I was able to see 2046 this weekend. I’ve never seen one of Kar Wai Wong’s films before (the director/writer). It was incredible. I will be renting his other movies.
The story itself is simple. Tony Leug plays a very suave man, Chow, who seems to be Clark Gable’s brother. (Who would’ve expected that? It was a treat to watch his every move and expression.) He goes through women like Kleenex to discover he is trapped by his own actions. The characters in the movie all suffer the intolerable pain of wanting someone who does not want them and all pay the emotional price of being unable to change their own actions, repeating the same mistakes again and again. It’s the lovers’ version of hell.
To escape his own demons, Chow, a writer, writes a series of stories about this mythical place in the future, 2046. One can travel there and visit their memories, for nothing ever changes. Those that they’ve loved will be waiting for them. No one has ever come back, except for the man telling the story. He went there to discover that no one was waiting for him. He left.
The most agonizing romance of all is the one between him and Bai (Ziyi Zhang). He pursues her when he notices her living next to him. It appears she is some sort of prostitute but she doesn’t come off as a streetwalker. (She spends a lot of time on the phone so she may be a call-girl.) Chow concocts a plan that will get her to notice him. She flirts but refuses him, time and again. Finally he convinces her to go to dinner with him. They become friends and spend time together. Eventually, he gets her into bed.
The moment when he prepares to leave is bad enough. Then he pulls out some money to hand to her. My heart froze. Was he that dense? Or was he deliberately hurting her? She finally accepts $10 from him, telling him it’s her discount rate (the pained, supposed-to-be-flirty smile on her face as she takes the bill is indelible). Every time he sees her, he pays her and she keeps the money in a box. They eventually break up, of course. Bai is completely devastated and stays that way through the rest of the movie. The money is returned to him the last time they ever see each other.
My lover and I discussed this on the way home. What did she expect from a man who was openly a jerk? This part of the movie was so painful and real to me. The emotional honesty of the two characters, compounded by Bai’s job and his way of behaving, affected me because it was something that could have been (and I’m glad wasn’t). She was just another conquest to him. To her, she was giving him the gift of her freedom of choice because she wanted to. It was a gift that he was determined not to acknowledge.
The movie makes perfect sense when you watch it, even if I can’t untangle it on paper. I wallowed in this movie, never wanting to miss a moment. Every character in the movie is so vulnerable and so full of hurt. Sometimes it’s hard to watch the film because of the emotional pain coming from the screen. Every nightmare of losing someone we love is played out in front of us in brilliant color. After seeing this movie, one will have a more difficult time arguing that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
The music will stay in your head and suits the movie perfectly. I also enjoyed seeing the female characters wearing those cheongsam dresses in something other than flower prints. In the world of the late 60’s China, I finally saw the proper context of these dresses. That alone was practically worth the price of admission.
On a technical level, I enjoyed the cinematography. The movie was shot the way I think when I visualize someone. The shots often were blurred, like a worn memory. Or they lingered on and on, like desire. One gesture, one moment, would be replayed again and again; not for effect but because this was how the mind of the romantic and caddish Chow worked. I could recognize my own way of thinking and visualizing in this movie, which is a first for me. Maybe that’s why this movie is so haunting.
This is not the feel-good movie of the year and yet it is beautiful. It will stay with you without depressing you. It is a story and it is a mirror. Most of all, it gave me one question to ponder: if I should go to 2046, will I find anyone waiting for me?
Update 2020: Yes, I would. I might also be waiting for a few others.