Desire and Loss in the Curve of a Back

MANOHLA DARGIS – The New York Times

Copyright – The New York Times
Published: August 5, 2005
IN “2046,” a story of longing and loss, the passage of time is marked not by the hands of a clock, but by the women who pass through one man’s life. The man in question, a newspaper hack, lives in a glorious ruin called the Oriental Hotel, where the thin walls shake violently from the sexual exertions of the clientele. A ladies’ man given to vigorous wall-shaking, the writer turns a blind eye to the hotel’s decrepitude even as he keeps its female guests fixed in his sights. In this ecstatically beautiful film, walls never tumble, only women do.
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Wing Shiya/Sony Pictures Classics
Hong Kong glamour: Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling in a scene from the romantic drama “2046,” the director Wong Kar-wai’s latest film.
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“2046” is the eighth feature film from the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai and the long-anticipated follow-up to his 2000 art-house favorite, “In the Mood for Love.” Like the earlier film, “2046” first played at the Cannes Film Festival (in 2004), where it provoked a modest scandal. Mr. Wong, who famously works to his own rhythms, either very fast or very slow, arrived at Cannes late enough that the initial screenings had to be rescheduled. The version shown at Cannes was clearly unfinished and, perhaps as a consequence, “2046” was wanly received, even by some Wong admirers. More than a year later, the special effects are in place, as are crucial images that reinforce both the film’s themes and its structure. The result is an unqualified triumph.
Set mostly over three years, starting in 1966, “2046” centers on Chow, a rouĂ© with brilliantined hair and the mustache of a lounge lizard, played by Mr. Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Chow supports himself by writing sexually titillating fiction, though only on extreme occasion does he put pen to paper to interrupt his usual nightclub trolling. One day, he meets an old flame, Lulu (Carina Lau Ka-ling), who is now known as Mimi and lives in the Oriental Hotel, in Room 2046. When Chow later returns to her hotel, he discovers that Lulu-Mimi has disappeared. He subsequently moves into the adjacent room, 2047, whereupon he meets the two women whose stories will cast shadows over his own.
Mr. Wong’s films are often described as romantic, doubtless because they invariably involve sad-eyed lovers under the spell of impossible desires. Born in Shanghai, Mr. Wong moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was 5, and that may help explain why he rhapsodizes about loss with such tenderness. Even so, this early displacement doesn’t elucidate why he is less interested in love than in its wreckage, in the sighs, tears and agonies that sometimes follow in love’s wake. One of the first images in “2046” is of the epigram “all memories are traces of tears,” a bit of throw-pillow sentimentalism that might sound ominously maudlin if the tears in Mr. Wong’s films didn’t corrode like acid.
Soon after Chow moves into the hotel, he meets the owner’s oldest daughter, Jing (Faye Wong), while she’s practicing dance steps and Japanese in the temporarily vacant room next door. Jing, whose love for a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura) is driving her belligerent father to distraction, hovers in the background during the first part of the film, much of which involves an affair between Chow and the latest occupant of Room 2046. Chow, who intermittently narrates the film, first sees his new neighbor, a call girl named Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), through a grille. The time is September 1967, and months of civil unrest in Hong Kong have just ended.
The affair between Chow and Bai Ling consumes only part of the story (a science-fiction allegory that Chow writes constitutes another), but Ms. Zhang’s shockingly intense performance burns a hole in the film that gives everything, including all the other relationships, a sense of terrific urgency. The riots that rock Hong Kong, glimpsed in battered newsreel images and mentioned in passing, have nothing on the emotions that turn this woman’s face into a landscape of pain. Much of “2046” unfolds in rented rooms and cramped hallways, where the characters navigate around one another, the camera trained on their faces as if searching for clues. The outside world, by contrast, remains as fragmented as an unsolved jigsaw puzzle: a street lamp in the rain, a stretch of decayed wall, a nightclub coat room.
Although the men and women in “2046” move through tight, claustrophobic interiors that are perfect representations of their boxed-in interior states, the spaces they inhabit all but shudder with luridly bright colors and dizzying geometric patterns that suggest an underlying tumult. In one scene, Chow stands almost motionless next to the swirling patterned wallpaper of the hotel’s hallways as he listens outside a locked room to the hotel owner berate his older daughter for her affair. Like the opera that the father plays at a thunderous volume to hide the noise of the family’s fights, and like the shimmering, jeweled cheongsams worn by Bai Ling, the wallpaper swirls express what the characters themselves cannot: their repressed desires, their playfulness and drama.
Routinely criticized for his weak narratives, Mr. Wong is one of the few filmmakers working in commercial cinema who refuse to be enslaved by traditional storytelling. He isn’t the first and certainly not the only one to pry cinema from the grip of classical narrative, to take a pickax to the usual three-act architecture (or at least shake the foundation), while also dispatching with the art-deadening requirements (redemption, closure, ad nauseam) that have turned much of Big Hollywood into a creative dead zone. Like some avant-garde filmmakers and like his contemporary, Hou Hsiao-hsien of Taiwan, among precious few others these days, Mr. Wong makes movies, still a young art, that create meaning through visual images, not just words.
And so in “2046,” the wallpaper swirls find a visual echo in the curls of a metal grille that, in turn, echo the loops of some cursive handwriting, the curlicue of smoke that rises from Jing’s lighted cigarette and the impossibly long curve of Bai Ling’s arched back. Mr. Wong fills the frame with these sensuous circles and coils like an obsessive doodler. These compulsive repetitions reach an apotheosis in the film’s most mysterious image: a large cavity that looks at once like the amplifying horn of a Victrola and a sexual orifice of unknown provenance. Mr. Wong never explains the significance of the cavity because, like Kim Novak’s blond twist of hair in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” the image has a power that renders further explanation superfluous.
Like Hitchcock, Mr. Wong is at once a voyeur and fetishist par excellence. No slouch when it comes to men, he lights Mr. Leung and Mr. Kimura as if they were MGM stars from the 1930’s. His actresses, meanwhile, who also include Gong Li and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, dazzle like Olympian goddesses. From the way he photographs the women in this film and elsewhere, the director appears particularly fond of how the opposite sex looks from the back. One of his signature images is of a woman in a figure-hugging dress and requisite high heels bending forward ever so slightly and away from the camera. In one of the most plaintively lovely moments in “2046,” Ms. Wong leans forward to whisper a secret while wearing a silvery dress, a posture that gives her the aspect of an enormous gleaming teardrop.
“2046” is awash in such wrenching and charming tears. If everyone in this film weeps, including Chow’s counterpart – a character in his hallucinatory science-fiction story that works as a parallel to his own story – it’s because everyone is also captive to memory. In “2046,” memory isn’t just a favorite snapshot, a blast from the past. It is where everyone lives, whether they want to or not, whether giggling in a tawdry Hong Kong hotel in 1967, hurtling through the atmosphere on a train in the future or sitting in a darkened movie theater. Like film itself, memory freezes time. Memory turns finite moments into spaces – a hotel room, say – that we return to again and again. It gives us a glimpse of the eternal and, like art at its most sublime, like this film, a means for transcendence.
“2046” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film has some discreet sexual scenes but nothing explicit.
2046


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