Just when I thought I had Saraband as my pick for the film of the year, into town (at last) strolls 2046. A work of nearly monstrous sublimity -- how to write about it? I've seen it three times, and each time entire sequences seem to shift and slide; describing it is like attempting to describe colored smoke. Or music. Or longing, memory, or passion. "The stars," Godard infamously rhapsodized of Bitter Victory, virtually refusing to talk about a film that so staggered him that only inscrutable private euphoria pours out. So with Wong Kar-Wai. An elusive artist deserves an elusive review, but why be perverse, especially as Wong's technique is already so densely mysterious? Style for Bergman in Saraband is the crystallization of emotional warfare, pared-down and earthbound in the tangible finality of death; for Wong, now more than ever, style is capricious and malleable, slithering then evaporating, liquid in nature ("all memories are traces of tears"), like the moment that has passed before you've noticed it. A style emerging from whim, impulses, the director himself at the mercy of it (or possibly the other way around), to say nothing of the world beyond his artistic control -- 2046 is already famous as a long-gestating film, four years in the making, interrupted by delays, firings, the 2003 SARS breakout, re-shootings, etc. Even after "finished," Wong's kept futzing with it, reshaping it from festival to festival.
Now it's here. How different it is from the versions screened at Cannes (still dripping wet, reportedly), New York, and Hong Kong, I have no idea, and who knows how much further it will mutate down the road. But what I've seen is overwhelming. Just wondrous. A synthesis work, really, with all the themes, emotions and rumba shimmering he has unleashed on the screen since his debut. A work of deliberate career-uniting links, like rivers fusing together toward a sea of expression -- Carina Lau as a hostess named Lulu (or Mimi), killed by a violent boyfriend described as a "bird that could never land," is from Days of Being Wild, the director's breakout hit; Gong Li's one gloved hand may be the same one that issued cinema's most lyrical handjob in Wong's Eros segment; and the whole structure, with its detours and vanishings, seems constructed after taking a few deep drinks from the forgetfulness-cocktail of Ashes of Time. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), the cynical protagonist, is the essence of all of Wong's pomaded, pencil-mustached melancholy gigolos, dreaminess distilled, though the character was first seen in the last scene of Days of Being Wild, primping himself up in front of a mirror before emerging almost a decade later, chastely romancing Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in the wrenching dance of In the Mood for Love.
Years pass, though it's still the late-'60s of Wong's reveries, "Siboney" and Nat King Cole gliding through the air while Hong Kong is quaked by political upheavals. Not that Chow notices much beyond the walls of hotel room he has holed himself inside, the romantic tenderness of In the Mood since hardened into suave disillusionment. Now a hack writer churning out softcore fiction, he takes residence in room 2047, the titular flat number next door. What's in a number? Personal remembrance, the last year in China's "unchanged" promise to Hong Kong, a man's emotional world? Either way, sounds from the next room soon intrigue him: the light clop-clop of high heels and sweet mangling of Japanese words, all courtesy of Faye Wong, herself an airy memento from Chungking Express, as the hotelier's forlorn daughter. Photographed talking to herself at dusk next to a neon sign, she's a Wong icon, but her relationship with Chow turns out to be platonic -- he's busy recalling old times with Lulu, rolling in the sheets with haughty young courtesan Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), or consciously relieving his never-consumed romance with the casino dweller (Gong) who shares the name and yearning of his lost love. Nostalgia for the past, but when does the present end? And, for that matter, when does the future begin? To add to the mix, Mr. Chow sets his new pulp opus in the mid-21st century, a Philip K. Dick landscape populated by fembot versions of the women in the author's life.
Time stops for no one, ravishing movie characters included, even if the director can try to mock the inexorable temporal passage with title-card gags ("December 24th, '67," "December 24th, '68," "an hour later," "100 hours later"). "Too bad it did not last" is the film's ultimate lament, echoed from Ophüls, Demy, and Resnais -- indeed, 2046 could have been dubbed Hong Kong Mon Amour. An amour lost yet still rattling, vertiginously, in the labyrinth of memory, hostesses in exquisite gowns and coifs, b&w cab rides through the subconscious, slow-mo cigarette smoke and Bellini, smudged lipstick and androidal delayed reactions. Zhang, fickle and coquettish, is narcissistically youthful romance given a cold shower by Mr. Chow's world-weary bitterness, tears agonizingly swallowed upon being paid for sleeping with the man she loves, but Wong, like Von Sternberg, is equally alert to the glories and the absurdities of love. Also like Von Sternberg, Wong encases the oft-helpless players of his emotional games into the lush textures of the most opulent of mise-en-scènes, yet beauty, color, and movement are never only ornamental -- the rapturous visuals fill the eyes while tightening the heart, form housing emotion like the body houses the soul. 2046 is beautiful, the beauty of history, feeling and art, swirling in and out of each other over Wong's pulsating canvas. Too gooey? Too bad. For a film that has so shaken my senses, to say less (or more) would become too personal.
Purposefully diffuse in 2046, technique is pinpointed, efficient in Red Eye, a lesser achievement and, thus, an easier one to write about. Actually, in its own terms, the film is a rope-tight stylistic exercise, and a mini-delight, particularly coming from Wes Craven, whose recent work (Cursed, anyone?) has been steadily dreadful. Here, it's a zippy idea (predator and prey bound, side by side, in a cramped overnight flight) given the benefit of concise, tightening-the-screws mechanisms. The richest gag is in the teaser-trailer, promises of synthetic rom-com darkening at the very final moment, although Craven's grip is his surest in years, all speed and economy while sketching in the path of his heroine, hotel manager Rachel McAdams, through airport lines and grabby passengers until finally sitting next to Cillian Murphy in a turbulence-racked coach ride to Miami. Murphy's job, as he tells her, is "overthrowing governments," the actor's fragility turning bestial as he puts the squeeze on McAdams -- make the switch in the hotel rooms so the visiting chief deputy of Homeland Security can be offed, or dad (Brian Cox) is dead. Muddy politics aside, Red Eye hopefully marks a semi-return to Craven's early portraits of internal turmoil, McAdams a livelier update on the filmmaker's Heather Langenkamp-Neve Campbell mode of female grit, where a pen-to-windpipe jab could point to empowering revolt.
Reviewed September 1, 2005.