2046: A Film Odyssey

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Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is a ladies' man. He knows how to attract them and keep them at a distance. Having been burned in an earlier affair, he is loath to reveal to them the ache of lost love at his core. Yet he needs a woman; he seems happy only when he can nod off, in a taxi, on a kind lady's shoulder. He sounds like a weary cynic, but underneath he is like every Wong Kar-wai character: a melancholy romantic. And he has the bruises to prove it.

Chow is the hero of 2046, Wong's first feature since In the Mood for Love four years ago. Like that film and most of the others that have made him the most respected and imitated writer-director in Hong Kong, perhaps in all Asia, it is a stethoscope monitoring the troubled hearts of people who have the attitude but not always the aptitude for love. At $15 million and more than two hours in length (20 minutes longer than any of his earlier pictures), 2046 is the grandest project of a man who, in an age of coarse and facetious movies, has the mission to reestablish the romantic tone of the grandest old films—where two beautiful people would gaze into each other's eyes and go about breaking each other's hearts.

That makes Wong, 46, the cinema's reigning romantic. But in his dark shades and friendly hipness, he is too cool to plead totally guilty to that charge. "Romanticism means you follow your heart more than your mind," he said last week as he alighted in Hong Kong during a hectic promotion tour that took him to Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Beijing. "If that's the case, my films are 75% romantic; the other 25% is the realities, the problem solving and luck." As for himself, he laughs and says he's "60% romantic." Which sounds like the other 40% is talking.

The release of 2046 was delayed by realities, problem solving and luck, most of it bad. The SARS epidemic disrupted filming last year. The futuristic computer imagery, which opens the film in dazzling fashion, took more time than expected. Mostly, though, Wong is a notorious perfectionist in an industry that believes fast is good. (Johnnie To, Hong Kong's top auteur of commercial films, has directed 13 features in the four years since In the Mood came out.) Wong promised that 2046 would open at the Cannes Film Festival this May, yet he kept shooting until days before the premiere. The film missed a scheduled screening and had to be shown later that night. For his trouble, Wong and 2046 went home without a prize.

Wong's work habits may exasperate those around him. But a question remains: is the movie good? And the answer is no. It's wonderful—a rich, glamorous and acutely human work with superb performances by Leung and the four gorgeous actresses.

It's clever, too. "The idea for the film," says Wong, "comes from the promise the Chinese government gave to the Hong Kong people: 50 years of no change" in its political and economic systems after the 1997 handover by Great Britain. "So 2046 is the last year of that promise. And I think, is there anything that is so unchanged in people's lives? When we fall in love we wonder: Will they change? Will I change? How can we make this moment last forever? So we start with that."

When last seen, at the end of in the Mood for Love, Chow was mourning a failed affair with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and making a pilgrimage to the ruins of Angkor Wat. He was told that to bury a sad secret, one should find an ancient hole, whisper the secret into it, then cover it up. That was 1967. It's a few years later, and Chow has taken residence in room 2046 of the Oriental Hotel, where several bewitching women cross his path. One is Lulu (Carina Lau), who traps herself in a series of volcanic affairs. "She didn't mind sad endings," Chow notes in the film's narration. "The male lead could change, as long as she was the leading lady." Chow's cast of sexual co-stars changes almost nightly. His hotel-room bedsprings squeal like a medieval torture device in the unwilling ears of his next-door neighbor.

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