‘It was like being in jail’
Written by: Howard Fernstein
Published in: The Guardian (UK) on September 21, 2004
It has taken four years and a lot of editing, but 2046 is finally ready for its UK premiere. Wong Kar-wai tells Howard Feinstein why making it was so traumatic
The Edinburgh film festival’s loss has turned out to be London’s gain: the UK premiere of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 2046. After the film’s debut in Cannes in May, Edinburgh, with the blessing of UK distributor (and 2046 pre-buyer) Tartan Films, announced that it would be the closing night presentation. The news came as a surprise to the movie’s sales agent, Fortissimo, which had been turning down festival invitations in other territories. “Edinburgh was never planned by us or Wong Kar-wai,” says Fortissimo co-president Wouter Barendrecht. “We always knew that the film would be delivered just before the opening in Asia in early October.” Only a week before Edinburgh began, the festival was forced to announce that it was replacing 2046 with E J-Yong’s Korean film, Untold Scandal. Tartan had to change its release date from October 15 to early 2005.
The story of the production’s tortuous progress toward the screen is nearly as dense as that of the film itself. Wong, the lanky geek with the signature silver-rimmed shades, began shooting four years ago. He went through three cinematographers: Wong regular Christopher Doyle had to move on to another production. “You have to realise that 80-90% of those four years were spent waiting,” says Wong. “We had to wait during the Sars epidemic, because many of the crew members had to go back to their home countries. We had to deal with revised actors’ schedules, permits and locations.” He grins. “Having nothing to do for so much of the time was a problem. It also gave me a lot of time to think about changes, so I did a lot of reshooting.”
Then there was Cannes. Wong arrived with a bang. At the very last moment, he hand-delivered reels of the $15m feature, the festival’s most eagerly anticipated movie. He had been in Paris working on computer-generated imagery (CGI), in order to create a composite of the background from material shot in different regions of Asia. The festival even had to shove the press screening of Olivier Assayas’s Clean to another slot to accommodate 2046. In spite of the accusations of a publicity stunt from some quarters, Wong remained hopeful. “If I’m so lucky to get the Palme d’Or, we’ve worked so hard, I think we would deserve it,” he said at the time. Happy Together had earned him the best director award in 1997, and Tony Leung was named best actor in 2000 for In the Mood for Love. Unfortunately, Wong and 2046, arguably a masterpiece, left Cannes with a whimper – and prizeless.
After the festival, Wong returned to Paris not only to work further on CGI but – at first in secret – to re-edit the film. To make Cannes’s deadline, he had to cut out some scenes that have subsequently been reinstated. Rumours of further reshooting also surfaced, but they were unfounded. “The stars gathered in Hong Kong to shoot publicity photos and poster images,” says Barendrecht.
Even some of 2046′s biggest fans have found the plot extremely difficult to follow, though a second viewing clarifies things. Set mostly in the 1960s, 2046 – the Cannes version – comprises three intersecting stories. The linchpin is Chow, played by Leung, who is reprising his character from In the Mood for Love. In the earlier film, set in Hong Kong in 1962, Chow, who takes a stab at writing martial arts novels, presumably never consummates a mutually sublimated affair with Maggie Cheung’s Su Li Zhen, although they know that their spouses are seeing each other. Frustrated, he leaves for Singapore.
In 2046, Chow has returned to Hong Kong, but this softspoken man has become a hedonistic, mustachioed sleazeball. He has numerous one-night stands and earns extra money hosting dinners for low-lifes and letting out his room to their women. Still a writer, Chow is in the midst of penning a science-fiction novel set in the year 2046 – hence the title – on a train where people go to recapture their lost memories, but never return.
As the film unravels in non-linear fashion, we realise that he is trying to forget another Su Li Zhen (Gong Li), a gloved, one-handed gambler with whom he had been involved in Singapore. She is the film’s past. In a seedy Hong Kong hotel where room 2046 is loaded with meaning (it had been the rented room where Wong wrote in In the Mood for Love), several women represent the present, mainly Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a ballroom dancer/prostitute who stops turning tricks out of love for him, but also Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the owner’s “decent” daughter who is in love with a Japanese man.
The future, a visualisation of Chow’s novel, features Faye Wong again, this time as an android, with Wang Jing Wen’s Japanese lover (Kimura Takuya) as Chow’s alter ego. Wong, with help from Fassbinder composer Peer Raben, attaches a type of music to each of the women: blues for Gong Li, 1960s dance music for Zhang Ziyi, and classical for the Faye Wong of the future.
If the plotline seems circuitous, blame it on the late Argentinian writer Manuel Puig, whose novel The Buenos Aires Affair became, in Wong’s hands, Happy Together. “He changed my thinking about story lines,” says Wong, who began his career as a screenwriter and script doctor. “For example, the story in The Buenos Aires Affair is very simple, but nothing is in order. The altered order changes the significance. And you learn more because of this order. When people ask me what directors influenced my film-making most, I tell them I learned from many, but the person who’s been most influential is Puig.”
Wong also says he intended 2046 to have the feel of a diary (faux-literary title cards punctuate the film). He was inspired by the Chinese author Liu Yichang, who emigrated to Hong Kong in 1949. “There he wrote 20,000 words a day. Twenty years later, he published all of his work. It is a huge book, but like a diary. It manages to tell what has happened to Hong Kong in that period. And film itself is always related to changes in society.”
The title 2046 is more than a room number or the year in which Chow’s sci-fi novel is set. “Hong Kong went back to China in 1997,” says Wong. “The Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years without change; 2046 would be the last year of this promise. Will there be change?” He is quick, however, to note his priorities. “It was never my intention to make a film about politics. I’m interested in people. This is a film about someone who wants to change.” That someone is Chow. “He’s trying to forget about his past. The problem is, the more he wants to do that, the more he realises he remembers. Things just keep coming back. He’s made a lot of mistakes. The only thing left is memory.”
Chow lives in a state of perpetual loneliness. Wong, now 46, can empathise. His parents have passed away; his brother and sister were forced by the cultural revolution to stay behind in Shanghai after Wong emigrated to Hong Kong in 1963; and his wife of 17 years, Esther, and nine-year-old son, Cheng, spend a lot of time in New York with her relatives. Maybe he compensates with his group of recurring cast and crew members – his other family.
Gong Li is riveting in the film, even though the diva has only 10 minutes of screen time. During the lull in production caused by the Sars outbreak, Wong worked with her on his excellent, somewhat kinky section of the short-film triptych Eros (Antonioni and Soderbergh directed the other episodes). In The Hand, the diva’s hands serve a masturbatory function for Crouching Tiger’s Chang Chen. After filming, Wong asked Gong Li if she would consider playing the gambler. “I told her it was a tricky part. After five minutes, she told me she would do it. So I sent her to a casino in Macao and she started gambling. She would go there every night with her handbag of cash. Actually, we shot more than 10 minutes, but we had to have the film ready for Cannes, so I had to cut much of it. I hope someday I can make a film about her, this gambler, and the writer, still played by Tony.” Would Gong Li work with Wong on such a film? “Yes,” says the actress, “but only with more concentrated work time.”
As for Leung, he has the patience of Job, though with limits. “I heard Wong was going to shoot more scenes with Gong Li and Faye Wong, so I shaved my moustache immediately,” he says. “You just can’t go on shooting like that; you have to stop. The last two weeks of 2046: nightmare, nightmare.” Still, he plans to work on Wong’s next project, playing Bruce Lee’s master. He knows it means a year of studying kung fu, but he’s still willing. Chow’s memory is intact, but Leung’s is short indeed.
Wong thinks that time will heal the scars he inflicted upon himself and his cast and crew. “I think it was like being in jail for four years. No one thinks it is fun at that moment, but maybe 10 years later, for some romantic reason, they will think of it as fun.” He shouldn’t count on it.
2046 will screen at the Odeon West End on October 29 and 30 as part of the London film festival. Box office: 020-7928 3232. It goes on general release in January 2005.