Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): 2046

Friday, August 8, 2008

2046

Writing about Wong Kar-Wai can feel like dancing about architecture, or more accurately, trying to draw a blueprint based on an inexplicably moving dance. Through slow-motion, gorgeous color, music for which the word "evocative" doesn't begin to do justice, exquisite sound design, rhythmic editing, and the sympathetic and often beautiful faces of his actors, Wong's films weave a web of seductive grace, leaving you too bedazzled to resist the narcotic bite of the director. He has us at hello, or rather, at the moment Nat King Cole beckons in his honeyed voice and Zhang Ziyi casts a fleeting, teasing glance in our direction.

Actually, 2046 (2004) is only the third Wong Kar-Wai film I've seen, but there were moments which proved more dreamily overpowering than anything else I'd witnessed in his work (or that of most other filmmakers'). Ultimately, though, I find In the Mood for Love (2000) his richest and most satisfying work overall, and at times 2046 lurks in its shadow. This is appropriate enough given that the latter film is in fact a sequel, or "sequel" as my Netflix sleeve describes it, to Mood. The quotation marks are actually appropriate, as 2046 is often entirely tangential to the earlier film, though more often it is not. Dancing through several lovers, across different genres, and over concurrent late-sixties Christmases, but sticking closely to Mood's protagonist Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and the hotel in which he stays, the film has its ups and downs, but oh, those ups...


For example, there's Chow wooing an early lover, reminding her of a past encounter as velvety reds envelop the screen and perfectly muffled music wafts in from just offscreen. Or the delicate way Zhang Ziyi's character flirts and backs away from Chow's advances, her ambivalent expression betraying the vulnerability that her confident teasing attempts to conceal. Or the hotel manager's daughter, pretty in her helmet-like hairdo and futuristic garb, her android demeanor cloaking...what exactly? Love? Confusion? An absolute blank, a zero, a robotic nothing?

The last image belongs to the film's substantial sci-fi stretch, in which we are privy to the book Leung's character is writing. Semi-futuristic (though its use of the number 2046 actually refers to the hotel room the author stayed in with his Mood lover), this story incorporates numerous lovers Chow collects throughout the film, while expressing his desire to return to that brief moment of perfection, that promise of another world, that he received during the events depicted in Mood. His sci-fi stand-in falls in love with an android who resembles a former lover, questioning her to determine if she returns his affections. This portrait of women as inscrutable androids reminded me of The Virgin Suicides, another film in which characters level intense gazes at women in an effort to discern their inner consciousness. Here, it's impossible to determine the android's level of humanity just by looking; are those seeming flickers of emotion our own projection onto a terrifyingly blank entity? (The question of interhuman empathy arises in all its confusion - who are we empathizing with, the other person or aspects of ourselves? Is there a there there?) The resulting moral conundrums made me want to revisit Blade Runner, a film I haven't seen in years, to see how it deals with these questions.

Anyway, other sections of 2046 are not always so compelling. Occasionally, its lyricism slips into overly-stylized mode and one has the uncomfortable sensation of watching a visually sophisticated but vacant TV advertisement (say, one directed by Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson -- we're talking very visually sophisticated here). Luckily those moments are few, as the lush beauty onscreen usually corresponds to the characters' emotional lives or the mood of the situation. But even when things are humming, the story starts and stops, lacking the forward momentum of In the Mood for Love. Since the film chronicles a series of love affairs, each with varying degrees of success, this uneven quality is in some ways appropriate. Actually, 2046 is unusually successful for this kind of sequel, which is not at all uncommon. The prime example that comes to mind is More American Graffiti - the justly forgotten 1977 follow-up which pursued different characters from the original on successive New Year's Eves in the late 60s. In its story structure, 2046 is remarkably similar - to the point of depicting nearly the same exact dates (Dec. 24 of '66 through '69 versus Graffiti's Dec. 31 of '65 through '68). Luckily, 2046 - unlike Graffiti - focuses its yearly adventures on one character and doesn't try to crosscut the different stories.

Besides, 2046 in its punch-drunk highs and disappointing lows serves to retroactively paint In the Mood for Love in a glowing light, actually improving the memory of its poetic romance. In this the film itself serves the same function as Chow's one-night stands, aborted affairs, and unrequited loves, which only manage to further romanticize and idealize his pure, unconsummated, never-to-be-returned-to early romance. By the end of 2046, we have enjoyed the ride but are nostalgic for the earlier film. Yet as we are told repeatedly in the narration, no one knows what the sci-fi "2046" is really like, because no one ever comes back once they have been there. Most fortunately, we as viewers do not face that particular dilemma. So I can (and will) return to Wong's audio-visual tone poems whenever I'm in the mood.

[This post had been modified to correct the following mistake: Tony Leung's character was mistakenly identified. - 3/8]

4 comments:

1minutefilmreview said...

Nice review, we're WKW fans too.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I found the soundtrack a very important element, and not having seen In the Mood For Love, I experienced the film strictly on its own terms, and found the women more as reactive femmes-fatales in a noirish oneiric place like Dark City...

MovieMan0283 said...

The soundtrack in this, as well as In the Mood for Love, is fantastic; it's impossible to imagine the movies without. Did you ever see In the Mood & if so did it change any impression you had of 2046?

Tony D'Ambra said...

In the Mood is on my list - too many movies to watch and too little time...