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Philosophy in the Bedroom: Wong Kar-wai's 2046.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 16, 2013 10:57 pm    Post subject: Philosophy in the Bedroom: Wong Kar-wai's 2046. Reply with quote

Philosophy in the Bedroom: Wong Kar-wai's 2046.
Authors: Arthur, Paul
Source: Cineaste. Fall2005, Vol. 30 Issue 4, p6-8. 3p. 3 Black and White Photographs.

A Special Focus on Wong Kar-wai

Four years ago in these pages, I attempted to write what I called a "love letter" to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. In my inflamed imagination, it was to be a lustrous epistle adorned with unaccustomed critical language, devoid of balance or qualification or textual analogy. In retrospect that impulse was unfulfilled, side tracked by fears of vulnerability or perhaps by unconscious fidelity to bourgeois codes of movie reviewing. Like the film's protagonist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), I expressed but could not enact my true longings. Regardless, I must report that this--admittedly one-sided--passion is unabated, remaining vibrant after multiple viewings of the superb Criterion Collection DVD. Now Wong has made a sequel of sorts, 2046, and my heart is stirred once again.

This time what I am feeling lacks the convulsive heat of a tongue-tied suitor, sup planted by slack-jawed amazement from a distant admirer for a love object so enigmatically dense and contradictory it will never recede into casual intimacy, or bestow even a whisper of possession. True, it is early in the courtship and I have much to absorb, but it is already obvious that no single minded first-person missive will suffice as tribute. Unlike its marvelously compressed predecessor, 2046 operates expansively in several generic tongues and through a plethora of moods, rhythms, perspectives, and time frames. Speaking about it will require a more discursive, fragmentary approach-a notebook or dossier of observations would be germane, albeit not entirely feasible in this context. In writing, as in life, approximations are at times the only option.

When we last encountered Mr. Chow at the end of In the Mood for Love, he was walking through one of Angkor Wat's end less halls, having sealed his secret of unrequited love in a hole bored into the ancient edifice. When he reappears at the start of 2046, he is a changed man in many respects. No longer a full-time newspaper stringer and fledgling pulp writer, he gambles (poorly) and writes genre fiction (successfully); he also sports a sly moustache emblematic of the night-crawling lothario into which he has transformed himself--presumably as overcompensation for his timid obsession with married neighbor Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) that forms the narrative core of Mood. As the director has acknowledged, Chow's new profile is an extension of the hair-combing gambler abandoned at the conclusion of Wong's first signature production, Days of Being Wild (1990), originally planned as a two-part work. Hence in roundabout fashion, 2046 completes a trilogy centering on Wong's early memories, or fantasies, of Hong Kong in the Sixties. The notion of 'trilogy,' however, is ambiguous since despite intertextual sparks, the cumulative dramatic action cannot be threaded into a single logical construct. An alternative relationship might be three separate meditations grounded in a specific period, city, and set of romantic possibilities.

In his latest incarnation, Chow recounts in voice-over how he returned to Hong Kong in 1966 from Singapore, leaving behind a trail of ill-fated affairs with women of the demimonde. Continuing on a hedonistic trajectory--in two instances, briefly reprising liaisons from the past-he glides through six relationships freighted with varying degrees of intimacy, responsibility, and lust. Mrs. Su is present through visual echoes and through scattered memory images which are sedimented into his cur rent amours-a feisty young call girl (Ziyi Zhang), a boozy nightclub singer he knew in Singapore (Carina Lau), the love-addled daughter of the owner of the hotel where he lives (Faye Wong), a mysterious gambler with the same name as his beloved former neighbor (Gong Li) and, briefly, the hotelier's precocious teenaged girl (Dong Jie).

He is pursued, he seduces--it hardly matters because everyone carries emotional scars that blunt if not destroy prospects for long-term commitment. Nonetheless, the procession of women takes on a haunting, dreamlike ebb and flow; there are breakups and recurrences, balancing acts and juxtapositions occurring in an often achronological stream of episodes. At the unsettled heart of this swirling network of tentative yet starkly eroticized attachments, Chow--who in the earlier film could barely bring himself to touch Mrs. Su--is alternately tender, aggressive, blasé, compassionate, and unfailingly forlorn. As he puts it, "Love is a matter of timing. It's no good to meet some one too soon or too late." 2046 is proof of the grim axiom that all timing is bad timing.

Despite Wong's fixation on architectural detail, his lush textures and historically evocative clothing, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that much of what we see is either a mental landscape or at least heavily inflect ed by Chow's inner subjectivity. The clearest confirmation of this filtering process is the visualization of scenes from the sci-fi novel Chow is writing--with the chaste collaboration of the hotel owner's daughter (in Mood, sketching the outline of a martial-arts story served as an excuse for Chow's private meetings with Su). Futuristic scenes are populated by fanciful projections of people from his social circle, allowing him to displace feelings of guilt, anger, or vagrant desire from reality onto a chintzy invented, world putatively under his control--it is tellingly a world of 'suspended animation' highlighted by hot paid sex with empathy-challenged androids. He says "I began imagining myself as a Japanese man," an impulse then realized in sci-fi garb by having the Japanese boyfriend of his host's daughter assume a role that is a thinly-veiled stand-in for his own struggles to escape the past. Significantly, the novel's title, "2046," spins off a cluster of complementary meanings: it is the name of the train-encircled fictional destination which travelers visit in order to recapture lost memories, and from which it is tricky if not impossible to exit; the number on the hotel room rented for writing 'trysts' with Su; the room in his new digs occupied by two different lovers in succession; the final year of the agreement signed by the Chinese government guaranteeing noninterference in the political economy of Hong Kong.

Deeply resonant locations, the pairing of 2046 and Angkor Wat generates a delicate transtextual equipoise; not only avatars of future and past, imagined and real, historical mastery and decay, they are also visual embodiments of indeterminacy versus autotelic order (the Cambodian city was built in accordance with cosmological principles). Although events in both films transpire primarily in mazelike buildings, the narrow tenement corridors and staircases of the earlier film--which I related to a trope for mental pathways--are partially replaced in the new film by CGI trains whooshing past semiabstract expanses, outer space simulating inner space. Recalling a venerable tradition of reflexive train imagery, the designation of 2046 as a repository of shadows from the past, for which rail travel is either a conduit or actual 'vehicle' of memory, establishes a connection to the ontology of cinema itself, that romanticized time machine in which we all occasionally revisit fleeting, unconsummated screen passions.

Allegorical undercurrents notwithstanding, a secondary discourse in both films is constituted by a surprisingly faithful urban dynamic. In its quicksilver coincidences and disappearances, constant emphasis on voyeurism and the absence of a truly private domain, Wong's two-pronged saga dramatizes planks in an urban ecology developed by Western social science nearly a century ago, but bracketed here as specific byproducts of post-WWII uprooting of Chinese middle-class urbanites during Mao's consolidation of power. What happens to Chow and company could only take place in an urban environment. To be sure, Wong has no interest in asserting a critical overview of city life in the manner of, say, Rossellini; nor are the celebratory lyrics of the City Symphony suit able for his vision. Instead, he taps into a different cinematic legacy by engaging dramatic variables of a single transient site as microcosm of urban rhythms and social interaction. The Hollywood version of this trope begins with Grand Hotel (1932) and reaches its nadir in The Terminal (2004); a more suggestive strand is the avant-garde's treatment of hotel settings from Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (1930) through Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966), Akerman's Hotel Monterey (1972), and Pat O'Neill's recent The Decay of Fiction (2002)--although anchored by the customary baggage of psychological characters, 2046 is undoubtedly Wong's most 'experimental' project.

Like a fixated comparison of two cherished lovers, it would be a mistake to overemphasize points of convergence between successive films. Where Mood unfolds with the sober intensity of a string quartet, 2046 embraces a wider musical ambit, its textures not exactly 'symphonic' but indicative of an oratorio. If the dramatic propulsion of Mood can be described as centripetal, 2046 has a loose-jointed, centrifugal pull. Chow, bedeviled by issues of self-control in the former, is cast adrift on a tide of disorientation and displacement in the latter. Finally, the time-space dialectic of the earlier film is reversed in 2046, where overall meaning seems more determined by how events create temporal scaffoldings than how events are shaped by spatial coordinates. Wong's films in general foster elastic, often subjectivized, temporal frameworks but 2046--an ostensible 'sequel'--is the first to simultaneously foreground and under mine linear measurement of clock time.

A prominent attribute of Wong-time is repetition, especially evident in a rich motif of doubled--and redoubled--names, places, lines of dialog, intertitles, gestures, compositions, musical cues. Together they spin a web of coincidence engulfing Chow and film viewers in the same apperceptive nimbus, a state of immanent déjà vu in which we believe we've already experienced the same, or nearly identical, cinematic moment. Maybe it was in another film by Wong. Or maybe we're just mistaken. Our cognitive tendency is to construct legible patterns, distinguish planned from random repetition, assume the presence of cause and effect. Yet as much as 2046 invites us to discover an overarching logic, to find ways of making everything 'fit,' it also engages us to an extraordinary degree in the sheer beauty and esthetic unique ness of the here-and-now image.

In other words, our mental economies are tugged in two directions: accoutrements of story telling-newsreel footage, frequent titles indicating temporal increments ("one hour later"; "ten hours later"; "December 24, 1967")--alert us to an onrushing arrow of time while a host of formal devices retard or block our recognition of linear progress. Among the latter, long takes, elegant camera sweeps, a stuttering slow-motion, attenuated fades, and silent passages act in concert with odd ellipses and Wong's typical scenes of inert bodies to deflect anticipation of dramatic hierarchy and narrative completion. With regard to Mood, I wrote that the director stages incidents of fetishistic behavior while investing--not all, but selected-images with a fetishized visuality, a tautological isolation from surrounding objects. That process is reprised here as part of a larger metaphoric focus on memory; like cinema, mental pictures of the past exist as simultaneously frozen and elusive. Indeed, 2046 is a 'monument' to the operations of memory in roughly the same vein as certain films by Marker, Resnais, Ophuls, and Welles.

In a closely related theme, Wong draws our attention to the overlapping yet separate regimes of meaning comprised by images and language, by sight versus speech. Like Norman Bates ogling Marion Crane through the wall in the motel office, Chow repeatedly spies on female neighbors through a small curved aperture in his room. In contrast to Hitchcock, Wong's play of scopophilia is divorced from physical violence but he too understands the compulsive bond between sexual craving and optical power, an exchange he translates onto a larger scale by masking or otherwise dividing portions of the CinemaScope frame such that we are always looking past fore ground obstructions into a relatively narrow playing area. A secondary effect of this technique is to keep in flux our potential identification with specific characters, turning intimate interiors into cordoned-off proscenium stages, as famously occurs in melodramas by Sirk and Fassbinder.

Wong is notoriously skimpy on dialog so it might seem counterintuitive to note the importance of 'writing' in the film. Along with more conventional literary tasks, Chow drafts notes and letters, reads letters, and narrates the action through several adopted 'voices.' In Mood his professional ambitions were largely superfluous; here they are crucial. In the earlier film, Wong adapted scattered bits of a novella by Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang. The narrating presence in Intersections is split between male and female characters whose thoughts or memories are often lodged in alternating chapters. Despite the absence of voice-over, Mood is focalized around Chow's subjectivity; it is his experience of the traumatic affair to which we as viewers respond. 2046 is different, in part because it relies on multiple subjective signifiers ranging from several types of explicit narrators to twisted generic codes to a tendency to remain focused on female characters even after Chow has exited a scene. In addition, Wong figuratively gives voice to female subjectivity through the stunning interpolation of operatic arias.

Stephen Teo, in a helpful essay in the online journal Senses of Cinema, and again in a recent BFI monograph on Wong, convincingly sketches Wong's literary debts and affinities. For my purposes, it is interesting that Chow participates in two antithetical modes of writing, sci-fi and newspaper reporting, while he is quick to acknowledge the artificial coincidences and melodramatic overtones of his 'real' life. Thus what we think of as (increasingly permeable) boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, public and private, generic and authentic, are not only scrambled but actively produced and reflected upon as remnants of discourse. I do not mean to imply that 2046 is overtly didactic or antipsychological--although there is a hint of Godard in its balancing of prerogatives of speech and image-making.

To put it bluntly, by pushing the reciprocity of the sci-fi text, the film courts interpretation as both an allegory on the gifts and limits of cinema in relation to literature and a quasiautobiographical allegory of artistic vocation. Without trying to correlate Chow's situation to any thing specific in the director's life story, it is tempting to see his divided literary allegiances as paralleling those in Wong's own career: in particular an early adherence to simple Asian action formulas, his art house aspiration of transcending genre restrictions in Happy Together (1997), and now the thematizing of slippery relations between generic and 'antigeneric' impulses. What in our present movie climate can elude generic labeling--that is, besides the personal stamp of formal image-making? Is there a way to do something other than either submitting to' or ostensibly 'subverting' what Jacques Derrida called genre's ironclad 'law,' the inevitability of convention in the formulation of narrative? And does this venerable opposition--underwritten of course by the usual industrial-economic demands of the entertainment empire-really matter?

I'm not exactly sure what 2046 tells us about such questions but I'm gratified Wong allowed me to track them amidst all the abundant pleasures of his new/outdated film. Maybe I'm unburdening myself too much here, but epistemology plus sensuality? Cathexis meets self-reflection in the mirror of movie memory? Mmmm, that's a categorical turn-on!

2046 is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics,
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