Wong Kar-wai’s Visual Magic: A Tribute to Feminine Beauty

Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, from his own screenplay (in Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles), is quite simply an incomparably

Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, from his own screenplay (in Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles), is quite simply an incomparably sublime work of art, a triumph of lyricism over narrative in the cinema, and the most exquisite homage to the beauty of women it has ever been my privilege to witness on the screen. Yet its supposed longueurs may not be to every viewer’s taste. Even some of the most fervent admirers of Mr. Wong’s widely acclaimed masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), have balked at endorsing his more complex, more ambitious and possibly more disorganized efforts in 2046.

One of the problems with describing how I felt as I was watching this admittedly strange work has to do with the limitations of language when dealing with a very personal and eccentric visual style in the service of a seemingly banal and repetitious story line. 2046 involves a pointedly dissipated libertine-journalist-novelist named Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung), a recurring character and actor in Mr. Wong’s man-and-woman-centered universe. Indeed, Chow seems to be acting out the “love ’em and leave ’em” backstory of Jim Jarmusch’s and Bill Murray’s Broken Flowers. Chow has become an Asian Don Juan, ostensibly because of his failed though passionate romance with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) in Mr. Wong’s previous film, In the Mood for Love. On that occasion, Chow fled to Singapore for solace. While in Southeast Asia, Chow visited the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, into which he whispered his sad secrets so that no one would hear them.

This theme of stoical secrecy in the aftermath of emotional reversals is carried forward on several levels in 2046. The film’s numerical title itself operates in many mnemonic dimensions. It is the number of the room in the rundown Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong in which Chow loved and lost Su Ling in Mr. Wong’s previous film. It is also the room in which Chow consummated his one-night stand with an old girlfriend, Lulu (Carina Lau Ka-ling), upon his return from Singapore to a low-grade newspaper job in Hong Kong. A few days later, when he returns to check up on Lulu, he is told by the hotel manager, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), that she has moved out. In fact, she was stabbed to death by a lover, and the sheets are still drenched with her blood. There is very little affect in this mini-catastrophe. It merely makes Chow eager to rent this room for himself, but Mr. Wang makes a deal with Chow to rent him the adjacent room 2047 until 2046 has been made habitable.

Meanwhile, Chow becomes curious about strange sounds emanating from the supposedly vacant 2046. It is Mr. Wang’s daughter, Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), who is in love with a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura) of whom her father disapproves so violently that he tears up all the letters her lover sends her. Jing has sneaked into the empty 2046 to rehearse her Japanese and her dance steps. Chow befriends Jing and offers to act as a go-between for her lover’s letters. When Jing learns that he is writing a novel called 2046, she offers to help him. Revealing unexpected talent, Jing almost evolves into Chow’s ghostwriter. He is lazy and unambitious about his pulp writing; 2046 is a half-heartedly futuristic novel about a strange ghostly city known by its calendar numeral. It is reached by a supersonic train twisting through a time-and-space tunnel to the year and place 2046. Mr. Wong was reportedly planning to make a full-fledged sci-fi film with political implications about Mainland China’s growing role in the affairs of Hong Kong. For some unspecified reason, he abandoned the project but retained the idea and some of the special-effects footage.

As the train twists and turns toward its destination, an unidentified voice tells us: “Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories, because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody knows if that’s true because nobody’s ever come back.” This supposed fantasy of a hack writer is complete with beautiful android attendants to serve the passengers, one of whom is a wild-eyed replica of Jing’s Japanese lover, trying to come back from 2046 with an android version of Mr. Wang.

The same unidentified voice returns to ask and answer a question: “If someone wants to leave 2046, how long will it take?” The answer seems inconsistent with a previous statement that no one has ever returned. “Some people get away very easily. Others find that it takes them much longer.”

Then again, the scenes on the train are filmed with more gravity and passion than their almost facetious placement in the narrative would suggest. If you’ve seen In the Mood for Love—and you should if you haven’t—I don’t have to rhapsodize at great length about the visual magic Mr. Wong performs with faces, bodies, and fabrics, with the assistance of cinematographers Christopher Doyle, Lai Yiu-Fai and Kwan Pun Leung, editing and production design by William Chang Sukping, and music by Peer Raben and Shigeru Umebayashi.

Still, I wasn’t completely swept away by the film until Ziyi Zhang arrives on the scene as Bai Ling, a stormy lady of the evening who greets the suave Chow with well-founded suspicion. The maneuvers of the two form the heart and soul of 2046. It was at this point that I felt that the film surpassed even In the Mood for Love in its exquisite sensitivity to the unspoken nuances in the game of love. In this endless battle of wits, Chow is the croupier, and Bai Ling, as the embodiment of all women, is the gambler forcibly calculating what expression to use to beat the odds on winning Chow’s commitment.

There was a time long ago when I was a bit defensive about embracing auteurs who loved women with their cameras. Indeed, Max Ophüls, Josef von Sternberg, George Cukor and others were at one time demeaned as “women’s directors,” unworthy to be compared with colleagues who were presumed to serve mankind by exposing social injustice. The period of crypto-Marxist hegemony in “serious” film scholarship has long since passed.

Still, Mr. Wong has added a new stylistic element to his treatment of the game of love, one that compresses the space in which men and women engage each other, all the better to concentrate on their faces and postures, as if the rest of the world had completely disappeared. As much as I had always admired the mesmerizing camera movements of Ophüls, the exploding-from-within compositions of Sternberg and the selectively expressive close-ups of Cukor, Mr. Wong’s claustrophobic climaxes threw me for a loop. The point is that the beautiful Asian faces on which he focused were not there on display, but rather as an integral part of a process—a transaction, if you will—between men and women. By shunting aside much of the world, Mr. Wong is free to magnify the significance of his encounters, and to explore with the language of faces the intervals between “yes” and “no,” not only between Chow and Bai Lai in the here and now, but also between the encounter itself and the moment in the future when it will become a bittersweet memory. Zhang Yimou’s onetime muse Gong Li arrives near the end as a gambling lady with a mysterious glove on one hand, perhaps to distract us from one last cruel twist in the narrative to demonstrate the occasional treachery of memory and the lasting unhappiness it causes.

Perhaps I have been seeing too many Asian films, but I have come to conclude that I am beginning to tell the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, on the one hand, and Japanese on the other. Though I don’t know any of the languages, at least I think I detect the downward spiral of Mandarin or Cantonese or both, as opposed to Japanese, which doesn’t seem to have that spiral. I must confess that I relived this insight from a long-ago stand-up comedian discussing the clash of two noble, ancient civilizations in the confrontation of a Jewish woman with a Chinese waiter in a Chinese restaurant. But don’t mind me. Mr. Wong’s glorious images transcend all civilizations, ancient and modern.


David Mackenzie’s Asylum, from a screenplay by Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Ballis, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, has been well received by reviewers as the presumed antithesis to the sort of move that would be greenlighted in the bottom-line shambles that passes nowadays for Hollywood. This is to say that Asylum is not even remotely a feel-good movie. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not. If we are to be depressed in these depressing times, I am not sure if Asylum is otherwise edifying enough to justify its relentlessly gloomy and guilt-ridden narrative.

The setting is England in 1959. Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) is the restless and frustrated wife of Dr. Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville), who has been appointed deputy superintendent of a high-security psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the north of England, and has taken Stella and their young son Charlie with him. Even without much backstory to the marriage, we are led to understand that Stella has been restive even before she finds herself thrust into an uncongenial environment.

At a welcoming garden party given by superintendent Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland) and his wife, Stella wastes no time getting on Max’s wrong side by ignoring the other faculty wives to chat with the affable bachelor, Dr. Peter Cleave (Ian McKellan), who has been practicing at the hospital for decades. An inveterate gossip, he prides himself on specializing in the “extreme cases.”

Max warns Stella later that night to be careful of Cleave, because he resents Max for being appointed to a position that Cleave feels should have rightfully gone to him. I was frankly surprised by the sudden outbursts of office politics in such a sinister setting. I wondered also why 1959 was supposed to be so significant a factor in Stella’s marital malaise; did wives start being less frustrated in 1960? Then again, there were no signs of any barbarically retrograde treatment regimens for these asylum patients that would offend mental-health crusaders in 2005. Quite the contrary: This asylum seems almost excessively permissive with its patients—which explains how a convicted wife-murderer named Edgar Stark (Maston Csokas) could come into such close contact with Charlie and his mother (while he is repairing the Raphaels’ conservatory glasshouse) that an affair between the two is made to seem almost inevitable. And when it occurs, Stella flings caution to the wind, despite being warned by the ever-observant and jealous Cleave that Edgar had brutally beaten his wife to death in a fit of jealousy.

When Edgar seizes an opportunity given to him by Stella to escape the asylum, he does so with remarkable ease. Stella joins him in a dismal Soho flat, where he has resumed his sculpting with manic fervor, and she begins complaining that he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. At this point, I began to suspect that everything was going to go disastrously wrong for Stella, and I was right. She just happens to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there is nothing to be done about it.

In the end, she has caused the death of her child, the humiliation and dismissal of her husband, and the return of Edgar to the manipulative machinations of Dr. Cleave. When Stella realizes that Dr. Cleave is now in a position to keep her separated from Edgar so that he can have her all to himself—as he has wanted from the first moment he saw her at the asylum—she leaps to her death from a bell tower.

The casting of Mr. McKellan as the ultimate villain seems to drain the film of any suspense. Accomplished actor that he is onstage and onscreen, Mr. McKellan has become fatally typecast in movies as the embodiment of evil, or at least perversity and cynicism. Hence, he doesn’t have to do anything reprehensible to be terminally unsympathetic. But when he maneuvers to separate two charismatically sensual characters like Stella and Edgar from each other forever, he is guilty of an unforgivable crime against the cinematic elective affinities.

I haven’t read Mr. McGrath’s novel, but I suspect that he supplies details of the Raphael marriage that would make Stella’s behavior more plausible, and the character of her husband less petty and insubstantial. As it is, the film seems hurried and unmotivated in its mad dash to the sex scenes. The French have a whole genre devoted to l’amour fou, and there’s no big deal about its doom-ridden proclivities. Hollywood in its Production Code period would automatically punish the most passionately sympathetic couples if they happened to run afoul of the law. Lately, Hollywood has wanted to have its cake and eat it too with its casual amorality about sex and crime. Asylum is earnest enough about the dangers of a romantic love violently at odds with society, but I just wish that it were more convincing and less depressing.

Must Love Movie?

Gary David Goldberg’s Must Love Dogs, from a screenplay by Mr. Goldberg, based on the novel by Claire Cook, plays out as an often mechanical comedy in which the actors, particularly the delectable Diane Lane, are more interesting than the characters. Ms. Lane plays a near-40 divorced preschool teacher, Sarah Nolan, who we are asked to believe was divorced a few years earlier by a husband who had simply grown tired and stopped loving her. Sarah seems content to live alone, but she is constantly badgered by her two sisters, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) and Christine (Ali Hillis), to get in on all the hot-and-heavy singles action on the Internet by posting an ad that describes her as “voluptuous, sensuous, alluring and fun,” with one specific requirement for prospective suitors: “must love dogs.”

The real-life Internet has become notorious enough—and sometimes deadly enough—to inspire its own disillusioning scenarios of ridiculous deception at best and monstrous exploitation at worst. Thus, when Sarah’s first date turns out to be her own 70-year-old widowed father, Bill (Christopher Plummer), posing as a 50-year-old pleasure-seeker, both are embarrassed—but, as I have indicated previously, the actors involved are so warmly and charmingly amiable with each other that their mutual faux pas is easily glossed over.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the man who is destined to be Sarah’s sweetheart and soul mate. He, too, is recovering from a painful divorce, but with more tearfulness than Sarah has ever shown. Since John Cusack is second-billed to Ms. Lane, we know that somehow his Jake Anderson, a builder of hand-made canoes that no one seems to want to buy, will end up with Sarah, but not without the usual time-killing misunderstandings that are the hallmarks of the genre. Sure enough, their first date together is almost over as soon as it starts when Jake puts his foot in his mouth by asking why Sarah began her ad with the word “voluptuous.” As he keeps apologizing for his indiscreet question, she relents a bit, and they both confess to cheating on the canine precondition in the ad, Jake having rented his “pet” and Sarah having borrowed her sister’s dog. So the whole premise of the film’s title turns out to be a hoax to further ridicule the process of Internet dating.

Between her own father and Jake, there is a steady parade of grotesquely unsuitable suitors for Sarah of types that have appeared too often in the past to be very funny. Indeed, Jake’s only serious competition for Sarah’s heart is Bob Connor (Dermot Mulroney), the recently separated father of one of her pupils. Bob actually beds Sarah after a night of revelry, but when he wakes up the next morning in her bed and tells her that he has to go with his child on some sort of play date, Sarah flies into a rage that I found incomprehensible, except on a marquee-billing level.

Throughout the proceedings, I kept wondering how much money the characters had stashed away somewhere to pay for all their lavishly endowed festivities; Jake in particular seems to be laboring in a zero-income activity. There is also one impromptu family song-and-dance outburst with Sarah, her sisters and her father that reminded me too much of a similar scene in P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). Sarah and Jake end up together cute to make up for their not meeting cute. But Ms. Lane, Ms. Perkins and Stockard Channing as Bill’s lively date help pass the time pleasantly enough.

Wong Kar-wai’s Visual Magic: A Tribute to Feminine Beauty