2046: A Film Odyssey

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The neighbor is Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a dance-hall hostess and prostitute. Her arguments with Chow over his lady guests veer into flirtation, and soon she too is making his bedsprings squeak. Bai Ling makes one rash transaction: she gives her heart to Chow, who wants her only as a playmate. The one sedate lady in the hotel is its owner's older daughter Jingwen (Faye Wong), pining over a broken affair with a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura). She encourages Chow, a journalist who writes erotic books on the side, to switch to science fiction. Soon she is helping him write a novel called 2046, in which Chow creates an android version of Jingwen. The novel is set in a futureworld where people go to recapture lost memories. Chow can't escape his memories: of Su Lizhen and another woman with the same name, a casino gambler (Gong Li) who once did him the favor of allowing him to fall in love with her.

Confused? The plot is complex in print but pellucid on the screen. With the dexterity of a cardsharp, Wong shuffles the present, the recent past and the distant future, mixing reality, memory and fantasy. The main action of the movie takes place on consecutive Christmas Eves in the late '60s, but each scene has reverberations of others from Chow's past and from the novel. What anchors each of the stories for the viewer are the faces of the actresses. No explanations are needed when Zhang is lasering a stare as bold as a shout or Lau is sobbing herself to sleep or Gong Li is flashing an imperious gaze. Or when Faye Wong, in our last glimpse of her, is captured in a slow-motion, slowly encroaching close-up that fades just as she is about to smile. It is an image—a kiss from the camera—of desirability that can be fully appreciated only when it slips away.

"Love is a matter of timing," Chow observes. "It's no good meeting the right person too soon or too late." Chow intersected with all these women too soon or too late. Wong Kar-wai got all of them at the apogee of their craft and allure. That's part of his filmmaking process: to sculpt the role to the performer. "If you want to make a film with an actor or actress, there must be something that attracts you. I'm trying to exploit that quality, which they might not even be aware of. So I normally don't ask actresses to play other people. It's just: 'Be you.'"

Before actors join a Wong Kar-wai film, the director says, "They don't know the whole story, but they know their story. Zhang Ziyi, because she knows she's going to play a ballroom dancer in the '60s, has to be given a lot of homework. I have to give her all of these films from the period, so she can understand the gestures, the actions. And also I give her all the costumes, because she has to get those manners down. Gong Li's character is a gambler, so Li headed down to Macau incognito to watch gamblers at work. She's very serious. She needs to have a lot of preparation. Faye Wong, she doesn't need to do that because we've worked [together] before, and she always tries to make herself very relaxed."

It makes one wonder how he will direct Nicole Kidman on a film project that may materialize next year. Wong is teasingly oracular on the plot and setting: "The only thing I want to say is I always conceive of Nicole Kidman as the woman in a Hitchcock film. I think the woman in Hitchcock is always very dangerous, or in danger. And Nicole is both."

Directing one of the world's most famous and adventurous actresses might be intimidating for someone who, as he notes, "didn't go to film school. I don't have any technical training. The way I make films is the only way I know." But he knows his mad method works, in large measure because of two men who have been his closest collaborators on most of his films. William Chang, the editor, production designer and costume designer, is both the architect and the first critic of Wong's vision. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle matches the director's artistry and energy with a luscious camera style that sees beyond surfaces into essences. He takes ravishing pictures of troubled souls.

Wong, of course, is their inspirer. And to begin a project, all the inspiration he requires is one strong, suggestive image. "You need to have the image," he says. "Sometimes you can start with the look of an actress or a certain space. In Eros, I started with the image of a single hand."

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