Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stay with me tonight. Let me borrow you.

Few directors working today have as fine an understanding of mood as Wong Kar-Wai. The stars of Wong's films are not just the above-the-title actors but also reflections of neon lights on a storefront window, or a snippet of a long-forgotten standard, or a stain from Maggie Cheung's impeccably applied lipstick - they're pure pop, sensual appreciations of human experience filtered through surface pleasures. Wong's 2046 promised to be an epic of mood moments - four years in the making and shrouded in secrecy, it arrived at Cannes in 2004 bearing the weight of expectations it wasn't made to fulfill. With a multilayered narrative that veers between past and future, fiction and metafiction, it's a grandiose experiment resting on a simple message of the need for human connection like an elephant dancing on the head of the pin. It's a perverse film, the biggest little movie ever made, but dammit if it isn't pretty to look at.

A sort-of-sequel to Wong's masterpiece In the Mood for Love, 2046's protagonist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) shares a name, profession and history with the character Leung played in the earlier film, but doesn't quite seem to be the same character (it took me a while to adjust, as I had an easier time relating to the first Chow Mo-wan). This time, Chow's a sci-fi writer and playboy recovering from a broken heart by bedding a number of women. Among the women that weave in and out of Chow's life are Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li), a professional gambler with the same name as Chow's lost love; Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a cabaret singer who lives in the room next to Chow's; and Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of Chow's landlord. These and other women drift in out of the episodic narrative, along with various pop allusions and references to Wong's other films, each woman costumed and lit with such precision that they appear perfectly preserved. It becomes clear that the film is not about any one of these relationships (though the women, particularly Zhang, are all excellent), but Chow's narcissism and the way he "rewrites" each encounter in retrospect. The first time I saw the film was frustrating, as I wondered if Wong realized this about his protagonist; the final scenes reveal that, yes, this was the point all along. In retrospect, I admire Wong's patience in letting the character get where he's going, and his expectation that his audience will be capable of the same; it also helps that Leung, a master of internal acting, is a perfect leading man for Wong.

2046 can be painfully hermetic, particulary in the scenes from Chow's sci-fi novel that shares its title with the film. 2046 is a mysterious place that, in a distant future, many attempt to escape to because it never changes - there's no loneliness or loss. It's a fascinating concept that expands the themes of the '60s-set story, but it's also dramatically inert. The future we see in these scenes does not reflect a '60s concept of the future so much as one we'd expect in 2004 - the future scenes are antiseptic, beautifully shot but inaccessible, and in the film's second half they threaten to overwhelm the main story. It's possible that this is intentional, a visualization of what it's like to live inside one's own head; since I'm occasionally told I need to get out of my head, I can appreciate that. But without the rapturous moments that Wong's earlier films built to - Faye Wong cleaning Tony Leung's apartment to "Dreams" in Chungking Express, or the extended holy moment that concludes In the Mood for Love - the film works wonderfully as an intellectual exercise, but never really found its way into my heart like those films did. Again, this may be exactly how Wong wanted me to feel.

There's a great deal, however, for a film lover to enjoy in 2046 - each shot is a beauty, the film's world taking on a wonderfully tangible quality. I believe in the world Wong creates here, but I can't live in it. It remains to be seen what place 2046 will take in Wong's filmography - after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights demonstrated that even his middling work looks beautiful, I wonder whether he'll keep treading water or if, as Chow seems to be at the film's end, he's ready to move on to new worlds. But whether 2046 proves to be Wong's final destination or just a station on the way, there's no denying that it's a radiant place to stay for a while.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I like what you said about the future scenes or train scenes being dramatically inert, painfully hermetic, beautiful but inaccessable, and threatening to overwhelm the whole second half of the movie.
I felt almost exactly that way too, but differently.
Coming into the movie having seen nothing else of Wong Kar-Wai's work, and reading only a one sentence synopsis in a Dublin paper("a writer stuck in the future..."), I was really surprised. Almost overwhelmed.
From the first moment of the film, when the big sculpture (stylized tree with hole, ear, vagina, or film audience, I pretty much immediately realized) I believed in this character's pain.
As the movie unfolded, and all emotion remained distant or restrained to the point of invisibility, it became suspiciously absent.
Having been so deeply moved by the first scene's passions and every single frame's stunning beauty (not an exaggeration) I decided the director was leaving the passion out on purpose andthe subtext of each scene was then gut wrenching for me.
By the time the train story almost overwhelmed the story (as you so rightly pointed out) I was so totally involved with this man's pain and passion, I didn't notice. Seriously. His work was as important or no different than his life and I just didn't even notice!
Now that you mention it, the idea of the story overwhelming the picture seems to reflect his obsession with getting the story out; his personal hole in a tree. I laughed out loud at the short scene where he sits poised over a blank page for an hour and then ten and so on.
I thought the android not being able to cry until later was such a great image of the total frustration of not being able to communicate his beautiful feelings and I cried a little at the end when he pulled back from the unhappy repetitive lifestyle he'd created.
Thanks for writing about this one and I'm glad you think it's so pretty!