There are no ordinary shots in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and no ordinary sounds–which is remarkable, given that you’ve seen and heard everything before. Latin-beat pop hits of the 1960s alternate on the soundtrack with Callas’s favorite Bellini arias, while familiar old-movie types–the pencil-mustached dandy with the pocket handkerchief, the sheath-dressed beauty with upswept eyelashes and foot-high hair–eye each other on murky staircases, or float in the aquarium lighting of the hotel room where they make love, or sometimes just stand and pose against a wall, whose surface (you may depend on it) will be interestingly distressed and richly colored. Each moment seems not so much experienced as recollected, either from previous Wong Kar Wai films (In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild) or from a still-earlier cinematic glow, which Wong filters for you as if through a prism.
Even the big novelty of 2046–Wong’s use, for the first time, of computer- generated sci-fi imagery–has a reminiscent air, since these fragments of a film-within-the-film represent the imaginings of a 1960s pulp writer. Their shopworn futurism makes a touchingly thin and plasticky disguise for the protagonist’s yearnings, which he focuses not on the years to come but on a past that was beautiful but didn’t work out.
You’ve heard that one before. You’ve seen it, too. But from moment to moment, Wong makes it new.
Now in case you’re coming in late, I should explain that Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the nightclubbing writer who narrates 2046, has shown up at least twice before in Wong’s films. He, or someone like him, appeared suddenly and without explanation at the end of Days of Being Wild, Wong’s first great reverie about love and longing in 1960s Hong Kong. It seemed as if Wong were cutting short a story he wanted to continue; and sure enough, when almost a decade later he made In the Mood for Love, he showed how Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), a figure from Days of Being Wild, tumbled into a deep, doomed and very stylish romance with Chow.
Now, in 2046, we find Chow still mourning the loss of Su Lizhen and still running into the occasional Wild character (notably a nightclub showgirl known alternately as Mimi and Lulu, played by Carina Lau). For the most part, though, Chow concerns himself in this movie with three other impossible loves. From 1966 through 1969, he aches over the memory of a tough but benevolent gambler (Gong Li) who had sheltered him in Singapore; acts like a heel with a new lover (Ziyi Zhang), a feisty but fragile bar girl who lives next door to him at his cheap hotel; and forms a close, tender but chaste attachment with the hotelkeeper’s daughter (Faye Wong), who cannot give herself to Chow because she’s got her own impossible love to brood over. Still, this third woman makes a great writing partner, whose collaboration with Chow gives him his “happiest summer ever,” while providing Wong with the heart of 2046.
The heart, though, is what my summary hasn’t begun to touch. To come closer to it–to suggest how 2046 makes something exceptional out of Chow’s memories, which are so few and potentially so banal–I need to talk about two of the constants of Wong’s art, or for that matter of life in general: time and money.
The first of these has been a preoccupation of Wong’s since Days of Being Wild, with its omnipresent clocks, its elegiac voiceovers and, most of all, its main protagonist’s pickup line: Be with me for just one minute, and you’ll remember that time forever. This theme of the moment that will never end also figures prominently in 2046, a title that signifies a place (a hotel room), a year (when Hong Kong, finally merged into China, will lose the last of its special status) and perhaps even a time of day (8:46 pm) that Chow will remember forever. What do these different types of 2046 have in common? Chow thinks of them all as changeless. They should be end points, but he somehow goes on from them, though on his own and in pain.
There’s a thin barrier, with this stuff, between playfulness and preciosity. Wong stays on the right side of the line thanks to another of his perennial interests, money and how it’s used. Just as cash was exchanged from the very start of Days of Being Wild, when the flirting protagonist bought a bottle of pop from Su Lizhen, so too does cash change hands throughout 2046, to the point that you might define Chow’s development through his transactions. He abjectly receives money from a woman, under the pretext of accepting a business deal. He pays money to another woman, coldly, to keep her at a distance. And at the end of 2046, he hands money, generously and freely, to a woman in need. That scene gives him what is probably his finest moment–not so much for the kindness he now shows to a former lover as for the self-awareness he expresses. Chow is finally clear about what he can offer and what he needs to hold back; and his medium for both parts of this give-and-take is a wad of limp, greasy bills.
Money in 2046 is generally something that Chow gambles away, or cadges through dishonest schemes, or earns quickly and contemptuously by writing stories he doesn’t care about. It’s like the scenes of political strife that flicker briefly through his consciousness: part of an earthbound, everyday reality that he’d rather ignore. Time, meanwhile, is the reality that Chow doesn’t want to escape; it’s not a flow but a cluster of remembered moments, some of which recur through odd coincidences, or expand into his stories, or surround him like the walls of a hotel room. Time is the glamour, the fantasy, the romance over which Chow wants to linger; money is the mundane stuff that makes him move on.
You can see the struggle between the two being played out everywhere in 2046, but especially in the face of Chow. Think of Clark Gable, not only because of the mustache and slick black hair but because of the dimpled smile, which breaks open so readily over his cocksure features. As Chow, Tony Leung Chiu Wai enjoys the grace of a movie star’s looks, grooming, clothes and lighting; but while his lips grin, the eyebrows frown, registering a perpetual disappointment. It’s a wonderfully composed and inward performance. If I’m right that its finest moment comes at the end, when Chow achieves a new gravity, then its happiest, paradoxically, must be when this sauntering womanizer is sick in bed, with the hotelkeeper’s daughter sitting nearby finishing his latest story.
We used to have a term for such artworks, which turn away from the turmoils of the world to dwell privately, exquisitely, on a sensuous pessimism. They were said to be decadent–a word that I would revive, without prejudice, for 2046, since I can think of no other way to address this secretive, intimate, gorgeous and very peculiar masterpiece.
Can a film in this mode find an audience today? That remains to be seen. All I know is that the answer will tell us something about ourselves–and that it’s been ages since we’ve had such a good swoon.
In its shaggy-dog way, Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Broken Flowers, makes a good companion to 2046, since it, too, is the story of a womanizer and his memories. This character, played in minimalist style by Bill Murray, is an affluent “over-the-hill Don Juan” named Don Johnston, who sits numbly on his couch watching a television broadcast of The Private Life of Don Juan. He’s depressed, you see, because his lover has just walked out on him. She wants a child; he doesn’t. But then comes an anonymous letter, telling him he’s already got offspring: a 19-year-old son, whose mother might be any one of several women from a past that Don doesn’t want to revisit.
No matter–his next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) wants Don to revisit it and with great enthusiasm draws up an itinerary for him, complete with flight times, motel reservations and a specially burned CD of Ethiopian music to play in the rental cars. Numbly, though with frequent grumbling, Don follows the instructions and so begins a road trip into four different versions of the American landscape, there to have increasingly tense conversations with four of his former lovers (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton).
Like Murray, who here does his acting mostly with his eyelids, Jarmusch does not want his work to show. By my count, there is only one directorial gesture in Broken Flowers, and it comes at the very end, so it reads like punctuation. Nevertheless, there’s a sneaky ambition at work in this movie, which deals with parenthood, mortality, class resentment, the housing market, interspecies communication, midlife sexuality and the wonders of the postal service, all without raising its voice above a conversational tone or its pace above an amble. Though quiet and quizzical almost to a fault, Broken Flowers turns out to be one of Jarmusch’s biggest films.
When it comes to big subjects, though, no one can be more ambitious than Hubert Sauper in his documentary Darwin’s Nightmare. Nothing less than the world is at stake–though at the start, Sauper pretends he’s simply telling us about a food fish.
The species in question is the Nile perch, which was introduced into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria in the 1960s and today is shipped out on cargo planes in fifty-ton loads. Darwin’s Nightmare begins as the success story of the economy built on this fish; as the owner of one factory puts it, “All the towns on the shore depend totally on Nile perch.” You hear the same judgment from a visiting panel of European development officials: Nile perch has created a thriving export economy.
But through nocturnal interviews and forays into forbidding landscapes, Sauper pieces together a larger story that is not so happy. While the fish fillets are being shipped out, there is famine in Tanzania. The locals feed themselves by foraging through the maggot-infested fishery dumps. For the women, the fisheries provide jobs in the sex trade, fueled at the high end by foreign cargo pilots. For street kids whose parents died of AIDS, the fisheries provide plastic bags, which render a glue to be sniffed. War has come to seem like a rational opportunity for the surviving men; and the fisheries help with that, too, since the planes that go out with Nile perch come in with munitions. As for the fish itself: It is a predator that has destroyed every other species and is now eating its own young in a lake that is rapidly dying.
Darwin’s Nightmare is a film that demands to be seen. The question is, Can anyone bear to watch?