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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004

Two steps forward, three steps back


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: Cantonese, Japanese, Mandarin Japanese subtitles
Opens Oct. 23
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When asked to comment on cinema's 100th anniversary back in 1996, British director Peter Greenaway offered some typically caustic remarks: "Cinema is text-driven, not image-driven. . . . Words first and pictures second is no way to construct a visual medium."

News photo
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung in "2046"

Greenaway overstated his case -- cinema is, of course, a medium that encompasses sound and vision -- but he does have a point: There are things you can express with images that can't be conveyed with words. And sometimes these are, in fact, the most important things, the matters closest to our hearts.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai certainly understands this. In a 1995 interview with French film journal Positif, he said, flat out, "To me, words cannot express a vision." Anyone who's seen his films up till now -- rapturous rhapsodies of love, loss and longing such as "Chungking Express," "The Ashes of Time" and "In The Mood For Love" -- will know what he means. His films don't tell us stories so much as immerse us in moods, moments, memories, textures. The way a femme fatale sits at a bar, holding her cigarette, the music she listens to on the jukebox, the way the light falls across her face -- all this tells us as much as anything in the voiceover.

Up till now, at least, Wong has always been able to string such nebulous elements into a coherent whole. But with his latest work, "2046," it seems like Wong's magic touch has eluded him. Unable to synthesize the film's disparate elements into a satisfying whole, he ends up with a film that's just a bunch of free-floating fragments, snapshots of romantic melancholy that exist almost divorced from any context.

No doubt the film's on-again, off-again, five-year production had something to do with this. (The shooting schedule was staggered to accommodate an ever-burgeoning cast of stars.) It's hard to remain focused on any one project that long -- interests come and go, and people themselves change over time -- let alone one without a fixed script to anchor it.

Wong's original idea was to make "2046" as a sci-fi film, set almost 50 years after Hong Kong's reversion to China. But it seems like he couldn't shake his attachment to his last, most successful film, "In The Mood For Love," set in 1960s Hong Kong. The result is neither here nor there, and plays like a maddeningly self-referential remix of Wong's own work so far.

Tony Leung plays Chow Mowan, a pencil-moustached writer with slicked-back hair, a specialist in seducing women and dumping them just as fast. Chow, it seems, is a more jaded, cruel version of the character Leung played in "In The Mood For Love," his romantic idealism forever crushed by his lost opportunity with Maggie Cheung in that film. A key, postcoital moment from that film is recycled here.

In Chow there are also echoes of another character that Leung played in a past Wong film: the slick gambler seen preening in front of a mirror at the end of "Days of Being Wild." His story was slated for a sequel but never made. In "2046," we see Chow gambling at a Singapore casino where he meets a tougher-by-far gambler played by Gong Li. He also has a fling with a bar-girl named Lulu (Carrina Lau playing the same character she did in "Days of Being Wild").

Confused? Well, you will be. Chow goes to live in room 2046 at the Oriental Hotel -- the room where Chow had his tryst in "In The Mood." He has a casual affair with his neighbor across the hall, bar-girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), who falls for him big-time. He treats her as nothing more than a whore, however, assiduously paying her after every time they share a bed. Chow also helps the hotel owner's daughter (Faye Wong) carry on a long-distance affair with her Japanese lover (Kimura Takuya), who her father has forbidden her from marrying. Chow borrows their story for a pulp sci-fi novel he's writing about a mysterious train that takes people to 2046, a place where they can find lost memories, and from which no one ever comes back.

Wong's onscreen vision of the year 2046 -- a mix of Kubrickian interiors, Replicant hairstyles and Gibsonian cities-as-data streams -- is so compelling that it would be nice to linger there longer. As is, they're mostly just reworked, word-for-word, scenes already played out in the '60s setting. And yet, other than eye candy, the repetition doesn't add anything to scenes that were fairly shallow and flat to begin with.

"2046" flits about so much -- with Maggie Cheung, Dong Xie ("Happy Times") and Chang Chen ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") in blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos -- that it's hard to get a fix on any of the characters. That's even true of Leung in the central role, who acts with an icy reserve that reveals nothing. (Even his usually reliable sex appeal is lost, as he's been given the look of an old-school LDP politico with a taste for Ginza hostess bars and too much pomade.) Much has been made of local heart-throb Kimu-Taku's international debut, but to be honest, he's got so little to do, it's hard to say much except his hair looks nice. Here, it feels like what Wong's critics have long charged has finally come to pass: a succession of stylish but ultimately empty fashion-shoot images. The dead giveaway is the sheer number of shots of people smoking cigarettes, always the fallback pose for art movies where the existential 'tude has gotten larger than the actual ideas.

Zhang, however, is a revelation. Part of this is simply due to the fact that she's the only character given enough screen-time to develop a personality; most of the women exist simply as still lives, shrouded in cigarette smoke or framed, repeatedly, with a single tear running down a cheek. But she brings some passion, some real fire to a film that all too often seems like a conceptual exercise. Whether it's the boldness with which she tries to break through Chow's glib smile with a bold declaration of love, or the cold look of disappointment that flashes over her eyes, soon to be covered by a laugh, or even the truly lustful abandon with which she sheds her trashy leopard-print cheongsam for a sex scene (the likes of which "In The Mood" so carefully avoided), this is a performance that proves the girl can do far more than wire-action stunts.

But, alas, Zhang's sequence lasts only 30 minutes or so amid the muddle. Wong has spoken of his love of author Manuel Puig, and the way "his [stories are] divided into a series of fragments, with no chronological order." That's largely the model Wong has followed with "2046," but cool, cerebral experimentation is no match for romantic intensity.

For those familiar with Wong Kar-wai's body of work, and open to an admittedly gorgeous experiment in repetition, "2046" serves as an interestingly convoluted introspection into his past films. I would hesitate to say, though, that this film can stand on its own. Sometimes films like this that are hard to pin down turn out to age quite well, with much to offer in repeat viewings. But for those expecting Wong's more art-pop sensibility of "Chungking Express," a disappointment may lie in store.

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