Point of No Return
In an era when every gung-ho scriptwriting manual tells aspiring filmmakers to “drive their stories forward” Hollywood-style at any cost, there has appeared on the world stage a special group of movies that resist simply by staying (in narrative terms) in one spot.
These are not simply films in which, whimsically, “nothing happens” (as the Seinfeld-derived saying goes), but films about the real and agonising difficulty of moving forward – a syndrome that afflicts, all at once, the characters in these stories, the world they represent, and the entire machine of narrative cinema. Not surprisingly, these films most often end up being about a kind of repetition-compulsion: going over the same ground, turning in a circle, unable to break free.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001) – one of the least immediately acclaimed films of this great Taiwanese director – set the going-around-in-a-circle pattern of recent years. It is, at its most banal level (and some viewers and critics could see nothing beyond the banality), the story of a poor, young woman, Vicky (Shu Qi), who cannot break free of her bad, abusive relationship to a highly possessive DJ, Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao). Hou does not puff this story up to any tragic or majestic plane. The characters remain shallow, almost behaving on auto-pilot. Their world of music and clubs and clothes is set at a low level of constant sensory stimulation. Hou’s camera drifts, often very close to the action, over fields of colour, shiny detail, obscure zones of shadow and obstruction; abstraction calls at every moment.
Both the content and the form of Millennium Mambo express a kind of niggling, suffocating, finally unbearable kind of stasis: nothing is driving forward, everything and everybody is being slowly worn down by repetition and compulsion (captured especially in Hao-hao’s relentless interrogations of where Vicky has been, who she has spoken to, what she is thinking …). The film begins with an extraordinary time-warp tableau that opens a loop never to be closed: we see Vicky walking along a public tunnel-passageway, enjoying her own bodily gestures (as Hou enjoys them, in slow-motion, following behind with his camera) – and we hear a voice from the future, Vicky ten years hence, from the place where she is free, but still a little haunted by the thought that Hao-hao may be, effectively, in the place of that camera, tracking, watching, spying …
Getting to that future – to that almost sci-fi off-screen space inhabited by a plaintive voice – is what is so difficult, and Millennium Mambo isn’t going to make the passage to that act any easier, for Vicky or for us. Hou’s concerns recur in another masterpiece of recent years: Philippe Garrel’s memoir of 1968 and what came after, Les Amants réguliers (2005). The film begins directly with that “crack in reality” (as Jean Eustache called it in his The Mother and the Whore ): the riots and struggles of May that turned Paris into an “occupied zone” which anticipated, in its chaos, the war-torn cities and fields of so many wars and conflicts to follow. As police assemble (no sympathy is wasted on them), Garrel inserts on the soundtrack a slogan from one of his young, romantic, impossibly beautiful revolutionaries (the central ‘lover’ is played by the director’s own son, Louis Garrel): “Enough of repetition. Move forward!”
The English subtitler made a curious choice here, because répétition probably means, in this context, rehearsal – rehearsing the yearned-for revolution via talk, plans, theory – but the literal translation is just as resonant. Because, the moment that the crack seals up – the very morning after, in fact, in Garrel’s unreal but poetic conceit – the characters become mired in repetition (they “lose the revolution indoors”, as one cynic says of them), trying desperately to find the spark (in love, in drugs, in books, in art, in music, in words, in dance) that will enable them to go on living from day to day, in history, as now regular, ordinary lovers, but in a world that surely has altered, metamorphosed.
One hour of revolution, two hours of everyday life (that’s the structure of Les Amants réguliers), an unhappy ending: how does anybody or anything move forward? There’s not even the tiniest hinge into the future, like in that exceptional, American black comedy of neurotic repetition-compulsion, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) where, after all the agony, the final line offers what is, in effect, an opening line, at last the start of a story: “Here we go”.
Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 also boasts an inventive way of framing a story in which nothing moves forward easily. In a flurry at its beginning, we see glimpses of the personal life of the hero, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), mixed up with volleys of the extravagant sci-fi tale he is writing. That tale – which is also called 2046 – is about a journey to somewhere that is, ambiguously, both a time and a place, time as a place or location: the world of 2046, where “lost memories” can be retrieved, where answers can be found, where unfinished business can at last be closed. But even this seeming Shangri-La offers, not really a new start, but only a renovated kind of stasis: in 2046, we are informed (and it is a terse allusion, beyond the film, to the future fate of Hong Kong), “nothing will change anymore”. As we observe the hip protagonist of this film-within-the-film (played by Takuya Kimura), we hear him reflect that nobody knows whether 2046 indeed holds the key to all these recovered riches, since “nobody has ever returned” – but then he adds the tantalising rider, “except me”. What a beautiful fold or crease with which to begin a story!
But where does this fold go, to where does it lead, exactly? Wong Kar-wai folds it up again, slowly, painstakingly: in the course of the film, we will pass from the fantasy of the time-traveller – who never will manage to tell us the truth about 2046, of course – to the fantasist, the writer himself, Mo-wan. He dreamed this character as his alter ego, the guy who can do in a story what the author cannot do in real life. He flatters himself by finally taking over his character’s space-age narration, repeating it. But Mo-wan does not, cannot move forward; everything is draining away from him, leaving only a melancholic after-image – even the memory of his time with Lai-chen (Maggie Cheung), reprised from Wong’s previous In the Mood for Love (2000), ends with the apparition of him alone, slumped in the same position in the same cab, but without her. So that, in the closing moments of the film, when Mo-wan utters the words of his imaginary hero – “no one has ever returned” – this time there is no fold, no hinge, no exception. Only the point of no return.
How to retell the plot of 2046 – so full of incident, so rich with character, with the historical succession of times and places, and yet so amorphous and inconclusive? We see a man with a parade of successive women – of different types, different ages. (2046 resembles nothing so much as a metaphysical makeover of the woeful Jude Law version of Alfie.) Everyone who sees the film diagnoses – if they are so inclined – the guy’s erotic-romantic pathology differently, locating its core, its centre, in one woman or another: maybe it’s Lai-chen, who is absent; or maybe Jingwen (Faye Wong), who chooses another man; or Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), who implodes in her non-stop party-girl manner; or maybe it’s any of these women he toys with and rejects and then laments … In the theatre of Mo-wan’s melancholia, both repetition and compulsion (and the death-drive that, as per Freud, they both portend) are at work: he is in the business of inventing lost objects, both in his art and in his life, and fetishising their memory.
At its high point, the film gives us a sequence that perfectly captures Mo-wan’s stasis. Wong is well-known as a writer-director-auteur who chews up bits of everything he is seeing and reading before and during the production of his works (and the production of 2046 was indeed an epic, constantly revised undertaking): as well as Liu Yichang’s 1962 novel The Drunkard (which supplies several of the literary intertitles punctuating the film), I also think that Wong had Leonard Cohen’s song “Last Year’s Man” (from Songs of Love and Hate, 1971) in mind when he fashioned this sequence.
Cohen’s song is about a writer, and the act of writing: he sits down to begin, and then all the imaginings, the possible scenarios pour forth … But this is not a portrait of unfettered creativity, quite the opposite: the song thuds to a close in its last verse with the revelation that, for this writer, “an hour has gone by, and he has not moved his hand.” It’s writer’s block as an existential condition. Wong pictures this quite literally: Mo-wan’s pen poised above a sheet of paper, as the hours (one, ten, a hundred) flee – a passage of time that is instantly taken up and expanded, grandiloquently, in outer space, where the cyber-Jingwen (caught, we are informed, in that eternal delay between an android’s actions and her emotional reactions) stands and looks out a window, for one, ten, a hundred years … “The rain falls down on the works of last year’s man”: it could be not only an epitaph, but literally an image from 2046.
Like the vivid fragments and aphorisms that constitute Roland Barthes’ book A Lover’s Discourse, Wong’s vignettes of longing and loss elicit an intense emotional identification on the part of sympathetic viewers (and complete, almost phobic rejection from unsympathetic ones) – an identification less with characters and their fictive biographies per se than with lyrically condensed states, moods and situations from the Book of Love: snapshots of desire, betrayal, separation.
Other filmmakers in previous decades achieved immortal flashes of this kind of transpersonal evocation of love – Ingmar Bergman in his early Summer with Monika (1953), Jean-Luc Godard in Bande à part (1964) – but it took Wong’s marriage of this dream to the multi-plot/multi-character form (initially in Days of Being Wild, 1990) to make it a sustained, extended reality.
However, this identification creates a trap for analysts and fans alike, on two levels. First, it encourages reviewers and commentators to speak of the films only as a primer on modern love – the cool detachment, the inability to commit, the serial liaisons, the pangs of nostalgic regret – as if the characters in these films are as real and deep as we (hope we) are, complete with personal histories and destinies extending well beyond the limits of the screen fiction (an illusion that Wong stokes by carrying over some characters from one film to another). Second, and as a consequence of that immersion in characters, it is easy to discuss any Wong film at great length without ever really touching the remarkable intricacy of its formal and stylistic procedures – a tendency that Sylvia Lawson once rightly described as “managing to overlook the facts that films are made up of images and sounds”. (1)
In regards to the narcissistic pleasures of character-projection – spiced with a little obligatory moralising about the supposed neuroses of transient contemporary relationships – the majority of commentaries on Wong’s films simply carry on the standard business of criticism in the narrative arts: they install the imaginary, three-dimensional lives of fictional beings at the top of the aesthetic hierarchy, and proceed to speculate on the inner motivations, intentions and drives that give rise to their dramatic behaviour, finally arriving at some moral evaluation of the balance-sheet of that behaviour. This is roughly what we call humanism in arts criticism and, to a large extent, it deserves the instant bad press it gets in some quarters – because it continues to rule the way that most people learn, practice or absorb the business of criticism on a day-to-day basis: to talk about a film is to talk about its characters (and how well, how realistically or believably, the actors brought them to life). Yet such humanism will only get us so far, and no further, into Wong’s films.
The characters in 2046 are less real people than vivid figures, emblems of certain “forms of being” (to borrow the title of a valuable British Film Institute book by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit) that are rigorously compared: they represent different ways of inhabiting time (past, present or future), of living in the mirror of others or within oneself, of acknowledging or disavowing the lessons of experience.
The elasticity of these emblematic character-figures is best seen in the film’s unique treatment of the theme of ageing. Age is rarely explicitly mentioned, but forms an omnipresent motif. The women cover a large span of years, from Lulu (Carina Lau) down to Jingwen’s pubescent sister. And Mo-wan as he is in the 1960s, embodied by the charismatic Leung, has appeared not only five years previously in In the Mood for Love, but a full decade again before that, in the enigmatic ending (another surprise fold that seems to kick off an entirely different story) of Days of Being Wild. So Leung visibly ages, in reality, from film to film, while his character remains stuck in time: a striking cinematic paradox of the kind that Wong loves to cultivate, and a superb response to the fragile illusion entertained by Mo-wan that things “will never change”.
But what of those images and sounds in 2046? A proper consideration of the soundtrack – not only the inspired collage of musical selections but also the dense sound design of voices, noises and atmospheres which serves, better than any element, to whisk us in and out of the film’s many zones and environments – is beyond the scope of this review, but the image-track can be sampled and approached, at least in screenshot form.
In one of finest texts in the annals of film criticism, Jean-André Fieschi in the early 1970s retrospectively hailed F.W. Murnau’s classic horror film Nosferatu (1922) as marking the moment – another point of no return – at which “the modern cinema was born”, because its “plastic, rhythmic and narrative elements are no longer graduated in importance, but in strict interdependence upon each other”. (2)
Today, Wong Kar-wai is the cinema’s most advanced plastician working outside the hothouse laboratories of the avant-garde. From his first feature, As Tears Go By in 1988, he began experimenting with variations in the speed of the image – although, at the beginning, his stylistic ambition could have been mistaken for the same old, cliché recourse to slow motion for instants of high drama, urban ambience or lyrical death. At the outset of his collaboration with cinematographer Chris Doyle (an Australian expatriate) in films including Chungking Express (1995) and Fallen Angels (1996), this repertoire of technical experiments immediately expanded: colour and light were subject to all manner of tinkering (strobe, sepia, saturation), the camera became radically mobile in Doyle’s hands and, as a post-produced object, the image became fragmented and multiplied, comparing within the one frame the fast-motion of streaking city lights with the slow-motion of a strung-out character.
2046 – during the production of which Wong and Doyle ceased their collaboration, and Kwan Pung-leung and Lai Yiu-fai stepped in – inaugurates a new phase in the director’s mastery of plasticity. The mobile camera has been replaced by largely static compositions, and Wong has evolved an elaborate set of pictorial strategies within this context. Since much of the film is shot in disorienting close-up, heads loom in space, making it often impossible for us to place or reconstruct the precise layout of settings. Vast areas of the frame are regularly blacked out, whether by darkened objects or bodies placed in the foreground, or various kinds of post-production treatments – many shots look like they are have been frozen in the middle of an old-fashioned screen wipe. The co-ordination of colour in costume and decor, handled by Alfred Yau and Wong’s close, regular collaborator William Chang, is taken to new heights of lyrical delirium. The extreme edges of the frame are constantly in use, decentring gestures and events. The human body – especially the face – is subject to subtle deformations that quietly suggest the paintings of Francis Bacon, as in this typical shot/reverse shot volley:
Such literal figuration in the plastic sense allows us to find a way back to the characters as themselves figures – literally pieces of a composition – rather than three-dimensional beings. In Fieschi’s Murnau essay, he notes that “it is as though each character in Nosferatu had his own rhythm of movement, his own personal (and habitual) way of occupying space, and turning his passage into a tangible trace of joy, terror or menace.” (3) Wong, within his own art, applies this principle systematically. Look at how the characters – particularly the women – are each given their own, signature place in the frame to inhabit from one moment and situation to the next, even if it means completely twisting the mise en scène (the staging and positioning of the actors in the set) every which way to accommodate this parti pris:
The relationships between characters are rendered in an equally plastic way. Working closely with his editor (William Chang again), Wong turns 2046 into the endlessly varied drama of a single, central idea: the tearing away of bodies that try, sometimes violently, to make contact. Here, the elaborate shot compositions mesh with the highest powers of montage: few films give such gravity to the separation between bodies inscribed in the interval between a shot and its reverse shot during dialogue exchanges. But it is in the flurries of fragmented detail that this drama of tearing becomes most dramatic: the moments of contact – such as the passing of an object between hands – are like explosions of action, dances around an impossible fusion. And such fumbled moments are always followed by strict rhymes that set the characters back into their own spaces and rhythms, separated by a vast interval, such as in this moment when Su Lizhen (Gong Li) parts from Mo-wan:
Almost inevitably, Wong has been accused of being a filmmaker who, in the worst possible sense, lingers in the past and cannot himself move on: with its abundant references to many of his previous films, 2046 is taken by some as a backward-looking wallow, an anthology of his own mannerisms, nothing new, the work of last year’s man. As in the case of Terrence Malick, the fact that Wong discovers his films in process – exploring, revising, discarding and condensing many characters, plot threads, situations and scenarios along the way – raises suspicion, among those with an unquestioned adherence to industrial standards of professionalism, that he is only ever playing around, hiding the truth that he has nothing to say.
But it is merely the misplaced fixation on old-fashioned plot-theme-character content which leads to a comment like that of HK cinema expert Stephen Teo (author of the otherwise indispensable Wong Kar-wai: Auteur of Time) that 2046 “covers no new ground in style or narrative”. (4) On the contrary, Wong has well and truly reached a point of no return in his career with this magisterial achievement: from now on, he has committed himself to what Jean-Luc Godard (in his Histoire(s) du cinéma) called the “cinematograph”, which is “very precisely, a form that thinks”.
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Sylvia Lawson, “Letters”, Modern Times (August 1992), p. 14.
Jean-André Fieschi, “F.W. Murnau”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema – A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg,
1980), p. 710.
Ibid., p. 708.
4. Stephen Teo, “2046: A Matter of Time, a Labour of Love”, Senses of Cinema, no. 35 (April 2005).