Tuesday, October 26, 2021


Destination Unknown

What is 2046 [Wong Kar-wai, 2004]? The third in a trilogy that begins with Days of Being Wild and passes significantly through In the Mood for Love before arriving at this final destination to date. A summation of all Wong's fetishes from costume to variation of romantic proposition to future-leaping when time ticks short. You can enjoy watching this film as a stand-alone, but given all the streaming options and the Criterion World of Wong Kar Wai box set why wouldn't you watch the preceding elements? (I wonder if the no-hyphen in "Kar-wai" is now his preferred stylization... Like the South Korean Hong "Sangsoo" or the Chinese Jia "Zhangke"....) Especially since 2046 opens on the shot of a metal... gong?... mandala physical subscript?... that not only picks up from the Angkor Wat crevice at the end of In the Mood for Love but also suggests the circularity and cyclical nature of All being à la ouroboros and omphalos and female sex. That can be energizing to cinephiles, paintophiles, theory-philes... The same image in greyscale even 'closes' the movie (before the fine end credits)... Searching ourselves, the image becomes the interiority and the exterior of the will and the drive to create, as much for Mr. Chow (again, Tony Leung) as for Wong himself.

I saw this film for the first time in 2004 on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. It had arrived a few months prior at the Cannes festival with much fanfare because Wong had to fly the print in for the festival while the celluloid was still wet and the SFX were not yet complete, running to the Palais. The SFX? The train lines and exteriors of a supposed future Hong Kong, all on the outskirts of the mysterious "2046" (in the year 2046 no less), appeared as wireframe graphics. The final post-Cannes result was that the polished exteriors exhibited much of a Fraggle Rock aesthetic, and look more beautiful now to me than they ever did in '04 (even then, complete as I recall); they skip over the so-called Renaissance of computer-graphic-imagery to instead become something closer to Studio Ghibli. I watched it intensely in BK, it held me more than any Wong film has before or since in a theater. But I could only until now, when I've watched it 7 times on the Criterion disc, and before that the lame Sony DVD with yellow subtitles, remember more than the high-heels that clicked blue, than the unsettling train ride, than Faye Wong and Carina Lau and finally in the late-1960s era, Zhang Ziyi, Wong's most stunning actress ever put to film.

After the movie ended, I walked down the sidewalk imagining the concrete lighting at every step and I had a drink at the pub with a book. When I still read English-language film publications (I mostly don't anymore, because I generally hate them) I was shocked that no-one else seemed to see this as the Supreme Masterpiece of Wong Kar-wai. Little did I know, years later in 2021 this would still be the case, with the proponents of the master's body of work zeroing in mostly on Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love — both masterpieces but both offering something less than the ambition and sprawl of 2046. (In holding on to this as a fetish film, I even remember once that Wong declared it should be pronounced "Two - Oh - Four - Six," and I've always called it that. On a supplement in the Criterion box he pronounces the title "Twenty-Forty-Six.") In fact, the problem with film critics is they're like mosquitoes dazed by CD-Rs dangling off a Seguaro cactus: They appraise a movie, they love it or hate it, then it sinks into their tar-pit subconscious, and they go on to review the next movie by the Larrieu, Safdie, or Dardenne brothers and the cycle repeats. The treatment of 2046 over the years has been disgusting. (But not as bad as My Blueberry Nights, though we might come to that below.) Much of this is because Sony Pictures Classics has held it in moratorium until Criterion (via Wong) were able to fish it out for the box set, and even then: no fanfare, and the weakest 'restoration' among the other great films in the box. They were unable to license it for the theatrical roadshow. But as a farmer once told his wife standing beneath the rise of the harvest moon: "At least we've got this, Fatty..."

"A mysterious train leaves for 2046 every once in a while." — The basic premise of this film is that it is framed by Mr. Chow writing a sci-fi tale called "2046," where the future year represents a place in which his characters are largely confined to a hyperspeed train that takes them to some 'place' represented by an end-hotel which houses an end-room 2046 (that which he and Mrs. Chan [Maggie Cheung] would occupy during In the Mood for Love; in Days of Being Wild, a hotel room is numbered "246") —here the travelers can capture lost memories and intentions, but the caveat is that nothing ever changes in 2046... And no-one comes back. "Except me." — Takuya Kimura is the stand-in for the author Tony Leung, who is reimagining the tale of the hole from the end of In the Mood for Love.

"All memories are traces of tears." We cut to Gong Li (known here as the Spider Woman) under droplets of soundtrack — she's pursued by Mr. Chow in Singapore; on her way back to Hong Kong, the same overhead shaded bulb weathers the rain, as we saw in In the Mood for Love — but now Chow is a moustached gambler, picking up from his appearance in the small studio at the epilogue of Days of Being Wild. That was when he was still a bachelor before Mrs. Chow; here he is one once again. He gently pleads with the Spider Woman that if they draw cards and he comes up high, she must join in. He pulls a king. She pulls an ace. Cut to a tracking shot of Gong walking away, her lipstick smeared in the mess of a kiss.

The end of 1966: Chow returns to Hong Kong, and moves into the Oriental Hotel. His newspaper journalism on the wane, he's making shit for money, writing stories in the martial-arts vein, until he's inspired to switch over to a sci-fi setting in which he can more clearly, or hazily, transpose his life events to something more aching and disguised, as is his wont. "I became an expert ladies' man..." — for the gratification of his life or for the satisfactory ring of his stories? Wong has constructed a narrative in which we can't rightfully question the casus belli for Chow's apparently sudden change. Yet despite being a logical move it's the cinema of cuts and time and carries-over from one movie to the next that suspends, no, negates, the disbelief of such a matter of fact. To complicate things further, and to leave you the reader maybe high-and-dry, I suspect that part of Wong's innate metaphysics or even deep-core (not necessarily deep-held; yet: quasi-religious) beliefs acknowledge the existence of parallel universes, as patly as that might seem without a larger exploration. Consider it, on my part, an inkling.

December 24, 1966: Chow asks a woman at a club: "Weren't you in a show in Singapore in '64?" This is Carina Lau, or Lulu — now Mimi. She was with "a Chinese Filipino from a rich family," again a call-back to Days of Being Wild. Memories of her, which will return.

At the Oriental Hotel, Chow rents the room "2047" because he can't get "2046" next door — a recollection of his and Mrs. Chan's negotiations with the Suens and the Koos in In Mood for the Love. It turns out that 2046 is being — not squatted in, necessarily, but — occasionally occupied by Ms. Wang (Faye Wong), as a practice space for her Japanese-language recitations in order to ingratiate herself with a traveling businessman (Kimura) with whom she's in love. Chow spies through the filigreed grating that separates the spaces. She pivots on her black high-heels with every "Ikimashō!" and variation thereof, which will of course inspire the blue-glow clicks of the heel in his "2046" short story, and which together will trounce Tarantino's literalist filming of women's feet in all, all those films of his inferior to Wong's. Wang/Wong is the daughter of the hotel owner.

In Chow's/Leung's story: Takuya Kimura says to Faye Wong Android: "Come away with me," just as Chow said to the Spider Woman. Around this moment it occurred to me: Which is the Chow-short-story and which is the real? Of course it could be said that the former supersedes the latter, but is there any negatory sense that proves or posits it shouldn't be the other way around? Remember the circle and the hole... What if In the Mood for Love were itself a story, as much as 2046 — the pennings of either, the leaps in character development and transformation, time...

May 1967: Bombs in Hong Kong. 

"Some didn't take to the science-fiction angle..." This in voice-over as we catch a first glimpse of Maggie Cheung shot from overhead on a bed... Why did Wong pare Cheung from the film in such a manner? It's a mystery, and so she remains a mystery in 2046 itself. We'll see her in a couple more shots, but the emotion of her presence is not lacking. Particularly since this initial glimpse is soon supplanted in the viewer by the arrival in room 2046 of Ms. Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi).

December 24, 1967: The film now speeds up, and a relationship between Bai and Chow manifests. Chow has been thinking of the Spider Woman's hand. Chow and Bai fuck, and afterward, this new mustached Chow offers Bai 200 dollars. "I wasn't selling..." Chow's attitude is that of a shadow figure throwing shadow pots and darts. There is a perversion to the severance. 

He will go on to take Ms. Wang (Faye Wong) practicing her Japanese again under his wing upon learning she's been writing martial-arts stories. He recruits her as an "assistant" (dictatee-secretary) and then as a full-fledged ghostwriter, avoiding any recognition of her own aspirations. Vampiric? "So I started imagining myself as a Japanese man on a train headed for 2046... falling for an android with delayed reactions." — The android Faye does not love Chow-Kimura...

December 24, 1968: Chow takes Ms. Wang to his place so she can make a long-distance call to her Japanese boyfriend. The film soon shifts to the future again, but now not into the realm of Chow's narrative: Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong)'s father has relented and is allowing the marriage to the Japanese boyfriend... in Japan... and the father will attend.

Every time Chow hovers the pen-tip over a blank sheet it's like waiting for a needle to drop.

18 months later, which is mid-1970 and thus a short flashback from the next sequence: Bai and Chow are out for a drink and declare themselves "drinking buddies."

December 24, 1969: Chow kills times in Singapore to gamble but the Black Spider / Spider Woman isn't there. "In '63, my life lost most of its meaning — I started gambling every day." The Black Spider offers to win for him, with a 10% commission. 

18 months later, again: 

The hole, the mandala.

My friend Sheila Lobo said watching 2046 over and over is like a dream, which is probably the highest commendation that can be given to any film, but is especially appropriate when the film is 2046. Beyond the causal plot-escalations (I'm reading George Saunders's recent book on the Russian short story) there's also that indescribable outward burst that lurks latently in quiet plenitude throughout and seems sentiently to wish for something beyond its immediately perceptible measure. Its surfaces alone kindle a joy lacking in the bulk of the modern cinema, whether we are to find these pleasures in Zhang Ziyi's eye makeup or the repetitive use of Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song." The question in the wake of 2046 was only what would Wong do from here. The proximate answer is The Hand, and that is the film we will next discuss. After that came My Blueberry Nights, which we not only will eventually but MUST discusss. Then there is, as of writing, his latest feature: in its Chinese cut, The Grandmaster —a film buried by Weinstein in America, which exists in three regional versions all supposedly endorsed by WKW, but the aforementioned Chinese-cut being the greatest, and not just because it's the longest. 

In sum, please watch Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and then 2046. It's Wong Kar-wai's greatest film, besides Ashes of Time (Redux) and The Grandmaster (the Chinese cut).