Friday, November 6, 2015

Wong Kar-wai | 2046

romancing a lost world

by Douglas Messerli


Wong Kar-wai (screenplay and director) 2046 / 2004


It has continued to fascinate me just how difficult it is for some film critics to read even slightly non-chronological fictions which hundreds of fiction and poetry students each year have no difficulty in following. Has it really come down to the fact that Hollywood narratives have been insistently narratively straight-forward that a film like Wong Kar-wai’s quite beautiful film 2046 can be described by a critic such as Roger Ebert, as impenetrable for anyone not acquinted with “Wong’s work and style,” and that, in its referential qualities, the 2004 film is “not a self-contained film” that “meanders.” What might Ebert then make of Joyce, Barnes, even Proust—the last of whose work is perhaps closest to Wong’s? 
     Fortunately some critics such as Manohla Dargis, Daniel Eagan, and J. Hoberman were more alert to Wong’s somewhat visually prolix interweaving of desire and love, and recognized the film’s significance.

      In some respects the intertwined tales that the film recounts—the love story between Chow Mo-wan (the now mustachioed Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) recounted in the director’s In the Mood for Love; his previous affair with Mimi, now named Lulu (Carina Lau), who first appeared in the Wong’s Days of Being Wild; his new friendships and sexual encounters with his landlord’s daughters Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong) and her sister (Dong Jie), his beautiful, prostitute neighbor in room 2046, Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and numerous others he picks up throughout the years; and his Singapore fling with the professional gambler, the “Black Spider,” whose name is also Su Li-zhen—are more or less various depictions of the same thing, Chow’s desperate search for love in a world where he seems simply by chance or just bad luck to misread feelings and events, cutting him off from any true long-term relationship. The fact that these same women and their ancillary friends become “characters” in Chow’s futuristic fiction, also titled 2046, may help to confuse those who do pay close attention; but these also reiterate the very same themes.
     Wong, through his character Chow, is a man in love with love and all the pain and suffering that romantic love entails. If this movie’s rendition of Chow’s character seems to present him often as a unfeeling ladies’ man instead of the unsure and overly careful spouse of In the Mood for Love, underneath he is very much the same man, losing his heart again and again while trying to protect himself from what he, often mistakenly, perceives as betrayals.

     Part of the problem of Chow’s life is that, in his world, nearly everyone he meets has been subject to betrayal, and, as such, have difficulty in emotionally responding to the other; clearly these characters are sensual beings, quite ready to open themselves up to sexual intercourse; but when it comes to deeper emotional communication they, much like the android’s Chow creates in his science-fiction work, are slow to respond, acting often after the fact. We see this most clearly in his neighbor’s Wang Jing-wen’s inability to answer her Japanese boyfriend’s questions about whether she truly loves him or not. We and Chow both realize that, despite her father’s refusal to approve their relationship, that Wang is desperately in love with the character played by Takuya Kimura (and who later plays Tak to her android character in Chow’s fiction), but like Su Li-zhen acts too late to communicate that love; Wang must first undergo a mental breakdown and years of suffering before, fortunately, Chow forces her to call her Japanese love who finally convinces her to join him in Japan.
     One of the characteristics of the futurist world that Chow writes about is that the citizens of 2046 are able to take a train back in time, from which they never return:

Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody knows if that’s true because nobody’s ever come back.

And that is, in part, Chow’s dilemma; by returning to his beloved Hong Kong, he too has gone back in time, hoping to find Su Li-zhen or someone like her. But because he is, in fact, lost in the past, is trapped in his “remembrance of things past,” he can only repeat the pattern, rejecting other loves such as Bai Ling and even the strange reincarnation of Su Li-zhen , the “Black Spider,” just as he has mistakenly given-up on the original woman next door, who we know has attempted to join him on his voyage to Singapore, but arrived too late.

      The narrator of the futurist fiction 2046 is the only one, apparently, is able to escape the drug of lost memories, but in order to do that he must give up love in its entirety, which is something we also see Chow do, to his detriment, again and again. Indeed, the heart of Wong’s film is his abilities to trap the viewer in that same reverie. Through the startlingly beautiful images of Hong Kong in the 1960s, his attention to every sensual detail and his ravishingly gorgeous songs and dances of musical history, and in repeated reverie’s of long and lonely Christmases,Wang encompasses the sensitive viewer in the same way that Chow is trapped in his loving melancholia. In some ways, we don’t want Wong’s two-hour film to end, especially since we know that the only way he can truly end, by spilling these secret sorrows into the ear of nature, in short, loosing them into the natural world such as one does in death.

       The many women of Wong’s films might also been seen, in their exquisite qipao dresses, as the city itself, a world that, like Chow’s love, has been inexplicably lost. It is interesting that 2046 is also date of the end of Hong Kong’s self-regulatory promise by the Chinese government when the British handed over the former colony in 1997. Wong seems to be suggesting that the city itself has been betrayed, a love lost in time by its own citizens.
     No matter how we read Wong’s film, however, it remains a kind of Proustian testament to a world at the opposite end of a century that Swann inhabited.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2015

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