In the Mood for Rapture
Written by: Richard Corliss
Published in: Time Magazine on May 24, 2004
Forget what you’ve heard about Hong Kong-based writer-director Wong Kar-wai: that he’s the tall dude in the cool shades who makes superhip movies the international art-house set loves for their languorous rhythms, their gorgeous-garish visual tones, their iconizing of alienation, their pioneering of a sultry cinematic language. Forget too the completion anxiety that attended his new film 2046—four years in the gestating, with scenes still being shot a few weeks ago, and which came so close to missing its slot in the Cannes Film Festival that, for the first time in memory, the screening times of three other official selections had to be changed at the last moment. And please try to ignore the melancholy fact that, though the Cannes jury gave four of its eight prizes to Asian directors and actors (including the Best Actress award to frequent Wong muse Maggie Cheung), none of them went to the festival’s finest film.
All this is true, but for the moment put it aside. What you need to know, what 2046 makes unavoidably clear, is that Wong Kar-wai is the most romantic filmmaker in the world. In incandescent images of glamorous performers, he details love’s anguish and rapture, which are often the same thing. Beautiful women throw themselves at handsome men—Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai—and the men often step aside. Love, the playwright Terry Johnson wrote, is something you fall in. Wong’s films make art out of that vertiginous feeling. They soar as their characters plummet.
2046 is a sequel of sorts to Wong’s In the Mood for Love, which premiered at Cannes in 2000 and enjoyed worldwide acclaim. That movie, set in Hong Kong in 1962, concerned the furtive affair of a married journalist, Chow Mo-wan (Leung), and a married woman (Maggie Cheung) who lives in the same boarding house. The new film follows Chow’s erotic adventures for the next decade or so, mainly with the alluring Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and occasionally dips into the past, in reveries of Lulu the vamp (Carina Lau) and the tragic-masked Su Lizhen (Gong Li). Chow is now a writer of science-fiction novels. They take him and the audience into the year 2046, where he dallies with the android Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong).
“He thought he wrote about the future,” the film’s narration says of Chow, “but it really was the past. In his novel, a mysterious train left for 2046 every once in a while. Everyone who went there had the same intention: to recapture their lost memories.” Chow Mo-wan, then, could be Wong Kar-wai, or indeed any other writer who becomes fascinated by his own creations; he plays with them, tries to discard them, is haunted by them as by lost memories. The movie goes further: it suggests that, once they are born in a writer’s imagination, these fictions, these women are alive. They can fall in love, which is wonderful for them to feel, and they can experience the pain of love, which is wonderful for us to see.
Wong’s films are a snap to decode for anyone familiar with the tropes of classic movie romance. Consider just three. Music: a slow samba can seduce two strangers into moving to each other’s emotional time, and 2046 sways to Perfidia and Quizás, Quizás, Quizás. Cigarettes: everyone puffs away pensively; the fumes wrap the characters in a retro-chic warmth as they dedicate themselves to that mesmeric movie rite, the sacrament of smoking. The kiss: 2046 has one of the great ones, between Chow and Su. He stands her against a wall and presses mouth to mouth. He moves back, and we see Su’s lipstick violently smeared. A tear courses down her right cheek, then another down her left. It is a kiss like an assault; it has crushed not just her lips but her heart.
The camera, John Berger once famously said, is a man looking at a woman. Movie romance is certainly a snapshot of a beautiful woman suffering. The main function of Chow—played by Leung as a sensitive gigolo whose smirk can mature into a sigh—is to direct our glance to all the fabulous women in the cast. The camera, mainly manned by Christopher Doyle, prowls around the women like a lover in the first flush of passion. It captures and caresses the actresses’ radiance: Lau’s bold sensuality, Faye Wong’s elfin resiliency, Gong Li’s fragile hauteur. Zhang, in a panoply of pouts, flirtations and surrendering smiles, is at her most ravishing and nuanced, especially when swathed in the spectacular cheongsams of costumer designer (and editor and production designer) William Chang.
This year is still relatively young, and Wong’s romantic epic, in the version shown at Cannes, is not quite finished. Still, we say that—because of its passion, its craft, its belief in the grace and pain of love—2046 is the film of 2004.