Let's Get Lost
[Full, probably pointless disclosure: yes, I was one of those impatient scoundrels who took full advantage of this here ever so global village and bought myself a Hong Kong disc of Wong Kar-Wai’s breathlessly anticipated/debated new film, 2046. Moreover, I did not hide it somewhere -- say, in a safe deposit box, the key to which had been handed to a medium with explicit instructions not to let me viddy it until after I checked it out in a movie house. No, sir, I watched it. I may be weak. I may deserve the lashings given to many, many others (check the comments, specifically md'a). To which I say: bite me.]
[No, no, that’s hardly sufficient. This isn’t either: at least I didn’t go back to watch it numerous times, unlocking its mysteries before viewing it on projected celluloid. I waited a full six months -- almost to the day, in fact -- when it finally found its way to Philly. By this point, what I saw was a dim memory of what I had seen before -- almost an entirely different film. Might as well end the brackets now.]
Okay. So, when I first saw 2046, I was pretty much otherwise occupied. Not distracted, per se -- just mostly in a state of slack-jawed astonishment. (As md’a -- whom I’ll stop referencing from here on out -- is wont to say, my dick was never not hard in my opinion.) Composition for composition, In the Mood For Love may have its semi-sequel beat. But where that film was jagged and elliptical -- hardly demerits, mind -- 2046 is smooth: a front-to-end block of different moods that flow seamlessly into one another. To put it lightly, it’s very, very pretty, and, while it was all of a piece (and not at all like the Cannes cut, presmuably), the film ultimately felt curiously lackluster. The tale of a love-’em-and-leave-’em dickhead nursing a broken heart -- be it Tony Leung’s character from ITMFL or not -- simply felt like one of those Apologies For the Bastard Who’s Really Sad As It Turns Out -- a colleague of Husbands, Roger Dodger, Igby Goes Down, et al. It’s clearly awesome, but it’s also not quite, I thought. Let me give it another chance, obviously, in conditions that don’t require watching it while lying in bed.
I’m still not ready to bequeath masterpiece status upon it, but many of my reservations have since been tossed on the heap. Assuming Tony Leung’s character here is the one from 2046 -- and it’s never made perfectly clear that that’s so; “I once loved a woman who left”, glimpses of Maggie Cheung, and the bit about blowing your secrets into a dug hole in a tree are the chief carry-overs -- Wong has dreamt up the worst possible punishment for his (non-)actions. At first, it may seem cheap: the brokenhearted turning into the breaker-of-hearts. But whatever. However, assuming it’s not, the film still manages to make our anti-hero worthy of sympathy. What’s amazing is he does it by not employing any of the usual or even expected ways. Like
1) Only a couple times do we see Leung explicitly make mention of this personal tragedy lodged in his past. We rarely even see him brood, or at least it’s never explained that he’s brooding over anything in particular. In essence, he refuses to let us in, but, as many humans do, is damaged enough to drop coy allusions to why that is: “I once loved a woman, but she left”; “Parts of my life found their way into [my sci-fi story set in the year 2046, where the nostalgic can spend the rest of their lives in the past, with their memories].” Only once does he open up about it, but Wong doesn’t let us hear it, instead having him narrate about how he opened up about it, the usual dam-opening, grandstanding monologue sliced down to an offhand anecdote. Wong does everything he can to make this a film about interiors.
2) Instead, we get to see him purely through action. And oblique action at that. He latches onto Gong Li’s haunted gambler, chiefly because she’s named Su Li Zhen -- a typically eccentric mode of Wong classification (see also: the expiration dates on pineapple cans in Chungking Express). But he feels nothing for Zhang Ziyi’s* adoring prostitute, to whom he refuses to get close, even going so far as to pay her -- at a discount, of course -- for their bonking sessions. He’s jilted by one and leaves the other, respectively. So, does that mean he’s just Afraid Of Getting Burned Again? Hot on the trail for indirect revenge against the female species? Yes, but that’s not the end of it. Because
3) He only cracks that devilish, smugly superior grin in public -- and then only at opportune times. Not that he goes into his room and cries about it afterward. (See 1).) But if inaction is as vital as action, then the implication seems to be that rather than let the guilt run though him, he’s trying to push it out of his mind completely. The women in his life disappear, from view and from mention, when their time with him is up. They don’t even drift in and out. Only Maggie Cheung pulls the drifting duties, and she’s the one we know the least about -- assuming, again, this isn’t a sequel to ITMFL. And if we assume that, then 2046 is only showing us that which doesn’t matter to Leung.
4) As I can tell you, there’s no better way to guard yourself against heartbreak, be they from would-be lovers or one-time friends (or both), than by endlessly distracting yourself with things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Though we rarely see it for certain, Leung surrounds himself with one-night stands, journalistic assignments, and stories, be they his semi-autobiographical sci-fi yarns or the martial arts stories about which he cares only a few iotas. (His transcribing scene with Faye Wong produces one of the film’s sole all-out howlers, by the way.) That way, you don’t have time to focus on the emptiness of the life you’ve built for yourself. Keep on moving, like the shark mentioned in Annie Hall. Only during Christmas, and only when Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” is playing, will you ever feel the pangs of loneliness -- though, as Leung says, this is sorta by design.
5) About the title, which so perplexed Anthony Lane (good one, boyo). Yes, it means many things. It’s one of Wong’s aforementioned eccentric obsessions. It’s the room Cheung and Leung went to in ITMFL. It’s the future. It’s the year Hong Kong’s immunity from the mainland will expire. It’s a symbol of Leung’s stranglehold on the past, the prison he has willingly locked himself inside. But they all tie together. Just as Hong Kong has another four decades of semi-independence left, Leung has willingly let himself be unstuck in time, pointedly avoiding mention of current events even as he plays journalist. The title is everything to Leung, the only things he cares about. Everything else in the world is there to distract him from it.
As you can tell, it's a difficult film to unpack. Honestly, I gave it the old college try. But you might notice that I haven’t yet delved into the look, the flow, the endless melancholy. That’s right. There’s more to it than only mood.
Still, it’s near-inarguable that this is one handsome piece of filmmaking -- one of the great solid blocks of consistency since past Wongs, von Sternberg and The Conformist (which has more in common with 2046 than you’d at first think). Less repeating himself than refining his style for his most oblique portrait yet, Wong brings all his power to bear on the film, even while introducing new elements. Narration, abandoned by ITMFL, is back. For the first time, he shoots in cinemascope, forcing us to view Leung’s world as we would through a slit in a letterbox (heh), with all the usual intruding walls and off-kilter perspectives we come to expect from Wong, Christopher Doyle, and his revolving door cast of guest d.p.s. But more importantly, this is his longest film yet. The film’s still elliptical, but the length gives Wong a chance to stretch out. It’s downright bizarre to hear claims that the film’s confusing; when the film skips to Leung’s futuristic stories, it’s preceded by “I was writing a novel about the future.” (Waaah? Where are we?!) The roominess makes it easier to get lost in Leung and Wong’s world, to relish the mood and the details. Consequently, we are constantly distracted from what really aches Leung, even while Wong’s filmmaking simultaneously reminds us of the pain he refuses to address. It’s a sad film about someone who’s doing his best not to be sad.
[Note: I realized this post was, perhaps needless to say, a touch on the incoherent side, hardly justifying its epic, 1500-word length. However, I realized this over twelve hours after posting it. So up it remains, and I promise I'll re-write/-work/-jigger this thing, or at least give another shot at trying to convey...whatever it was I was trying to say. I believe it's best to be honest in this case.]
* Nuts to this Western reordering of her name.