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Strange Yet Cool: Listening to Wong Kar Wai…and Making Sense of “2046”

Strange Yet Cool: Listening to Wong Kar Wai...and Making Sense of "2046"

Sitting in the front row of the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in June, a young woman from Hong Kong smiled broadly and shifted around in her seat excitedly, awaiting the start of a screening of “2046.” We started chatting and I assumed from her enthusiasm that she had not yet seen the movie. Telling her that she was in for a real treat, I started to talk a bit about the movie. She politely admitted that she had already seen various versions of the film a half-dozen times, mostly on imported DVDs. On this particular night, because director Wong Kar Wai would be making an appearance to introduce the screening and participate in a Q&A after the showing, a large crowd was filling the theater. As the screening time approached, the women next to me became increasingly giddy with excitement, so I showed her a digital camera photo that I had just taken of Wong Kar Wai at the pre-screening reception, assuming that this would be the first time she was seeing him in person. She literally squealed as she looked at the image but then admitted that she’d already met him on numerous occasions back in Hong Kong. So finally I asked her directly why she was so excited. “Because I love him,” she exclaimed.

In a theater jammed with equally amorous fans of his work, Wong Kar Wai talked extensively, and at times quite vaguely, about his latest film. Wearing his trademark dark sunglasses and black Izod Lacoste polo shirt, the filmmaker reflected on the new movie, its connection to his previous films, working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and the movie’s music.

Opening Friday (August 5th) in the U.S., Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” is the continuation of the story of a writer (played by Tony Leung) who carries out a number of affairs with women (including Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Carina Lau, Faye Wong, and Maggie Cheung), in a hotel room with a memorable room number.

The film premiered late at Cannes 2004, missing its festival debut when it was not quite ready; Wong brought the movie to Cannes a day later and unveiled the film amidst critical complaints that it felt unfinished. He eventually re-worked the film a bit before it opened in China at the end of September. Describing the film, which in many parts bore a strong resemblance to his last movie “In the Mood for Love,” Wong Kar-Wai said at a Cannes press conference, “The film is actually a portrait of a person who is trying to get away from his past — the more you try to forget it, the more you remember it, maybe one day the past or the memory will leave you.” The title marks the year five decades after the handover of Hong Kong back to China. “How you deal with your past (is) not only about a person, it can be a city, it can be about anything,” Wong summed up in Cannes.

Asked at what point he realized he was making a sequel to “In The Mood For Love,” Wong Kar Wai offered during the Lincoln Center discussion, “In fact, I started this film at the same time — we started the two films back to back, at first we thought ‘In the Mood’ would take three months, but it took nine months. I never thought ‘2046’ would be a sequel, but in the process I realized that the two films were connected in certain ways.” He then quipped, “I think that, like a joke… that became the beginning of the troubles in a way.”

“2046” is a film that took Wong years to finish, with production stopped due to SARS and the story changing over time. In Cannes last year, many joked that this movie would not be seen until the year of its title, a charge that stung the filmmaker. He said in Cannes the day after the premiere, “(As of) today this joke is over and I am so glad, thank you very much.”

Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi in a scene from Wong Kar Wai’s “2046.” Photo by Sony Pictures Classics.

“I don’t think ‘2046’ is like a sequel, it is like a continuation,” Wong emphasized during his appearance in New York in June. “I think the two films are about two different subjects.” Continuing he tried to sum it up, saying, “‘In The Mood for Love’ is a love story about two persons, ‘2046’ is a story about a love story, about the writer Tony Leung himself.”

Perhaps explaining it a bit more succinctly, in New York this spring for the Tribeca Film Festival, actor Leung offered, “If ‘In the Mood For Love’ was a love story, then ‘2046’ is a story about love.”

So, in the follow-up to “In The Mood,” Leung returns as a writer who meets a young prostitute (played by Ziyi Zhang) in hotel room 2046, the same room where he had the affair with a married woman (Maggie Cheung) in the previous film. Reflecting on love and loss, the writer composes a futuristic story entitled “2046.”

“‘2046 is like a reunion,” explained Wong Kar Wai, “Some characters from my previous films show up. You see how many things have changed, or they can remain unchanged.” Noting the ending of his 1991 film “Days of Being Wild,” Wong reminded the Lincoln Center screening attendees that Tony Leung appears at the end of that film, a finale that Wong said was one of his favorite endings of all of his films and a movie that was supposed to have a second part. Since making that film, he had hoped to make another movie about the gambler character.

Q&A sessions with the director do not always give his fans clear answers. “In ‘2046’ Tony is a gambler, it can be like the ending of ‘Days of Being Wild’,” Wong Kar Wai riffed, “And the beginning of ‘2046’ can happen in one night with a difference of twelve years.”

Perhaps a bit more concretely, Wong was asked about his use of Christmas as a recurring time period in the new film. He explained, “In the film there are four chapters, each chapter begins or ends with Christmas.” Noting that the motif is used because the Christmas holiday often sees the highest rate of suicides, Wong added, “On Christmas, or Christmas Eve people feel very lonely on a time or date or night that you are supposed to share with someone else.”

In “2046” the sounds of “The Christmas Song,” performed in the movie by both Umebayashi Shigeru and the Nat King Cole Trio, signal the holiday season. Not surprisingly, “2046” boasts an exceptional soundtrack (available on import) offering Umebayashi Shigeru and Peer Raben, as well as classic tunes from Xavier Cugat with Connie Francis, Dean Martin, and Cole. Asked about his criteria for choosing the music, Wong said that the soundtrack in his films gives a sense of rhythm to he and his crew. “In this film, in a ballroom or hotel, we have a lot of dance music,” citing Cugat, Martin, and Francis (who sings the ever-present “Siboney” in the film), “Its music that reminds me of that person.” Citing music in the work of Truffaut, Fassbinder and Kieslowski, Wong added, “Especially coming back to you is the date or the time that you look at this film, it is also a tribute to my favorite directors.”

Wong Kar Wai at a press conference in Cannes last year discussing “2046.” Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

Of course, another trademark of Wong Kar Wai’s filmmaking is its distinctive visual style. In the case of the striking look of “2046,” Wong was asked at Lincoln Center why he chose to shoot in such a widescreen format. “My main reason is I want to torture Chris Doyle,” Wong smiled, referring to longtime collaborator, cinematographer Doyle, who shot the film on Super 35 film stock in the crammed locations. Asked about the colors and look of this movie, Wong Kar Wai explained, “There are two types of cinematographers,” adding obliquely, “Some work like soldiers and some work like sailors.” He seemed to be saying that some are steady and some change a lot, placing Doyle in the sailor camp. “For Chris, he started as a sailor, he needs to move, and in a way I give him space, but most of the time I decide about the framing, the look, and even the colors, but it doesn’t mean that he works according to what I decided. So there will be surprises, but most of the time it is a good surprise.”

Asked further about some of the distinctive distorted images included in “2046,” Wong Kar Wai admitted that in the film, Doyle used some lenses that were more than 40 years old. “I think that is because of the lense, sometimes they have defects, somehow we have to turn these defects into a style or reflections or distortions,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “It makes it look like something really cool,” he smiled, adding, “I think Chris did a very good job on this.”

Finally, Wong Kar Wai was asked about a key element in ‘2046’ in which characters whisper their secrets into a black hole. “What is my secret, he pondered, then answered, “To me my film is my hole, I have put all my secrets in the film.”

The woman seated next to me loved that answer. Wong Kar Wai’s fans enjoy the occasional teases and vague answers, they’ve become as much a trademark of the filmmaker as the distinct slo-mo, saturated visuals, his use of latin-flavored music, or his own black polo shirt and trademark dark glasses.

About those glasses, a friend and I had been chatting continuously throughout the evening about those sunglasses he wears even during a low-lit reception or in a dark theater, wondering what purpose they serve. I’ve never seen him without them, so I asked the woman seated next to me if that was to mask an eye defect, or maybe shield him from light due to super sensitive eyes. Or was it simply part of his style.

She replied simply, “I think it is to make him look cool.”

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