2046 Film Analysis Essay

ByNathan Leein the July/August 2005 Issue

After five years in production, dozens of interruptions, numerous cast changes, multiple cinematographers, the reconstruction of a half-million-dollar set, the completion of three major side projects, an eleventh-hour world premiere at Cannes, two radically different edits, a thousand import DVDs, endless rumors, infinite expectations—the phenomenon known as 2046 has finally arrived. What does it all add up to?  First, what it is not: a science-fiction film by Wong Kar Wai. Or at least not the one suggested by the first visual tease I discovered on the Internet several years ago: a sepia-tinted still of—what?—some fabulously convoluted dystopia? I recall the numbers “2046” emblazoned lengthwise across the image in an embossed, label-gun font. I remember only the widening of my eyes and the flush of heat behind them as inchoate visions of Wongian futurism offered themselves to my imagination. The details of that evocative jpeg are vague in the memory; I can no longer find it on my hard drive; the web has since been glutted with hundreds of official images connected to the final project. Did it really exist? I just spent over an hour searching for it. I just left for 2046.

Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody knows if that’s true because nobody’s ever come back.

Vestiges of a lavish science-fiction movie turn up in 2046 as excerpts of a novel being written by Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung), a lovelorn journalist in mid-Sixties Hong Kong. Voluptuously frazzled, it looks like a space oddity designed by Hussein Chalayan. On board a sleek intergalactic locomotive,  a moody youth with wild hair (Takuya Kimura) stares out the window of a crimson corridor. A smear of pixels races past. The craft is cold, labyrinthine—passengers are encouraged to hug one another for warmth. The young man does so with his obscure object of desire, a haute couture android (Faye Wong) with “delayed reactions” and avant-garde telephony. Other sequences will follow: fish-eyed sprints through fluorescent compounds, heavy android petting on wrought-iron beds, languid fembot lolling about. Not quite, as Chow describes, “as bizarre and erotic as possible without crossing the line.” Dangerously close, in fact, to avant-Barbarella.

Chow was formerly a writer of martial-arts novels. Adapted for the screen, would they look like Ashes of Time? Wong’s world is an eternal return, an iOeuvre on shuffle, an intricate, epic remix. We have met Chow before. He was first glimpsed in the enigmatic finale of Days of Being Wild, holed up in the first of many hypnotically appointed chambers (of the mind) to come. Smoking a cigarette, paring his fingernails, filling his pockets, combing his hair, he was readying for a night on the town. It took him nearly a decade. Days’s famous coda is the (delayed) madeleine of Wong’s celluloid recherche: the great Proustian reverie of In the Mood for Love comes flooding out from its shape, sound, and texture.

I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not.

Set in early Sixties Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love was the story of a rapturously sublimated romance between Chow and his impossibly beautiful neighbor Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). Muffled by shyness and powerful codes of propriety, their affections detonated as if deep underwater. Mood was an erotic depth charge; 2046 is the pattern made by its aftershocks. Echoing with repetitions, synchronicities, somnambulistic swoons, dream states, meta-narrative, and many kinds of doppelgangers, it is a ghost story haunted by the absence of Su Li Zhen. So the first thing 2046 adds up to is a sequel. This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t nearly as explicit in the notorious ur-cut shown at Cannes last year. One suspects that the extent to which the release version directly continues the narrative of Mood may have been settled on very late in the game. And it isn’t difficult to imagine other versions surfacing some day: a pure sci-fi, an experimental montage, a wordless pantomime, a melodrama in Japanese, a half-dozen self-contained romances. A poem is never finished, said Valéry, only abandoned.

Returned to Hong Kong after a sojourn in Singapore, Chow has grown dissolute (and a mustache). He is surrounded by women, sirens, pseudo-Sus. The first we meet is a shadowy femme fatale known as (among other things) the Black Spider (Gong Li). 2046 will return to her mysteries and so will we. Next is Lulu, aka Mimi (Carina Lau Ka Ling), a doleful, tempestuous former lover with whom Chow reunites one drunk evening at a nightclub. Ever the gentleman, he returns her unconscious form to the Oriental Hotel, room 2046. It was in room 2046 of another hotel that Chow and Su Li Zhen may or may not have consummated their affair. A few days later, returning to check on Lulu, the hotel manager, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), tells him she has checked out. Chow inquires about moving into her room. It is being “renovated.” Several nights earlier Lulu was stabbed by a jealous lover. Chow moves into 2047.

Down the hall sizzles Miss Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), an intensely alluring courtesan wrapped in diamonds, embroidery, coral-colored silk, and contemptuous sass. Li Zhen was modest; Miss Bai is coy, her reticence an easily foiled gambit. It’s a sign of Chow’s malaise that he treats her unkindly—I mean, it’s fucking Ziyi Zhang! Still, she is frivolous and, far worse, available. Chow fatigues and shifts his attentions to Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong, again), eldest daughter of the hotel manager. (Her sister is reduced to a Popsicle-sucking Lolita with a single scene, but for all we know appears on several thousand feet of discarded film.) Wang is claimed—an ideal object of adoration. Against the wishes of her father, she is in love with Japanese Tak (Kimura Takuya, again). Chow facilitates their affair by receiving his letters and passing them on. Wang, an aspiring writer, is soon collaborating on his potboilers.

All of the women of 2046 are, in a sense, aspects of one woman, the woman, and not the woman that Su Li Zhen was, but the one she might or could have been. He’ll never know. Why can’t it be like it was before?

A synthesizing, retrospective work, 2046 is the summation of Wong’s lyrical melancholia. As such, there’s something decadent, terminal, and slightly suffocating about it. Production designer William Chang’s shabby-chic surrealism reaches apotheosis: peppermint-stripe sconces, op art wallpaper, lush velvet curtains, boas of thick gold tinsel, mirror upon mirror upon mirror, each of supernal lucidity. For the first time in his career, in his longest film to date, Wong frames in cinemascope, as if to accommodate the full flexing of his plastic muscle. From Ashes of Time to Happy Together, he is all dizzy kinesis, step-printed expressionism, giddy new-wave verve. In the Mood for Love slowed everything back down, narrowed the focus, keyed itself to the character’s concentration and a rapt backward gaze. 2046 is hieratic, frieze-like, neo-classical. Shot almost entirely in medium-to-tight shots, heads fill the frame like marble busts propped on hidden supports. The far ends of his compositions are habitually given over to a shallow-focus volume of wall or curtain, so that Wong often seems to be shooting in 1.66:1 or 4:3, with a luxurious buffer of pure form. 2046 is a voyeuristic narrative we peek at through apertures and spy on around corners. The geometry of the film is parabolic: our sight line follows its relativistic poetry along a curvature of space.

There is nothing in the editing as conspicuously virtuoso as Maggie Cheung’s jump-cut quickstep up and down the hotel stairs of Mood, unless it’s the first, flabbergasting montage of sci-fi fragments spilling from Chow’s pen. More expansive, plot-wise, than its laser-lean predecessor, the episodic sequel is micro-tight within any given scene, but the cumulative shape has a drifting, arbitrary quality. God knows it could go on and on, variation upon variation—it must have been a monumental task in the editing room. Where the rhythm clicks magically is in the pas de deux between Chow and the women. 2046 is a sequence of two-handers, and for each Wong has invented a unique variation on the inescapable shot/counter shot. Chronologically, the first encounter with Black Spider is also the last, so Wong pivots the layout of their talk around a wide axis, flipping them to the edge of the frame with a swerving, hook-like energy. (The dominant visual motif of the scene is a curved wooden balustrade.) Dialogue with the pained, passionate Lulu is arranged into deep-red diptychs that trap her in little boxes of open space, hot chromatic weight pressing in. Wang’s goodbye to Tak is another study in diptychs, green-black in hue. Her dinner with Chow late in the picture is bewildered by a prismatic effect, as if photographed through the tear of a crystal chandelier. The relationship with Bai is consummated, with physical directness and the cutting reflects this, remaining perfectly clear and keeping classical sight lines in synch. The opposite is the case in the tour de force of the method, Chow’s conversation with Mr. Wang about the renting of room 2046. They stand in a hallway, withholding information and guarding ulterior motives. Wong fragments the space into shards, breaking up the actors in mirrors and offsetting their eye lines. They dissemble; Wong disassembles.

For all its balance and grandeur, 2046 is the most nervous of Wong’s films. Political anxiety gave the film its title: China’s promise, in 1997, that nothing would change in the free-market enclave of Hong Kong for 50 years. Money problems permeate the narrative. Chow is a low-end gambler, a low-paid hack, late on the rent. His relationship with Bai is complicated by ambiguity and embarrassment over the expectation of payment. Riots sparked by economic resentment invade the film’s texture as archival  footage. (The first resulted from an increase in the Star Ferry fare; the second was an anti-colonial uprising by angry young Maoists.) Implicit as well is Wong’s own anxiety about his $15 million project running amok.

If someone wants to leave 2046, how long will it take? Some people get away very easily. Others find that it takes them much longer.

2046 is a place, a time, the name of a novel, the number of a hotel room, and, in the form of an anime megalopolis, the first digital representation in Wong’s cinema. 2046 is also, always, 2046: a cine-Narcissus enraptured by its own depths, unnerved by what it sees, struggling to pull away from its own image. Given the difficulties, the expectations, the reputation at stake, the scrutiny, the daunting perfection of In the Mood for Love—how could it have been otherwise? Anxiety: “Science-fiction films are not about science,” wrote Susan Sontag. “They are about disaster.” Ground control to Major Wong … 2046 is a vacuum touched by death. Lulu is stabbed, Wang (it is hinted) attempts suicide, Su Li Zhen’s absence vexes the narrative. The movie embarked on its long gestation at the dawn of the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Wong’s future is digital; celluloid has a shelf life, like canned pineapple. The future is sold; a logo for LG Communications is prominently displayed in the opening animation. Time and space collapse in memory—memory collapses in memory. The trials of the present are projected onto the future. Both times are fiction. 2046 is a spectacular act of self-interrogation. Why can’t it be like it was before?

At the end of The Hand, Wong’s contribution to the omnibus Eros, a prostitute played by Gong Li melodramatically expires in the arms of her tailor (Chang Chen, briefly seen in Chow’s sci-fi). A concentrated ars poetica on the trilogy of Days/Mood/2046, Wong’s masterly short took the making of quipao gowns as the radiant symbol of his own craft. The Hand annotates the most portentous visual motif in 2046: the slo-mo sway of Gong Li’s glove. Attired entirely in her namesake color, Black Spider is the film’s most obscure figure. Her past was like her black glove, a mystery with no solution. Her name, we discover, is Su Li Zhen.

“Why can’t it be like before?”

Wong Kar-Wai’s films, I have to admit, have been slow to win me over. Chungking Express (1994) was on its release an intoxicating experience with its moody visuals, fast-paced editing, cheerful pop songs, and charming (if sometimes a little too ingratiating) voice-over, but I could never quite rid myself of the feeling that underneath it all there was something a little hollow about it, and about the follow-up Fallen Angels (1995) too. Happy Together (1997), on the other hand, seemed a quantum leap forward, with a real emotional depth (rather than poppy charm) to it; and in the achingly beautiful In the Mood for Love (2000) Wong achieves a near-perfect balance between the melancholic feelings at play and the film’s formal beauty.

Now comes 2046 (2004), four years in the making, three cinematographers, at least one of the stars (Maggie Cheung) reduced to two very brief shots, and by all accounts a lot of chops and changes in conception, dominant theme, and emphasis along the way. The biggest change is that this is no longer Wong’s “science fiction” movie, although we might be moved to think so by the opening: a futuristic train trip to, the Japanese narrator tells us in his voice-over, 2046, a place where you can relive your memories (and from which no one but this narrator has ever returned). But we very soon discover that this sci-fi tale is actually the work of In the Mood for Love‘s Mr Chow (Tony Leung), as he rather disconcertingly relives with Gong Li in Singapore one of the scenes (and lines of dialogue) that he played with Maggie Cheung in the earlier film, and then, in a customary Wong-style voice-over, details his return to Hong Kong and his transformation into a smooth, rather callous lady’s man: a less appealing character this time around.

So, 2046 works as a companion piece to In the Mood for Love, with Tony Leung reprising his role as Chow (initially, there’s a sense that he might be a parallel character, but it’s later made clear he is the same man); his buddy Ping making a reappearance; Gong Li taking on Maggie Cheung’s character’s name Su Lizhen (from both In the Mood for Love and 1991’s Days of Being Wild); and the film as a whole constantly repeating the “whispered secrets” motif that In the Mood for Love ended with. There it was the hole in the wall at Angkor Wat that Chow whispers his secret into; here it’s a folk story of finding a tree on a mountain, carving a hole in it, and whispering a secret into the hole, with the film itself zooming out from the “hole” in the opening shot and zooming into it in the closing shot. It’s a sign of 2046‘s excessive overuse of motifs that this story is told three times in the course of the film, twice by the Japanese narrator and once by one of the androids.

But the focus is on Chow’s relationships with three women, played by Gong Li (as gambler Su Lizhen), Zhang Ziyi (as Bai Ling), and Faye Wong (as Wang Jingwen), with a briefer encounter with Carina Lau identifying the meaning of the title: her hotel room number of 2046, which Chow later tries to rent before opting for 2047 next door. In fact, it’s Bai Ling who ends up living in 2046, in the hotel run by Jingwen’s father; and “2047” becomes the title of one of the sci-fi stories Chow writes, in this case specifically for Jingwen after she finally leaves for Japan to marry her Japanese boyfriend — who Chow makes the Japanese narrator that we hear in the opening sequence of the film. (Of course, “2046” has other resonances outside of this film: it was the number of Chow’s hotel room in In the Mood for Love; and it is the last year of the fifty-year period that China has guaranteed to leave Hong Kong unchanged.)

Characteristically for Wong, the film’s major theme is spelt out quite explicitly late in the film in one of Chow’s voice-overs: “Love is all a matter of timing,” he says. “If I’d lived in another time or place, my story might have had a different ending.” Hardly a profound philosophical statement to bear the considerable weight of the film, but there’s still a recognisable, emotional truth to it, and it’s clearly being applied in Chow’s mind to his feelings about Jingwen, the character played by Faye Wong.

Faye Wong’s performance is the airiest, lightest, and most appealing of the three female leads, where fullest expression is given to the romantic, visual poetry Wong Kar-Wai’s fans most associate with him. The approach to her character is the most oblique and indirect of the three main women characters. Our very first view of her consists of repeated shots of her high heels clicking over the floor as she recites Japanese phrases to her missing Japanese lover. Perhaps the most emblematic shot of her is a low-angle one of her leaning out over the hotel roof, framed by a bluish, leaden sky; or there’s the high-angle shot of her playing with a cigarette/cigarette smoke, which is then replayed with a similar (although low-angle) shot in her role as the android in Chow’s sci-fi story.

It’s all very moody and enticing; thematically, Jingwen represents a possible but lost romantic opportunity for Chow (his story “2047”, as I’ve said, is a coded message to her), but this relationship is never as resonant as that with Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. Still, Chow as a character is at his most appealing here, more like the self-abnegating Chow of the earlier film. This is clearest on the Christmas Eve he spends with Jingwen and in the way he both accepts missing out on the warmth he claims everyone needs on that one night and still gets satisfaction from just making her happy.

But of the three romances, Chow’s relationship with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), the dancehall hostess living in room 2046, takes up the central part of the film. It’s initially played out as a “mature,” cynical, and realistic affair, but one where true feelings start to emerge on Bai Ling’s part (Chow, however, remains quite callous throughout). Zhang Ziyi gives a fine, wordless expression to the way her feelings are changing and growing, stressed in some of the set-ups Wong puts her in, in lengthy shots, centre-frame, facing the camera; there’s one shot where the camera, very effectively, just holds on Bai Ling’s face after Chow leaves the frame — and the scene — as she struggles until the inevitable tears (there’s a lot of crying in this film) come. But at the same time it’s true that this narrative does seem rather drawn out.

The scenes with Gong Li are chronologically the earliest but, apart from a brief extract at the start of the film, are structured to appear after the Bai Ling and Jiangwen stories. In them, Gong Li plays a gambler Chow meets during his time in Singapore, who cleverly turns down Chow’s romantic overtures, perhaps because she fears his interest is only because she bears the identical name of his lost love from In the Mood for Love. Frankly, the scenes with her are a little dull, but they are important thematically. This is not only in how her name Su Lizhen invokes the Maggie Cheung character and Chow’s feelings of loss. Gong Li’s Su Lizhen also acts as a reflection of Chow himself. In the voice-over he explicitly reads her gloved hand as an image of her past, sealed, closed-off, hidden, and tells her: “Maybe one day you’ll escape your past. If you do, look for me.” Yet it’s clear that Chow is as much talking about himself.

2046 is Wong’s first film in Cinemascope (above), and for all its narrative weaknesses it does offer a splendid achievement in its composition of wide-screen space. With so many scenes taking place between only two characters, it’s fascinating — and visually beautiful — how so often they are positioned off-centre, or never completely fill the frame, with drapes, curtains, furnishings, walls all taking up so much of the visual space. Sometimes as much as half the screen is darkened or in shadow, a flat block of black playing off against the human figure in the other half. Repeated visual motifs (such as the close-ups of the side of Chow’s face peeking into the room next door) or the sudden cuts from medium two-shots to extreme close-ups of objects (a door-handle; Bai Ling’s hand playing with a watch) are all the more effective for being in Cinemascope.

There’s a tendency for an individual shot within a scene to stand alone, to produce qualities of mood and emotion as a discrete visual unit, irrespective of the preceding and following shots that it’s matched with; hence, the amount of eyeline mismatching in the film. Look, for example, at the low-angle shot of Jingwen on the hotel roof which is followed by first a shot of Chow looking screen-left (the direction of Jingwen in the preceding shot) but then by one of Chow looking screen-right. Or the scene where, prior to the first time they make love, Chow playfully chases Bai Ling with all the direction screen-left, but which is interrupted by one shot of Chow looking screen-right. Or, again, the scene in Chow’s room when Chow and Bai Ling have their break-up argument and the individual shots of each of them have both facing screen-right. Not that there’s a problem in understanding the dynamics of an individual scene (although the “geography” of Chow’s room in that argument scene is a little obscure), but it is just one of the many strategies Wong calls on to assemble his intricate mosaic of visual effects.

The film’s strength is in its intricate intertwining of story and image, of dialogue, voice-over and music. There is a whole series of different underlying structures — narrative, visual, aural — that hold the film together. Take, for example, the motif of Christmas Eve and how it appears in the course of the film, marked in the main by titles:

1. “24 December 1966” Early in the film, Chow meets up with Lulu (Carina Lau), an acquaintance from his time in Singapore. 2046‘s key concerns are established here: the hotel room 2046; the themes of memory and emotional loss (on the one hand, Lulu can’t remember Chow — deliberately or not, he doesn’t know; on the other, Lulu is in emotional mourning for her dead boyfriend); tears as the sign of a character’s emotional distress — the sequence ends with Lulu crying, the first of many such scenes in the film.

2. “24 December 1967” Chow and Bai Ling’s first date together, reinforcing the cool, playful, and rather callous character of the Chow of this film compared to that of In the Mood for Love. The sequence ends with a black-and-white scene of Chow and Bai Ling in a taxi together (where Bai Ling carefully removes Chow’s hand from her knee — her own real feelings of love for Chow are a later development), which is rhymed towards the end of the film with a similar flashback shot of Chow with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung).

3. The long section devoted to Chow’s story “2047” tells of the Japanese narrator’s return from 2046 and how the coldest part of the train is when they cross 1224 and 1225 (in other words, as Chow tells us in his own later voice-over, December 24 and 25). This looks forward to an idea Chow proposes in his voice-over during the Christmas Eve he spends with Jingwen, that everyone needs some warmth on that one night of the year; and the sequence itself enacts Chow’s feelings for Jingwen. It’s preceded by Chow’s declarations first that “feelings can creep up on you unawares,” then that “I once fell in love with someone, but I never knew if she loved me back,” and it plays out, in transmuted science-fiction form, the film’s repeated motifs: the whispered secret (the Jingwen android plays teasingly with the motif, the Lulu android tells the story), the question left unanswered by the loved one (here, the android never replies to the narrator’s invitation to leave with him — echoing Su Lizhen/Gong Li’s “answer” through her card game at the start of the film — with the reason left unclear), crying (the androids’ delayed tears, the narrator’s weeping).

4. “24 December 1968” Chow invites Jingwen to dinner. Here, Chow’s character is at its most appealing in this film, as he misses out on his own chances for Christmas Eve “warmth” by taking up the opportunity to make Jingwen happy (encouraging her to phone her boyfriend in Japan) and getting his own happiness from that. Wong is showing in Chow how our actions and behaviour change and alter from one relationship to another; Chow’s character is not fixed, but shifts in relation to the partner and the story. In the Jingwen story Chow really takes on the role that Bai Ling has in the story of their relationship — even if Chow is never as overtly emotional or weepy (he never cries himself, except when he allows his surrogate to do so in “2047”).

5. “18 months later” When Bai Ling, after a long separation, contacts Chow for his help, she tells him that she looked for him the previous Christmas Eve because “I suddenly missed you so much.” Which then flashes back to:

6. “24 December 1969” Chow spends this Christmas Eve in Singapore, looking in vain for Su Lizhen (Gong Li, right). The story of their relationship is then told in a long flashback. Again, common motifs reappear here: a hidden, secret past; a refusal to answer questions (Su Lizhen’s high-low card game is a way not to answer); and weeping. Su Lizhen’s crying is the most extreme that we’ve seen so far in the film, although she does regain control of herself, rubbing her fingers across her lips as a demonstration of that control — which is also, finally, an explanation for the smudged lipstick we saw in the shots of her at the beginning of the film. This weeping is then rhymed with the final scenes with Bai Ling (in the 1970 “present”, which date, in keeping with the film’s and Wong’s romantic/nostalgic fascination with the sixties, is never explicitly named), which end with a complete breakdown into tears, from which, for once, we never see her bravely recover.

So, as much as the film suffers in comparison with In the Mood for Love (a comparison it clearly invites, not only in the way it multiplies the original’s romantic narratives, but also — far more damagingly — multiplies and overuses motifs like that of the “whispered secrets”), Wong still manages, in the way that all the different elements of the film are intricately intertwined, to pull things together at the end, to end on a note of moody, emotional force. (This intertwining is also rich enough for the film to stand up to repeated viewings.) “Why can’t it be like before?” is Bai Ling’s resonant, painful cry, evoking the film’s major theme of lost memories; just as her and Su Lizhen’s final collapse into tears are an illustration of the title that appears early on: “All memories are the traces of tears.” By the end, 2046 has come closest to recapturing the mournful melancholy of In the Mood for Love. Here, the major theme is regret for a past that is lost and the way characters can be locked into those past memories. And the point of the journey to 2046 is to recapture those lost memories, even if: “No one knows if it is true because no one ever comes back.”

— Ian Johnston

Ian Johnston is a New Zealander living in Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared in The Film Journal.

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