak returns to Japan Chow helps Jin Wen correspond with him using his room number as an address.

He takes advantage of the situation for his own benefit. Having been downsized by his newspaper, Chow starts writing novels for cash. He uses Jin Wen and Tak as models for characters in his science fiction novel 2046. In the book, Jin Wen is an android with whom Tak falls in love.

2046 happens to be the number of the room where Jin Wen resides, and where Chow and Mrs. Chan had their moment. Chow writes about a “train that leaves regularly” for the year 2046, where travelers can “regain their memories.” No one ever comes back.

Wong’s fractured narrative is full of loaded and obvious symbols, but isn’t meant to add up to anything storywise. Reportedly he had in mind a much different movie when he started it four years ago. It was to be a projection of Hong Kong fifty years after its reversion to Chinese rule. Whatever happened in the meantime, this certainly isn’t that movie, and one can easily see that Wong has mostly forced a plot onto bits and pieces of ideas that probably occurred to him as he went along. He is famous for not using written scripts, and was still adding and subtracting things days before it was shown at Cannes. That may account for the fact that Maggie Cheung, who receives a “special appearance by” credit, is only seen for a few seconds.

It’s important to remember that Chungking Express had a similar patchwork feel, but the pieces were of wildly varying character. Here, all the sequences, regardless of each one’s relevance to other sequences, feel equally intense. Wong wants to prove only one thing, that nothing conveys romantic passion better than the movies do. His greatest accomplishment in 2046 is a scene near the end where Tony Leung pushes Gong Li against a damp wall and kisses her long and hard, smearing her blood red lipstick all over her panting mouth. Wong simply wants to give us the greatest movie kiss of all time. They’ll probably still be impressed in 2046.

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