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Proving it

Wong Kar-Wai lives up to the hype

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One January evening in the mid-'90s when Quentin Tarantino was at the peak of his Pulp Fiction fame, I happened to enter the annual banquet of the New York Film Critics Circle alongside him. While Tarantino has an impassive great-man visage that he wears when surrounded by paparazzi and admirers, it abruptly changed as we reached the hall's entrance and encountered the event's publicist, a Chinese-American who whispered something about having "the tapes" he'd promised.

Tarantino's face lit up like a kid at Christmas, the Great Director suddenly reverting to the fanboy who'd gotten his start as a videostore clerk in Manhattan Beach, Calif. And it was hardly a surprise to overhear that the tapes in question, just arrived from Hong Kong, were films by Wong Kar-Wai.

At that time, Wong was a cult figure generating lots of buzz on the festival circuit. In the years since, though he has climbed the ladder to become a solidly established figure on the international art-house circuit, his following has retained its cult-like devotion. The paradox now facing his admirers--Tarantino included, no doubt--recalls those young rock fans who want their favorite band to become world-famous yet simultaneously remain their own personal secret.

I've never been a member of the fan club myself. The first Wong film I encountered, Chungking Express (1994), was a giddy, mannered exercise in style that ultimately felt as empty as it was flashy (it also contained perhaps the most annoying use of pop music in film history, the bludgeoning repetition of snippets from the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreamin'"). When I asked critical admirers of the film what they liked about it, a common reply was, "It's like the French New Wave!"

That's an understandable reaction if you equate the New Wave only with showy self-indulgence, youthful insouciance and breathless stylistic impetuosity. I seem to recall, though, that Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and company all had something to say beyond "Behold my swooping camera movements, pretty actors and unabashed idiosyncrasy."

Though occasionally impressed by moments of brilliance in films like Ashes of Time (Wong's one, very oddball foray into the martial-arts field, 1994) and Happy Together (1997), I was mostly annoyed and bored by the mannerism that glazed most of his work. In any case, I felt I had a settled opinion of Wong: He was Asia's most overrated art-house export.

I'm happy to report, though, that recent developments have rendered that opinion unsettled. Wong's 2000 breakthrough In the Mood for Love and his new feature 2046 (along with his stand-out contribution to the recent omnibus film Eros) signal a welcome new maturity in his work, a deepening of his vision that is not in any sense abandonment of its essentials. Wong still may not be to all tastes, in other words, but he's showing signs of becoming a genuine heavyweight.

2046 in some senses serves as a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but I should stress that anyone seeing the new film without having seen the earlier one is at no disadvantage. They are free-standing works, though the connections between them enrich the meanings of each.

In the Mood for Love opened in the Hong Kong of 1962 when the hard-working Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and his wife moved into an apartment next to one occupied by Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and her husband. With their spouses often away (they're never seen in the film), the two neighbors began an oblique flirtation that, though never consummated (or, perhaps, because it wasn't), matured into a deep, disorienting passion, one premised on an odd sort of artistic affinity. Eager to try his hand at writing martial-arts stories, and convinced that Mrs. Chan was a very effective muse, Mr. Chow rented a room where they could meet, away from their neighbors' prying eyes; the room's number was 2046.

2046 begins in 1966, sometime after the almost-lovers have gone their separate ways. Mr. Chow comes to the Hotel Orient hoping to rent room 2046, where a woman he was involved with had been living. But because the woman has recently died there and the room hasn't been cleaned up, the landlord invites him to move into room 2047. The number 2046 also has another significance: it's the year visited by the hero of a sci-fi story Mr. Chow is writing, and we occasionally see Blade Runner-like snatches of that futuristic tale, which is suffused with a peculiar melancholy.

While In the Mood for Love was centered on Mr. Chow's unrequited yen for Mrs. Chan, 2046 glancingly follows the writer, who's now more worldly-wise and jaded, through three relationships--two carnal, one platonic.

With the beautiful hooker Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), he's at first a smiling seducer and later something of a cold-hearted cad; where she at first jokingly charges him a tiny fee per assignation, he ends up charging her. In Jing Wen (Faye Wong), his landlord's daughter, Mr. Chow finds a new muse of sorts. While he helps her receive mail from her Japanese boyfriend, she not only helps him with his fiction but takes up writing herself and threatens to surpass her master. (Jing Wen also appears as an android in the sci-fi tale.) And the enigmatic woman in black, Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li), a denizen of gambling parlors, attracts Mr. Chow not only with her sexual prowess but by the odd fact that her given name is the same as the now long-gone Mrs. Chan's.

What are these two films about? Given that Wong is sometimes charged with making films that are about nothing besides his undeniable visual facility, that's a necessary question. But this time, it seems to me, there's a definite answer: They're about the melancholy of desire. And in that sense, they're a fascinatingly matched pair. Where In the Mood for Love limns the melancholy of unfulfilled desire, 2046 gives us the melancholy of satiated passions. And while the former is, of course, more sublimely, achingly romantic, the latter bristles with the messiness and chill of adult disillusionment. In another age, these movies might have been called songs of innocence and songs of experience.

But, given who their director is, they can't be adequately described by reference to their subjects and themes alone. As is the case with Tarantino, Wong's creations aren't so much movies as movie-movies; hot-house enterprises that take place less in the real world than in the hyper-referential screening room of his imagination.

In a Chinese context, that makes him doubly unusual. Unlike other Hong Kong filmmakers who've gained the world's notice, he has almost entirely avoided the confines of genre filmmaking. Or rather, he's taken elements from certain Hong Kong genres (the pop youth film, femme-centric melodramas), mulched them together with a number of overseas influences, and come up with his own genre: the Wong Kong art film. And where Taiwan's Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien and mainland China's Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have appealed to Western festival audiences by formulating styles that are self-consciously "Chinese," Wong has unapologetically borrowed many of his art-film moves from the Euro-modernist classics.

In these two recent movies, the film and filmmakers cited abound like footnotes. You can find traces of Godard (A Woman Is a Woman), Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour), Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), Fellini (La Dolce Vita) and so on and so forth. Sometimes, the debts are so pronounced as to be almost disconcerting. From beginning to end, In the Mood for Love is rife with the design motifs and camera movements of Bertolucci's The Conformist. And in 2046, Wong actually employs certain of composer Peer Raben's famous melodies from Fassbinder films.

Of course, such borrowings don't make Wong's films any less Chinese than Kurosawa's imitation of American westerns made his samurai films un-Japanese. On the contrary, they appropriately accord with Hong Kong's status as a hybrid culture, a global crossroads where East meets West. And though Wong's stories often seem to transpire entirely inside movie studios that might as well be in Burbank, In the Mood for Love and 2046, with their recurrent references to Singapore and Japan and Phnom Penh, has a welcome air of actual Asian culture seeping in at the edges.

In both films, there are brief glimpses of the social turmoil that rocked Hong Kong in the '60s. And even the title of the newer film encloses a spiky geopolitical significance: When mainland China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, it pledged not to implement certain changes in the former crown colony for 50 years. Thus 2046 is not only a room with heavy sensual associations, or the locale of a sci-fi story. It's also the symbolic last year of the "old" (i.e., present) Hong Kong. In that one detail, Wong weds personal melancholy to genuine social and cultural unease.

Most critics have found 2046 a less satisfying film than In the Mood for Love, and it's not hard to see why. The earlier film--Wong's one unqualified masterpiece to date by almost everyone's reckoning--is, especially by his own rather dizzing standards, extremely focused both dramatically and stylistically. 2046 by contrast is bigger, somewhat messier and less pristinely shaped. (When Wong showed an early cut of the film at Cannes in 2004, many viewers found it incomprehensible--further proof of the extent to which his films are created in the editing room.)

Yet both films have a passion, a maturity and a sense of connectedness that distinguish them from Wong's earlier, more solipsistic and show-offy work. Dazzling individually and even more impressive when considered together, they suggest the emergence of an artist fully in charge of his medium. Indeed, they've lured me dangerously close to joining the fan club.

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