‘A fine line between love and hate’
Written by: Stephen Dalton
Published in: The Times (London, England) on Oct. 7, 2004
The poetic beauty of Wong Kar-Wai’s latest, 2046, belies four years of production hell, he admits to Stephen Dalton
HISTORY KEEPS repeating itself, on screen and off, for Wong Kar-Wai, the subject of a retrospective at the National Film Theatre. Ghostly figures from the past and the future feature prominently in the internationally revered Hong Kong auteur’s sumptuous new film, 2046, showing at this year’s London Film Festival.
It’s an achingly romantic but sometimes impenetrable story about a heartbroken writer haunted by his lost loves and fictional creations. But teasing echoes of the director’s past work also bleed through.
Starring a gallery of stars -Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, Faye Wong and the rising sex symbol Zhang Ziyi -2046 took four tortuous years to complete. The shoot was partly dictated by technical and scheduling problems, including the Sars outbreak in Hong Kong, but also by the director’s infamous method of improvising and rewriting his scripts on set.
Collaborating with his regular cinematographer Chris Doyle and production designer William Chang, Wong insists that his signature style of crazy-paving angles and freeform structure is an accident of circumstance. “It is not preconceived, it is created by instincts,” says the director, 46, tall and implacable behind his trademark sunglasses.
“During these four years there’s a lot of things happening, like schedule problems, permit problems, things we don’t expect like Sars. So the story has to change, and we are shooting in three different countries. If there is any problem we have to solve it -so here comes the style.”
Although trailed as the Chungking Express director’s debut venture into science-fiction, 2046 is only marginally set in the future, with most of the action occurring in a 1960s Hong Kong hotel. In another historical echo, the setting and characters owe a heavy debt to Wong’s retroromance In the Mood for Love (2000). But while that was “chamber music”, his latest took its inspiration – and its soundtrack -from grand opera.
Similarly troubled by permit problems, an ever-changing script and a last minute dash to add subtitles for the Cannes Film Festival, Wong later labelled In the Mood for Love the most stressful shoot of his career. But that was before 2046 swallowed four years of his life, testing his improvisational methods to breaking point with the added complication of computer-generated imagery (CGI), multiple plotlines and a large star cast.
And so, as Cannes 2004 loomed, history repeated itself as Wong rushed the first print of 2046 to the festival at the eleventh hour with some CGI apparently incomplete. Despite insisting that this was the final version, he then pulled 2046 out of its Edinburgh film festival screening three months later for further last-minute tweaking. The film’s UK debut at the London Film Festival is a version that Wong promises is complete.
“The reason we have to work until the last minute is this is the first time our films involved computer graphics,” says Wong. “But the way we work is a contradiction to the way people make computer graphics. Normally a film with a lot of CGIs in has to be well organised, the script has to be confirmed, there should be storyboards. This is a new experience for me. So my advice for directors who want to make a film with a lot of CGIs is: work with a script.”
The title 2046 refers both to a hotel room and a mythical future city conjured up by the film’s writer hero. But the figure also has resonance in the wider world, too. “It doesn’t only mean a lot to me,” says Wong, “it also means a lot to the people in Hong Kong.
“We have the idea of this number in 1997 when Hong Kong went back to China, and the Chinese Government promised Hong Kong 50 years, then change. So from 1997 plus 50, we have 2046. That will be the last year of this promise.”
But any implied critique of Chinese government policy, Wong insists, is purely in the eye of the beholder. Born in Shanghai, where parts of 2046 were filmed, the Hong Kong-raised director may simply be reluctant to threaten his good relations with Beijing. But he insists that his role is one of chronicler rather than commentator. “I wanted to make the whole film as a diary, I don’t want to comment on anything, but we describe all the events. That’s life, and you can make your comment on it.”
For all his coyness on wider political issues, Wong helped to spearhead a cultural revolution which has rippled across China and beyond. Ten years ago, he was the only high-style Asian auteur in cinema. But after his visually striking breakthrough, directors with strong art-house sensibilities, including Zhang Ke Jia from China, Kim Ki-Duk from Korea and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang from Thailand are enjoying unprecedented success abroad. In Wong’s view, many Asian cultures are undergoing the kind of rapid changes that fuelled postwar European cinema.
“It’s all related to the changes of societies,” he argues. “The German, French and Italian cinema were all very energetic in the 1960s and 1950s because there were a lot of changes. And now in Asia, China has been changing, Korea has been changing so there are new topics, new perspectives that we have never seen before. They become successful, so the producers are encouraged to produce local films.
“That’s the energy. And also from China, you can see the censor is trying to be more and more open, so I am sure within a few years there will be a lot of interesting films coming from these countries.”
Having taken advantage of the Sars-related hiatus during the 2046 shoot, Wong already has his next film project completed, one segment of the sexually explicit triptych Eros, co-directed by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. But after 2046, the director admits wearily, he has no plans. Worn down by his own workaholic methods, Wong is wary of history repeating itself.
“It’s kind of a sickness,” he nods. “It’s not healthy, and people should avoid doing it. But the feeling now is really good because it means the only thing you have to do is interviews. Then you can go home.”