Appellate Judge Dan Mancini was going to go up a mountain, find a tree, dig a hole in it, whisper his opinion of this Wong Kar-wai movie into the hole, cover it up with mud, and leave the opinion there forever. But at the last minute, he decided to share it with you instead.
It was as if he'd boarded a very long train heading for a drowsy future through the unfathomable night.
The Criterion Collection's release of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love contains a deleted segment called "Room 2046" in which the protagonists, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Hero) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung, Ashes of Time) meet in room 2046 of the South Pacific Hotel in Hong Kong. Mr. Chow's wife is having an affair with Mrs. Su's husband, and the duo have been meeting to comfort one another. In the excised scene, they consider having sex as an act of retribution against their spouses. They begin to undress, languidly, their eyes locked on middle-distance nothingness, only to give up and put their clothes back on when Su observes, "You don't look like my husband, and I don't look like your wife."
Later, the couple meets again in room 2046. This time, they consummate a relationship that has, until then, been platonic but charged with erotic longing and a pervasive sadness over their shared loss.
These scenes—though apocryphal to In the Mood for Love—enrich the experience of 2046, Wong's continuation of Chow's story. The agony of unrequited love is all well and good in overwrought romance novels, but it wouldn't adequately explain the bitterness, hopelessness, and sublimated rage that drives Chow in 2046.
Facts of the Case
2046 opens in 1966, four years after Chow's brief affair with Li-zhen. Returning to Hong Kong from Singapore, he checks into room 2047 of the Oriental Hotel, a seedy, murky, half-reflection of the lush South Pacific Hotel. A writer of newspaper columns and pulp martial-arts page-turners, Chow turns his talents to writing science fiction. In 2046, people travel to the time/place 2046 in order to recapture lost memories. Only one man—the novel's protagonist—has ever returned. In his follow-up, 2047, a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura, Howl's Moving Castle) riding a futuristic train numbered 2046 falls in love with an android (Faye Wong, Chungking Express) who doesn't reciprocate his emotion, either because her reactions are delayed or she feels nothing for him.
The books are a sublimated expression of the emotional texture of Chow's string of relationships with women since his loss of Li-zhen. In 1963, a second Su Li-zhen (Gong Li, To Live)—AKA "The Black Spider"—saved him from a life of reckless gambling, only to later desert him. The following year, he had a brief fling with a call girl named Lulu (Carina Lau, in a semi-reprisal of her role in Days of Being Wild); their chance meeting upon his return to Hong Kong leads to tragedy. The novels are mostly informed, though, by two strained relationships that begin on consecutive Christmases as he is writing. The first is with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a beautiful prostitute living in room 2046 at the Oriental, who is unable to keep her interactions with Chow on a purely professional level. The second is with Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the Oriental's owner. Her relationship with Chow is frustrated by her inability to let go of the memory of the Japanese lover who abandoned her.
2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love only by the most liberal definition of the term. Seeing Wong's earlier film isn't a prerequisite to enjoying or understanding this one, though viewing them in tandem adds to the texture of both. They are best described as stand-alone companion pieces. In the Mood for Love is lusher and more delicate. Its evocation of 1960s Hong Kong is more detailed and precise. It uses a complex, nonlinear narrative to capture the texture of Chow's emotional experience in the midst of discovering he's being cuckolded, and of his slowly falling in love with Su Li-zhen. 2046 springboards off of that idea by using a complex, nonlinear narrative to capture the texture of memories. The landscape of our memories, after all, isn't linear. It isn't even completely temporal. Rather, it's a willy nilly collection of events—true, imagined, and somewhere in between—organized thematically, and weighted by significance instead of chronology. Memory is a personal collection of motifs—a perfect subject for a film by Wong Kar-wai, for whom motif (visual, narrative, thematic, musical) is a primary structural building block.
Wong establishes the dreamy, disjunctive quality of memory at the outset of 2046 by opening with Chow's recitation of passages from his novel, set to spectacular, hyper-colorful images of his future city, rendered in CGI that is less interested in reproducing reality than in evoking mood. "Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories," Chow (or his fictional protagonist) tells us, "because in 2046 nothing ever changes. But, nobody knows if that is true or not because no-one has ever come back." Whether 2046 is a date or a place is never articulated, though it has attributes of both. This is logical enough when one considers that, for Chow, room 2046 at the South Pacific (and what happened there) represents a powerful convergence of time and place, one from which his old self never escaped.
This brings us to one of the primary reasons 2046 feels only marginally like a sequel to In the Mood for Love: The Mr. Chow of this film is an almost entirely different character than that of the earlier one. If you have any doubt about Tony Leung's skill as an actor, watch In the Mood for Love and 2046 in succession. His performances in both films share an emotional reserve. Chow is a man who feels deeply, but doesn't readily express emotion. The form of his reticence is wildly different in each film, though. His weakness and resignation in In the Mood for Love is replaced with a quiet animal aggression in 2046. Though similar in demeanor, the two versions of Chow are polar opposites, one victimized by his spouse and overwhelmed by the hard circumstances in which he finds himself, the other using his emotional numbness as a weapon against the women he takes as lovers. Leung navigates these differences with expert precision so that Chow feels in some ways like the same character we came to know in In the Mood for Love, yet in other ways an entirely different man. In fact, the character is both. The Mr. Chow of In the Mood for Love never exited room 2046 of the South Pacific Hotel after his rendezvous with Su Li-zhen. His failure to connect with the woman of his dreams beyond their brief and merely physical encounter produced the cynicism that would transform him into the Mr. Chow of 2046.
In a narratively tidy but thematically resonant turn of events, Chow's affairs with Bai Ling and Wang Jing-wen begin on Christmas Day in 1967 and 1968 respectively. In addition, we witness the decisive climaxes of his lingering emotional torture of both Bai Ling and the Black Spider on Christmas Day of 1969 as he abandons one woman and is abandoned by the other. The effect isn't a cutesy repetition of a yuletide motif, but a kind of temporal flattening of the three women, effectively merging them, as though they represent facets of a single person. Chow doesn't see the unique humanity in each woman. They are objects through which he attempts to regain (or take revenge upon) the woman he lost and most desires: Su Li-zhen. The rub, as Wong Kar-wai points out in an interview among this disc's supplements, is that Chow's Su Li-zhen doesn't exist. She's a confabulation and idealization born of his rosier-than-reality memory of the real woman.
As in In the Mood for Love, Wong teams with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American) and editor-production designer-costume designer William Chang (Zu Warriors) to shape the look of 2046. The trio once again use mise-en-scène to bolster our sense of the characters' emotional and psychological isolation from one another. Instead of traditional over-the-shoulder shots of two characters engaged in a conversation, for example, the character with his or her back to us is often blocked out by a wall or door or other object in the foreground, leaving the character facing us alone in a square frame within the scope shot. Camera movement is minimal, allowing us to study Chang's rich, ornate, and lived-in costumes and sets, and giving the world of the film a sense of weight, density, and detail. In terms of color, the saturated reds and oranges that give In the Mood for Love such warmth, are mostly replaced by cool but vivid blues and greens, underpinning Chow's degeneration into an emotionally vacant, morally bankrupt lothario.
While In the Mood for Love was shot in a flat aspect ratio, 2046 was shot with anamorphic lenses at a 2.40:1 ratio. Sony's DVD presentation maintains the theatrical ratio, and captures Wong, Doyle, and Chang's subtle but dynamic use of color. The transfer is clean, free of dirt or damage, and unmarred by digital artifacts. It's surprisingly detailed, too, considering this is a single-disc release of a relatively lengthy film paired with an impressive set of supplements.
The disc contains a single audio option. It is a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation of the original soundtrack, which is mostly in Cantonese (spoken by Leung), with touches of Mandarin, Japanese, and even a little English. It's a superb presentation of a relatively subdued track.
Again, extras are surprisingly plentiful on this single-disc release. The centerpiece of the supplements is Behind the Scenes of 2046 (36:20), a high-quality making-of documentary. The piece is primarily comprised of interviews with Wong and the most of the cast. They discuss both the process of making the film, and its ideas and themes.
There are two deleted scenes, and an alternate ending: "Black Spider Visits Chow" (5:04), "The Android Visits the Writer" (4:11), and "The Writer Visits the Future Bar" (:41). Each is framed at the proper 2.40:1 aspect ratio, with stereo audio. The first deleted scene and the alternate ending look finished enough to be inserted into the film proper, while "The Android Visits the Writer" isn't properly color-timed and looks flat and washed-out. The second scene and the alternate ending are the most interesting of the three deleted segments because they break down the barrier between Chow's Hong Kong and the fictional world of his novel. Since Wong Kar-wai shoots without a script, building his pictures day by day with theme and motif, it's always fascinating to get a glimpse of abandoned directions in which he considered taking his story. 2046, though, is a better film without the merging of the two worlds it presents.
Crossed Looks: Interviews with Wong Kar-wai, Tony Leung, and Ziyi Zhang (16:17) is just what it sounds like. The piece is organized thematically, intercutting the interviews of each participant. Leung's and Wong's material offer the most substance. Leung talks about the challenges of working without a script, and the fact that he didn't really know what 2046 was about until its premier at the Cannes Film Festival. Wong talks about the picture's themes, and its connections to In the Mood for Love.
Anatomy of Memories (4:50) offers a staid look at the CGI cityscapes and futuristic trains that make up the world of Chow's novels. Executed by BUF, the French company that did digital work for Batman and Robin, the effects capture Wong and Chang's eccentric use of light and color. They're unlike anything seen in other films, not photorealistic, but stunningly beautiful nonetheless.
Music Montage (7:07) is essentially a music video, offering a medley of songs and shots from the film.
The Music of 2046 is a featurette that comes off as a half-hearted attempt to mirror the About the Music featurette on Criterion's release of In the Mood for Love. Music is an important component of Wong's films, both thematically and emotionally, and there are some purposeful parallels between the music of 2046 and In the Mood for Love. For instance, the Spanish-language recording of "Green Eyes" by Nat King Cole is an important musical motif in the earlier film; Cole's rendition of "Christmas Song" plays a parallel role in 2046. The featurette covers little of this, however. It simply offers a menu of nine songs from the film, each with a submenu that allows you to jump to scenes in which the songs appear, emphasizing Wong's careful use of musical repetition. The song indices simply point to chapter stops from the movie—the music isn't isolated.
Numerology of 2046 is a text-based featurette that explores Wong's use of numbers as motifs in the film. It also provides a decent timeline of the picture's events, and how they connect with the happenings of In the Mood for Love.
Finally, under the title "International Exploration Poster Gallery," there is a collection of 58 posters from 2046's release all over the world.
Somewhere in the middle of 2046, it occurred to me that no filmmaker of the current generation impresses me more than Wong Kar-wai. Despite the fact that the directors of the French New Wave rejected scripted material decades before he began to make films, and that Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour explored the same wispy, transient quality of memory at the heart of 2046, and that Wong's evocative use of music is reminiscent of the early work of New Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) and George Lucas (American Graffiti), there's no sense that Wong is unconsciously borrowing from or consciously paying homage to any of them. He's playing his own game, by his own rules. And with results like 2046—easily one of the best films I had the privilege of seeing in 2005—I suggest we keep out of his hair and let him keep on playing.
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Scales of Justice
• Behind the Scenes of 2046
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