“The women!” was the first thing blurted out by my colleague, Yasmil Raymond, as the credits rolled and lights went up. On last Thursday night, the sneak-preview of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 at the Walker, just before the film’s theatrical release in the Twin Cities, was PACKED, despite the fact that the notice for it went out, like, the day before.
Though the film’s US release only began a couple of weeks ago, it’s been out for awhile in different parts of the world–it premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2004, where our film/video curator Sheryl Mousley saw and got excited about it, and I saw it playing in Shanghai in September 2004. And I had already seen it on an imported DVD. But of course, it goes without saying that to watch it again in the Walker’s beautiful new cinema was an experience of a whole other nature. When I first saw it, I thought 2046, a sequel (kind of) to Wong’s In the Mood for Love from a few years back, was “mannerist” and “decadent” while “In the Mood” was vintage Wong. and I mean that in the best possible ways. Really. While the earlier film was a relatively straightforward narrative about an unrequited love between two people (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), the more recent story involves a much larger cast and several strands of plots that weave in and out and run parallel one another. While lush palettes, quick edits, long, drawn-out shots, and purely atmospheric visual touches are all trademarks of every film by Wong, there’s a sense that 2046 pushed those well-honed techniques to maximum extents–thus “decadent.” Make sense?
And speaking of the cast–boy, what a cast. And “The women!” I never noticed this in Wong’s previous films, but 2046 is punctuated with exquisitely fetishist shots–of high heels and, as noted by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who called the film “an unqualified triumph,” of women’s backs slightly bent forward. But it’s not just the backs of his actresses Wong is fixated upon but also their jawlines, necks, hands, etc., all lovingly framed and caressed with the camera–largely, thanks to his long-time collaborator/cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Well, I don’t really need to go on too much about the camera and fetishism, at the risk of being a bit too nerdy or obvious or something.
The point more fascinating is the combination of these actresses. Ziyi Zhang, of course, is the hottest young thing of pan-Asian cinema, having emerged from playing the bratty martial arts phenom in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a supporting role in Zhang Yimou’s Hero to the sole leading lady in House of Flying Daggers (also by Zhang) to the title role of the upcoming Memoir of a Geisha, which I’m anticipating with some, shall we say, reservation.
Personally, I never thought much about her acting. Just fine, I’d have said. But her portrayal of… I guess… a courtesan who falls for Tony Leung’s character was fierce! With all the vulnerability, jealousy, pride, shame, and whatnot seething under her delicate features. Impressive, I thought.
Then, there’s Faye Wong, who’s probably still one of the biggest pop stars in the Chinese-speaking world. She’s not really known as an actress but did appear, in her first cinematic outing, in Wong’s Chungking Express (1994). Faye has a fascinatingly ethereal quality about her–most of the times, completely unreadable–which makes her brief emotive expressions all the more surprising and humane. The director took advantage of this quality of the actress to maximum advantage by having her play a Hong Kong woman yearning for her Japanese boyfriend despite fierce objections by her father and an android in the futuristic novel written by the film’s protagonist.
Then, Gong Li, who hasn’t been as visible in recent years after having been the actress for new Chinese films by playing the muse in a series of Zhang Yimou’s films, including Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. Her presence in this film, as the most mature and most mysterious of the women, is also the most haunting–and by having the same name as the heroine of In the Mood for Love, she provides a concrete link to the prequel.
Maggie Cheung, probably the most internationally renowned of all Hong Kong actresses and my personal favorite, makes only brief appearances in this film–two fleeting shots, according to my count. In many ways, other women in the film are substitutes for her character in In the Mood for Love, and the melancholic philanderer played by Tony Leung in 2046 is in eternal mourning for Maggie’s Su Lizhen and le temps perdu. And the picture on the right is Maggie as the title character in French director Olivier Assayas’s film Irma Vep, which had very mixed reviews when it came out. In my mind, though, this quirky semi-fiction is brilliant, especially its final sequence. Check it out. And a little celebrity gossip: Maggie fell in love with the director after this film was made, subsequently got married to him, and then the marriage fell apart… But I digress.
I don’t really want to go on and on too much about the women in 2046 (well, I guess I already have…) so should say a few words about the men. There are Kimura Takuya, the Japanese pop idol playing Faye Wong’s love interest and Tony Leung’s surrogate in the future part of the film, Chang Chen (who in Hero was a desert-dwelling bandit hopelessly in love with Ziyi Zhang’s character), and of course, Tony Leung, who has been in almost all of Wong’s films, including Chungking Express (1994; as Faye Wong’s love interest), Ashes of Time (1994), Days of Being Wild (1991), Happy Together (1997).
One thing that’s remarkable about Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai’s films is that he always looks the same, himself or one persona he has created, while each performance finds a small range of emtions that are infinitely varied and subtly hued. It is never about overdramatization or blown-up histrionics. Happy Together, especially, in which he plays one half of a Hong Kong gay couple, with Leslie Leung (a long-time Cantonese pop/film hearthrob and later, openly gay public figure, who tragically committed suicide in 2003; read Time magazine film critic, Richard Corliss’s tribute here) stranded in Buenos Aires and in a torturous relationship that sprials downward was, in my mind, a tour de force: while he’s pretty much beaten down and glum the whole movie, little flickers of hope, sharp pangs of hatred and resentment, utter dislocation (that, in this movie, also has to do with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, which the movie is a kind of allegory of), melancholy and gravitas… it’s all there in his performance.
And one small thing I noticed in 2046 was one paticular scene twice repeated–Tony Leung in front of a mirror carefully combing his pomade-slicked hair: almost identical to his extremely brief appearance in Days of Being Wild, which seemed at the time a bewildering non-sequitur. Perhaps a coincidence, or the reprisal of that shot is a tribute to his own early work by a director who, in Corliss’s words, the “most romantic director in the world.”
There are many other things worth musing about in this remarkable film: Shigeru Umebayashi’s gorgeous soundtrack and, as usual, a meltingly nostalgic compliation of songs of the past. I hope everyone, who wasn’t at the preview, will have chance to see it.