Love in exile: A Review of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046

(Spoilers Ahead)

It is 1964 Hong Kong. While social unrest simmers in the street, journalist Chow Mowan (Tony Leung) is writing a series of stories set in a future time where the whole world is interconnected by a single train system. People fight to get to 2046, a place where they can recover their lost memories. However, no one can tell whether this really exists, as no one has returned yet – except for one.

Mowan gets his characters and situations from real life. The man who returns is based on the Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura) of Jing Wen (Faye Wong), his landlord’s daughter. Jing Wen herself appears in the story as the android the man falls in love with. Another android is stabbed by a jealous passenger; similarly, a prostitute named Mimi (Carina Lau), whom Mowan knows from his time in Singapore, is found bloodied in her hotel room after a violent quarrel with her boyfriend. The hotel room is numbered 2046.

When Mimi moves out of the hotel, Mowan offers to take her place in room 2046. But the landlord refuses on account of redecorating the room which was left in disarray after the night of the bloody fight. Mowan then makes do with the room next door, room 2047.

This hotel is not at all the immaculately furnished place with a chandelier in the lobby. The corridors are claustrophobic-narrow, the walls painted an anemic shade of green and stained with rainwater all over.   It is nothing what anyone would expect a dandy like Mowan would choose to live in. Besides the cheap rent that a struggling-starving writer cannot let pass, the number 2046 is significant to Mowan. It is the same number of the hotel room where he and a former love would have their secret meetings.

Chow Mowan continues his decadent life, bringing home prostitutes from the club and having sex that is loud enough to wake the people next door in the morning. He gets involved with a number of women, but the relationships never grew; most of them he keeps for the sex and nothing more. After having sex, he casually hands Bai Ling, the coquettish prostitute who has been living in room 2046, a bill, which, he says, is his payment for her torn dress. The gesture crushes Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) who was thinking all along that their relationship is more than prostitute-client.  She carries on her relationship, keeping the money he pays her in a tin box, until Bai Ling, frustrated with Mowan, moves out of the hotel, walks out of Mowan’s life.  They meet again later in the film, when she asks him to become her guarantor to the recruiter at a night club in Singapore.

The following summer, Mowan becomes involved with Jing Wen, who is then convalescing from a nervous breakdown after her father forced her to break up with his Japanese boyfriend. Unlike his relationship with Bai Ling, what Mowan had with Jing Wen was more of an intellectual companionship, Jing Wen eventually becoming his ghostwriter for martial arts stories. It is also him who pushes Jing Wen to resume her relationship with her boyfriend. They hit on a plan: the boyfriend would address his letters to Mowan; Mowan, in turn,  would pass the letters to  Jing Wen. Mowan also finds Jing Wen a job as a coat attendant at the club. In a touching scene, he brings her to his office on Christmas Day and lets her use the telephone to call long-distance her boyfriend. “I felt like Santa Claus,” Mowan says. The landlord eventually changes his tune about his daughter’s relationship, letting Jing Wen marry her boyfriend.

Mowan translates Jing Wen’s story as a love between a train passenger and an android attendant. This man turns out to be the only one to return from the mysterious place called 2046. While in transit, he falls in love with one of the android, but unlike its real-life model, the story does not end in a happy note. The man asks her to leave with him. The attendant does not answer, leaving the man broken-hearted.

The story becomes more about himself than about Jing Wen and her boyfriend, Mowan says. Earlier, shortly before he leaves Singapore for Hong Kong, he meets a mysterious woman at the gambling house, a professional gambler who keeps her left hand covered with a black glove. She helps him recoup his losses, playing for Mowan and taking commissions from every win made. He falls in love with her and, like the man in the train, asks her to leave with him. She rejects her offer, saying he doesn’t know anything about her. Before they part, Mowan tells her, when you’ve finally freed yourself from your past, look for me. The woman’s name, played by Gong Li, was Su Lizhen, which is also the name of the woman he first fell in love with, the lover whom he rendezvous with at the room 2046 –  the story that was portrayed in another, earlier film by Wong Kar Wai, In the Mood for Love.

The film ends with a dejected Mowan in a taxi.

I am ambivalent about this film. On one hand, there are lots to love about it. The production design and cinematographer are able to evoke a tangy emotional atmosphere. The hotel, a Chinese Grey Garden, with Chow Mowan living in it – trapped in it – is his  emotional turmoil made physical. Hotel rooms are often cluttered, cramped and dimly lit, but the production designer managed to make them look beautiful. The ubiquitous mirrors accentuates the self-examining nature of the protagonist. They also create an illusion of holes carved into walls, calling to mind their counterparts in the characters’ lives. Some scenes shot as reflections from glossy surfaces lend a surreal feel. The glaring electric lights, among Wong Kar Wai’s favorite visual motif, renders whole story world in perpetual nightime, the dark night of the soul – indeed, the palpably daytime scenes were few and far in between.

The episodes, each marked either by the presence of Mowan’s woman at the moment or the shift from 1960s Hong Kong to the futuristic world of 2046, slides into the next seamlessly.  Titillating character quirks abound, such as Jing Wen talking to herself, practicing her Japanese and Su Lizhen’s gloved hand. The main settings – the hotel and the train, both places of transient stays  –  articulates the ephemerality of the relationships depicted in the film, which could also be said of relationships in contemporary times.

Tony Leung  brings to life his character with aplomb, skillfully alternating between the easy-going seducer to the aimless, tormented lover of someone long-lost.  On the other hand, each of the big-name supporting cast were given his/her own shining moments.

But contemporary audiences may find Wong Kar Wai’s treatment of failed relationships here a little too naïve. I find it unconvincing that a man of Chow Mowan’s age would stay stranded that long. We never hear him making plans either about a future family life or his writing career. Two-hours of self-pity could also get tiring. Moments of high emotions, such as his confrontation scenes with Su Lizhen and Bai Ling, melt down to cheese and are too cloying to watch; Wong Kar Wai could have used some restraint. The sorrowful tone has been established from the start so such emotional explosions come across as overkill.

All in all, 2046, with its sumptuous visuals, familiar subject, and popular actors, would delight both mainstream and arthouse moviegoers.



When the Refuge becomes a Trap: A Review of Whispers of the Heart

Shizuku Tsukushima, the teenage heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1995 film Whispers of the Heart, is the typical artist-type youth. Prone to daydreaming, she would rather read the summer away with fairy tales. Her elder sister Shiho nags her to help around the house, and, if she knows what’s good for her, to study for the high school entrance exams.

Then she meets Seiji, her good-looking and enigmatic schoolmate who is aspiring to be a violin craftsman. Seiji brings Shizuku one day to his workshop, a room under the chalet antique shop which Shizuku had earlier stumbled upon, where he shows her the violin he was working on. The encounter inspires Shizuku to have her own project as well.  Soon, the lazy bum blooms into a writing fiend furiously working on her chosen project – the draft of her first novel.

Shizuku works on her novel night after night, determined to finish the draft in three weeks’ time, before Seiji leaves for Italy to become an apprentice of a violin maker.  Wrapped up in work, she eventually neglects her studies, causing her grades to plummet. This prompts another nagging from her elder sister and a hear-to-heart talk with her mother and father. Shizuku refuses to reveal to her parents her project but they agree to let Shizuku finish it, whatever it is. “Not everybody needs to follow the same path,” her librarian father says, voicing a rather deviant sentiment against a backdrop of  a culture known for its groupist mentality. “It’s never easy when you do things different from everyone else. If things don’t go well you only have yourself to blame.”

Singing at the workshop: One of the many set pieces in the film

The path is a recurring leitmotif in the film. Many of the scenes here are the pensive Shizuku walking down the roads of Tama Hills in Tokyo, which was realistically rendered in watercolor (Hayao Miyazaki was known for his adamant refusal of the use of computer graphics in his films. Whispers of the Heart is probably this last purely hand-drawn project, as Studio Ghibli started incorporating computer-aided animation in the 1997 film, the period epic fantasy Princess Mononoke).  Shizuku is introduced to viewers leaving a convenience store and making her way to her family’s condominium. Later, another path scene brings to life what her father is saying about not following the same path as everyone else: Instead of going straight away to the library where his father works to bring him his lunch, Shizuku chases the mysterious cat Muta, squeezing herself through narrow passages between houses, and eventually stumbles upon Mr Nishi’s antique shop, where she first sees The Baron and which turns out to be Seiji’s workshop as well. The chosen theme song, Country Roads, also utilizes the imagery of path.  Shizuku’s inner conflict itself can also be phrased as finding direction in her life.

This is not the first time that Miyazaki is tackling the theme of the imagination as a refuge from harsh reality.  In the 1988 work My Neighbor Totoro, Sasuki and Mei’s flying adventures with a blue-furred giant rodent and its two offsprings keeps them from worrying about their sick, hospital-confined mother. Whispers of the Heart, however, is a more cynical, sometimes chastising take on the theme, depicting what staying too long in the realm of the imagination can do to one’s mundane life.  Her writing project is, of course , Shizuku’s way of knowing whether she has any talent, as well as a coping mechanism against the demands of school life, a Japanese one at that, which is notorious for its punishing workload. As Shizuku surfs the wind with The Baron, her grades also come crashing down. The refuge can sometimes turn into a trap. Shizuku also suffers through bouts of self-doubt, feeling that she cannot stand at par with Seiji, so she can never be worthy of his attention –  an angle on romantic relationships that is seldom touched on in run-of -the mill romance movies.

Hyper-detailed visuals coupled with rich insights on youth and the visceral need to create, Whispers of the Heart is coming-of-age film to remember by.

Personal Experiences, Social Issues

My Christmas Wishlist

1. November has started and before we knew it, it is Christmas already. Christmas, in a Christian and capitalist society like the Philippines, is one of the most anticipated holidays – if not the most anticipated – of the year.  So TV newscasts, for the whole year the monger of stories about politicians bickering over issues of National Interest and the networks’ contract stars falling in and out of Love, have also appointed themselves as purveyor of Christmas gift ideas, providing Really Useful Information on where to buy the cheapest China-made toys to give our children – Christmas, after all, is for children, right? –  and trinkets to decorate our homes with.

2. Many people in my Facebook network – also known as “friends” – have also started doing some purveying of gift ideas themselves in the form of Christmas wish lists. These so-called wishlists are lists of items which the list writer would really love to receive on Christmas. Each item often comes with a picture and a concise definition similar to those in an Avon catalog,  the items ranging from a Maybelline lipstick to a Nikon digital camera. So if someone is thinking of giving you a gift this Christmas, he or she need not go to so much trouble asking your friends for information in secret. He or she only has to see that list on your Facebook account. Come to think of it, a wishlist saves peoples’ time, so you are even doing your possible gift-givers a favor.

3. Moreover, it saves you, the list writer and eventual gift-receiver, the disappointment of unwrapping yet another Good Morning face towel, the 127th since the office Christmas party.

4. There is something unsettling with this. I find wish lists a little too functional. It strips the practice of gift-giving of its emotional context, reducing it into nothing more than an act of exchange of objects among people.  And much of what we do gains value because of the emotional context within which this act is carried out.

5. I have always believed that the charm of a gift lies on the knowledge that it was given to you despite you not asking for it. If you ask for it or pester people for it, it becomes something else. Perhaps a reward, a payment, or  a bribe. But not a gift.

6.  When I was younger, on school Christmas parties, our teachers would require everyone in the class to bring in gifts, to be raffled off later. Not a few children went home disheartened, having received a Good Morning face towel, a comb, a water bottle, or anything as functional and that is not a toy.  Even then, I would stress myself out lamenting silently the forcedness and fakeness of this classroom gift exchange.

7. This, along with telling children to put on their best selves the whole year so they could expect a gift from Santa Claus on Christmas, though well-meaning, has unintended ethically unsavory effects. It reinforces the materialistic value system of a hyper-consumerist society. It means that you become happy by possessing things, rather than nurturing relationships.

8.  Because Christmas is originally a Christian ritual, let me get an example from Christian mythology. Christians believe that before Jesus, humanity was so fucked up that they are better off as kindling for the fires of hell, whatever that is. Yet God, taking a cue from Willie Revillame, was so generous that he gave them a savior still – who was no less than his son, his only begotten son at that.  And that act of godly generosity is what is supposedly celebrated when people give gifts at Christmas.

9. Perhaps gift-giving is simply that, an exchange of objects among people, nothing more. You give gifts to your parents, the people who fed and clothed you, the first people to tell the lie about you being handsome and talented. You give gifts to your lover for the sex and the respite from the butt-of-jokes status of being single. But let’s pretend. Let’s pretend we don’t have an inkling on what the persons we sit next to or sleep beside with want this Christmas, but we don’t ask them upfront, so we instead turn to their other friends for that precious information, cautioning them all the while not to tell anything about it to our beloved. Let’s pretend that we, as the beloved now, never got wind of our lover’s info-fishing expedition, and at Christmas, when they finally hand us the Gift, we remove the pretty glossy paper with poinsettia prints ever so slowly, savoring each delicious second of anticipation. Let’s pretend that we give and receive gifts out of that beautiful feeling that wells from some mysterious place within us, otherwise called love.

10. Having said all these, I am now bracing myself for the sight of an empty stocking on Christmas morning.