No doubt after the release of My Blueberry Nights – a film which garnered major publicity in Cannes, featuring a cast of Hollywood A-listers (Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz), and backed by the Weinstein Company – in 2007, Wong Kar-wai will be more than just a name exclusive to the art-house circle in North-America. The Hong-Kong auteur's first English feature is expected to earn him legions of new fans and bring commercial, along with critical success. However, from early reviews of Nights and Wong's track record, it is expected that general audiences will be leaving the theaters perplexed by Wong's trademark moody, slow-paced, non-linear style of filmmaking. What then, is the approach to watching a Wong Kar-wai film for an audience bred on Hollywood-style cinema? Now is a perfect time to rediscover the oeuvre of the man often referred to as the world's most romantic filmmaker; and there is no better place to start than Wong's most recent movie, 2046.
Considered to be a summation of a decade-long career, 2046 indeed showcases all the things that cult-like followers and critics have come to love in Wong: lush, breathtaking cinematography; fragmented, elliptical storytelling; meditations on love and loneliness, point-of-view voiceovers, an obsession with time, and dreamlike slow motion sequences. The most anticipated film at the 2004 Cannes film festival, 2046 became infamous for missing its own premiere. The lore goes that Wong was still cutting and editing the epic (it took about four years on-off to film) on the day of and couldn't bring the reels to the festival in time, forcing organizers to rearrange the schedule. It was billed as the top contender for the Palme d'Or, but lost out to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911.
Set (mainly) in 1960s Hong Kong, the film is the third in an unofficial trilogy that details the loves and loss of a group of local residents. (The other films in the trilogy are: Days of Being Wild, 1990; and In the Mood for Love, 2000). It is next to impossible to provide a plot summary of the film as, well, not much really happens in terms of "story." The movie centers on Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), a lovelorn writer who rents a room (# 2046) in a hotel where he begins a passionate relationship with a prostitute (Zhang Ziyi) and falls for the hotel owners' daughter (Faye Wong). At the same time Mr. Chow meets people from his painful past and struggles with the memories of missed chances that continue to haunt him. There are many subplots that intersect the main narrative; one of them is a futuristic fable about a man who travels to a place called 2046 to recover lost memories and develops feelings for an android. Another subplot is the forbidden romance between a young Chinese woman and her Japanese lover.
Characters enter and exit the story fleetingly; and the movie jumps between past, present and future, alternating between reality and fiction. All this makes the film difficult to follow at first viewing, and Wong rarely gives us indication of shifts in time and storyline. But the point of this film, as in other Wong films, is not to simply tell a story from A to B; to please the spectator with absolute knowledge of plot and character; it is to challenge by way of ambiguity, to evoke and invoke. What Wong does so well is explore themes and create moods – and the theme here is the relationship between love and time, unrequited desire, memories, longing. The mood is unequivocally melancholy, a warm and subdued sadness. Wong's treatment of these ideas is unabashedly romantic, but rarely does it touch on the sentimental. The romance in 2046 is meditative and philosophical, allowing the attentive viewer to ponder the meaning of love and relationships.
The way to watch this film is to not look at it as a movie, but a world. It is a world in which pleasure arises from observing the ways in which people interact with one another, the ways people connect and misconnect, the ways characters think and feel; rather than investment in plot and action. This is a world comprised of moments: when the camera focuses on the heels of Faye Wong's character as she moves about the room, repeating Japanese phrases, pining after a distant lover; or a passionate goodbye kiss between Mr. Chow and a mysterious gambler, smearing the lipstick on her lips; or the single tear that rolls down Zhang Ziyi's still face as her character realizes that she can never make Chow love her. These are the moments that, when taken together, reflect the heartbreak of loving and living.
The acting here is unilaterally superb (never has sadness looked so good and attractive as it does on the faces and bodies of Hong Kong's best actors). And Wong's deft use of music (originals from Shigeru Umebayashi, Xavier Cugat, Nat King Cole, and opera scores) is the crowning touch to this minor masterpiece.
I admit, watching a Wong Kar-wai film requires patience, not the least because of the subtitles. But the rewards are manifold, especially if one revisits the movies with repeated viewings. So if you're interested in a slice of "Blueberry" pie for dessert this year, then I recommend 2046 as a sumptuous main course.