Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi): I don’t understand why you carry on so with women. If you meet one good woman, isn’t she enough? Why delay time?
Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung): A man like me has nothing but time. I need to find people to meet my needs.
Bai: You treat people like time-fillers?
Chow: Not really. Sometimes, I lend my time to others.
Bai: What about tonight? Are you borrowing my time or am I borrowing yours? (1)
Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is the director’s latest variation on his obsession with time, a theme that feeds into a twin concern: memory.
The theme of time and memory can be traced back to Wong’s Days of Being Wild (1990), the first of the personal epics that Wong has since made a specialty of, expending massive budgets and impossibly long schedules in their making. It was also the film that achieved for Wong a critical breakthrough, and the one in which he began his other obsession: a nostalgic remembrance of the 1960s. Days of Being Wild inducted viewers into the faintly soap-operatic saga of the sad, unfulfilling lives of several characters, some of whom have re-appeared in In the Mood for Love (2000) and now in 2046.
Tony Leung’s character named Chow Mo-wan is the key link. Leung appears at the end of Days as a young handsome gambler, grooming himself for a night out – a scene meant to foretell a sequel which Wong had intended to make following the release of Days. The movie was at the time meant as a two-part picture but the box-office failure of the film put paid to Wong’s plan to make the second part. However, some ten years later with In the Mood for Love, Wong realized his original ambition to extend the broken-off narrative from Days of Being Wild into another film. Now with 2046, he has managed to produce a trilogy about what he called “love in the 1960s” (2).
2046 neatly closes the narrative that was suspended in Days of Being Wild and it supposedly culminates Wong’s obsession with the ’60s. The film certainly feels like the end of something: in the first instance, it marks the end of the long drawn-out production of the film itself, a classic example of Wong’s free-thinking, time-extensive method of filmmaking that has largely invited a backlash against the director. Wong has been attacked or ridiculed for being a profligate filmmaker unable to finish his film or, in all probability, being able to finish it only by the year 2046. His tardiness in making the competition schedule at the Cannes Film Festival last year and then pushing back the release date in Hong Kong to work further on the film was also held against him. The five years it took for Wong to make 2046 stands as a record in the annals of Hong Kong cinema. In fact, given that the film is the summing up of the 1960s trilogy, the first episode of which was completed in 1990, the quantity of time in which the project had gestated in Wong’s mind is probably much longer than the touted five years that Wong took to make the film.
Because the prolonged production circumstances have attracted much attention to the film and created a sense of anticipation, the finished product as represented by the 129-minute version released in Hong Kong in late September 2004 seems set for a mixed reception as it does the rounds of international distribution, if its reception in Hong Kong is anything to go by. (In Hong Kong it was a flop, but Wong’s films have never really done well in his own home turf.) Though it contains several landmarks for Wong (it is his first feature film shot in the scope format, his most expensive feature and the longest in running time and also the one with the most dialogue), 2046 covers no new ground in style or narrative.
It is essentialist Wong Kar-wai in that the narrative is typically driven by monologues and subjected to the director’s customary fragmented, episodic manner of storytelling. In this sense, Wong hasn’t been self-indulgent (and 2046 is arguably one of his more subdued and least flashy works). The millions of dollars he has spent are all evident in the lavish production design (by Wong’s frequent collaborator William Chang); the beautifully atmospheric cinematography by Chris Doyle, Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-fai; the usual eclectic mix of the music soundtrack: memorable scores (by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, German composer Peer Raben), opera extracts (from Bellini’s Norma and Il Pirata) and old standards (sung by Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Connie Francis); and in his employment of pan-Asian stars (Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Takuya Kimura, Chang Chen).
There is a science-fiction hook in the plot, such as it is, which might give an impression of a special-effects laden production. But as with so many of Wong’s films which purport to belong to one genre or another – the gangster film in As Tears Go By (1988) and Fallen Angels (1995), the wuxia film in Ashes of Time (1994) or the romance melodrama in In the Mood for Love – the question of genre is a kind of McGuffin device that Wong dispatches off-handedly as soon as he picks it up. Wong’s tactic has always been to appropriate the genres of the mainstream cinema and to subject them to his subjective narrative mode that ultimately subverts genre.
In 2046, Wong launches straightaway into his futuristic setting (2046 is a place where everybody goes to in order to recover lost memories) and then departs from this sci-fi premise to pick up the thread of Chow Mo-wan’s life from where he left off in In the Mood for Love. (2046 then becomes a room number in a hotel in Hong Kong where Chow resides and where he carries on several affairs with women.) The film shifts into a Chinese form of melodrama (in Chinese terminology, wenyi pian (3)) that describes a rake’s journey into self-discovery. Still, if genre is an imperative to understanding Wong’s films, it is not more useful to regard 2046 as a sci-fi romance or melodrama (or wenyi pian) than to acknowledge that, like most of Wong’s films, it doesn’t really fit into any specific genre category. It is invariably a film about mood and character, elegiac in tone, pervaded by a sense of sadness, fatalism and resignation. The essence of the film is people’s emotional reaction to change as it takes effect over time, a delayed reaction that hits as change becomes apparent.
Wong repeatedly shows characters slowly overcome by the pain of separation or loss of love. Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-wan is still haunted by his liaison with Maggie Cheung’s So Lai-chen and his relationships with the various women of 2046 (principally Zhang Ziyi’s taxi dancer, Faye Wong’s lovesick hotel proprietor’s daughter, and Gong Li’s black-clad Mandarin-speaking gambler who carries the same name as Maggie Cheung’s So Lai-chen) are conducted in the shadow of Chow’s previous failed affair. The conceit of delayed reaction extends to the way in which Chow is essentially reacting to this failed affair and how it affects him as a human being. In one of the science-fiction episodes (which is a novel that Chow writes in between affairs), androids assume human feelings through a delayed reaction: as a character explains, “If you affect them and they want to cry, it won’t be until tomorrow when the tears start to flow.” In the main narrative itself, all the key characters, with the exception of Chow Mo-wan, shed tears copiously. Time has obviously hardened Chow’s emotion, the premise of 2046 being that the more time extends into the future, the more emotion is delayed. In Chow’s case, Wong shows that emotion is never entirely obliterated. Being a writer, Chow Mo-wan is closer to a character who carries what the late Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai declares as “the wound of a guilty conscience” (Dazai being one of the literary influences on the film) (4). In this literary mindset, Chow Mo-wan is Wong’s alter ego. As a director and writer, Wong has shown wounded emotion much more evocatively than any of his contemporaries.
Apart from Osamu Dazai, Wong was inspired by Liu Yichang, a relatively obscure Hong Kong author whose 1962 novel Jiutu (The Drunkard) has been hailed as the first stream-of-consciousness novel in modern Chinese literature. Though not acknowledged in the credits, 2046 can be seen as a loose adaptation of The Drunkard, from where the film’s epigraphic intertitles and some dialogue are extracted. (Wong also borrowed lines from Liu’s novella Intersections, which was the chief literary influence on In the Mood for Love.)
The character of Chow Mo-wan is clearly based on the first-person protagonist of Liu’s novel, a world-weary alcoholic writer who scrapes a living from writing martial arts and pornographic pulp fiction. The novel describes his relationships with various women, including a dance hall girl and the young daughter of his landlord, underlining his precarious existence in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The writer is troubled by his fundamental inability to reconcile writing as an art that pursues “interior truth” with writing as a pragmatic, commercial enterprise that merely “describes nature”. He sees Hong Kong as a “concentration camp” of various evils (crime, philistinism, venality, prostitution), and pays the ultimate emotional price of living in such a society by succumbing to alcoholism and depravity. Somewhat masochistically, the character feels that “The uniqueness of Hong Kong can only be experienced through its sufferers.”
With 2046, Wong pays a tribute to the moral lesson of suffering imparted by Liu Yichang’s The Drunkard, which was a barely disguised indictment of Hong Kong society. Similarly, the film contains a sense of a hidden commentary about Hong Kong’s direction as it presses forward to its future (2046 is also a reference to the last year of the 50-year deadline in which China had promised that there would be no change in Hong Kong’s political and economic system after the transfer of sovereignty by Britain to China on 1 July 1997). Hong Kong’s future is seen through the time prism of the past (the 1960s) and it is seen through the prism of a writer’s life, and his romantic and sexual experiences with several women who seem to be no more than “time-fillers”. Wong suggests that Chow Mo-wan’s life is somehow determined by Hong Kong as a place of borrowed time (1997, and now the 2046 deadline), which makes Hong Kong unique among all human societies. Wong makes us feel the uniqueness of Hong Kong through the pain of his writer and, of course, it is really Wong’s pain that we are sensing. In this manner of suffering, Wong Kar-wai fulfils the criteria of the artist that is the subject of Liu Yichang’s story: a man troubled by his failure to become an artist in the most materialistic of societies. Wong, however, hasn’t failed as yet (at least I don’t think so), and this is the crux of his achievement.
Considering the anticipation that audiences around the world apparently harboured for 2046 over the five years that Wong was making his magnum opus, it is worth asking just what kind of film audiences were expecting. Would it be a film that panders to the exoticism of Orientalist romances such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) or indeed (to a certain measure) of Wong’s own last film, In the Mood for Love? Or would it be some kind of science-fiction fantasy: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1992) crossed with In the Mood for Love? In reality, Wong has turned out an intensely personal film that harks back to the beginning of his career, and he doesn’t seem to care that in all likelihood many people in the worldwide audience may not have seen Days of Being Wild. In its focus on the pain and suffering of the artist, the film is almost theoretical and abstract, powered by literary conceits and epigrams rather than plots (5). Chow Mo-wan is effectively obsessed with the thought and feeling of unconsummated desire (the experience of his relationship with So Lai-chen in In the Mood for Love). The very thought of So Lai-chen and Gong Li’s Su Lizhen (the Mandarin pronunciation of So Lai-chen) arouses not only desire but brings to life an abstract inner world of sensuality and meaning, which Chow finds lacking in his relationship with Zhang Ziyi’s character: she becomes Chow’s sex partner but the satisfaction of sexual lust in itself obviously does not bring fulfilment.
The whole film deals with recapturing a lost sensation, an eroticism that has dissipated into time and memory (the erotic image of the hole that recurs in the film is thus highly symbolic: some critics may have found it annoying, and I must confess that I had at first thought it somewhat coy and voyeuristic, but now I think it constitutes the theoretical core of the film (6)). Wong shows that the theory of eroticism is the absence or denial of sex, which is the cornerstone of In the Mood for Love and the recurring subject of 2046.
I am reminded that this is also the subject of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds (1995), in the first episode at least which shows a couple naked on the bed and about to consummate the act of sex: the man arouses the woman by running his hand across her body, barely touching the erogenous parts, and suddenly, he gets out of bed, puts on his clothes and leaves. Desire is better felt than satisfied. It lasts longer – the mental equivalent of a permanent hard-on. Time reduces the ache and discomfort while memory renders the emotion denser and purer. We should only despair of losing it all.
This seems to me to be the thrust and achievement of 2046. Wong’s achievement is all the more remarkable in view of his record up to now as an artist who has been able to muster great financial resources and time he needs to craft his intimate, ultimately very abstract chamber masterpieces. No other director of his generation in the Hong Kong cinema has managed to do the same.
- The lines here quoted from the film are my own translations.
- See Beijing Chenbao (Beijing Morning Post), http://www.morningpost.com.cn/culture/040927whl.htm, 27 September 2004.
- In Chinese terms, a much more complicated rendering of melodrama, involving themes of family ethics as well as ethical and social norms in sexual relationships. Melodrama when defined as wenyi pian assumes a more dogmatic side than may be the case if the Western term “melodrama” was used to describe a film like 2046 or In the Mood for Love (or other examples in Chinese cinema such as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 2002 Springtime in a Small Town, or Fei Mu’s original from 1948). For a definition of wenyi and its characteristics, see my forthcoming essay, “The Wenyi Genre: Melodrama with Chinese Characteristics”, in Steven Schneider, et al (Eds), Traditions in World Cinema (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, forthcoming).
- See Dazai’s novel, No Longer Human, trans. Donald Keene (New York: New Directions, 1958), p. 68.
- A case can be argued for Wong Kar-wai as the most Barthesian of contemporary directors. Catching up on Susan Sontag lately, I came across her various descriptions of Roland Barthes’ works in her introduction to A Roland Barthes Reader (edited by Sontag, published by Vintage, 2000). Sontag refers to Barthes’ prose style as one that is made up of epigrams and maxims: “Being a method of condensed assertion by means of symmetrically counterposed terms, the maxim or aphorism inevitably displays the symmetries and complementarities of situations or ideas …” (p. ix). This insight perfectly captures the essence of Wong’s literariness. To cite just one of Wong’s aphorisms from 2046, “All memories are wet” (my own translation), a line taken from Liu Yichang’s The Drunkard, conjures up the conceit of a wet memory (like a wet dream) swirling like an eddy in Chow Mo-wan’s mind (his memory of desire embodied by Maggie Cheung’s So Lai-chen and Gong Li’s Su Lizhen), as well as the literal assertion that memories are invariably sad, evoking tears. (The symmetry and complementarity of the idea may be absent for audiences going by the English subtitles alone: as rendered in the subtitles, the aphorism is translated as “All memories have traces of tears.”) Wong’s style contains many parallels with Barthes’s prose style, such as the oft-heard complaint that Wong is shallow. If indeed Wong is shallow, such a quality complements Sontag’s line that Barthes is a modern æsthete who practices “The idea that depths are obfuscating, demagogic, that no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and that freedom lies in staying on the surface, the large glass on which desire circulates …” (p. xxviii). Then there is the declaration that Barthes’s work is autobiographical, “A brave meditation on the personal, on the self …” (p. xxxii), which is exactly the central conceit of Wong’s films: his 1960s trilogy is the epitomic Barthesian representation of autobiographical cinema in the Hong Kong cinema.
- I leave it to audiences and other critics to dissect the theory of the hole. However, the voyeurism and sheer exhibitionism in the image of the hole codifies a narrative motif of voyeurism and exhibitionism: Chow Mo-wan is presented as a peeping-tom, while Zhang Ziyi’s haughty performance is a walking human codifier of exhibitionism.