The Depression and Ambiguity of Wong Kar-wai’s Film -------

2046(2004), the latest film of Wong Kar-wai, is scripted and directed by himself and filmed as a loose sequel of In the Mood for Love(2000).It cost Wong five years to finish this film which has brought him several nominations of international awards and also underlines his distinctive film style remarkably.

‘…there is only one reason for leaving for 2046. That is, to look for the lost memories. In 2046, things never change. No one knows if that’s true or not because no one ever comes back.’
---script quoted from the movie “2046”

The film follows the affair between Chow Mo-wan (starred by Leung Chiu-wai) and Su Li-Zhen in 1960s Hong Kong, narrating four individual love stories, including one happening in Chow’s mysterious fiction world. As both the scriptwriter and director, Wong has disorganized and reconstructed the time-space order, avoiding to show the clear cause-effect chain of the story which create the typical ambiguous and depressive feeling for viewers successfully, with the conjunct contribution of characteristic cinematography, editing and sound. This essay will mainly concern about how Wong could create the Depression and Ambiguity of his film with these three elements.

2046 as allegory

As one of the most famous second-wave Hong Kong directors, Wong Kar-wai had developed his distinctive film style through several previous films and 2046, the story written on his own is showing his style ultimately through the creation of extremely depressive atmosphere. With the purpose of create depression, narrow and closed spaces dominate the screen while the techniques of depth of field and image composition are unconventional. Take the first meeting scene of Chow and Su(screenshot1) as an example, almost all the shots are medium close up or close up, focusing on the vexatious facial expression of characters.

Allegory, an aesthetic theory Walter Benjamin mentioned in “The Origin of German Tragic Drama”, plays a very important role in Wong Kar-Wai’s latest film “2046”. Simply the title itself signifies its functions as an allegory as it refers to the last year of Chinese promises to maintain Hong Kong ‘unchanged for 50 years’ after the handover. By drawing an imaginative image of 2046, Wong helps us learn the reason for our alienation for the past and the uncertainty for the future and hence, reconstruct our sense of history and cultural identity. This is exactly the social function of dialectical allegory which Benjamin considered as the most valuable and idealistic form of Modern Art.

Even the light and cards shot are close up ones,and all these close up or medium close up shots are juxtaposed together with the overall extreme deep color and gloomy lighting. All the editing has not give any chance of breath for viewers convey a feeling of suffocation to viewers. The only establishing shot(the third picture) also shows that it is a narrow and closed space the characters has no chance to escape but face up to their tough love. Moreover, the main figure of the shots always be repressed to extreme right or left of the frame, and the quite shallow depth of field blurs all the background visual information while the only light source on the top increases the contrast between foreground and background. In this way, the visual space has been compressed to the narrowest ones and the motivation of viewers is completely controlled by the image. Viewers even could not tell the real position and space where the meeting happens but can only get involved into characters’ complicate emotion. All of the unconventional visual presentation accompanied with continuous raining sound effect and the narrow ambience reverb of footsteps and dialogues even breath creates an extreme depressive atmosphere throughout the film.

Nevertheless, one may think that the movie “2046”concerns nothing more than the romantic love stories of Chow Mo-Wan with the Singapore Su Li-Shen, Bai Ling and Wong Ching Man. In fact, it is difficult to find concrete relationships between the movie and the ‘solemn’ issue concerning the concept of history. Indeed, “2046” is a portmanteau sign in Wong’s movie---not only does it suggest the last year of the Chinese promise to Hong Kong but it also refers to the chamber room where the lovers meet. “2046”, therefore, deals with time and space which are the basic elements of a movie. Hence, my argument here is that the time and space created by “2046” (both the title and the movie) are abstract and even out-of-screen. For example, the chamber room number definitely arouses our memory of Wong’s another movie “In the Mood For Love” while Chow Mo-Wan used to live in a room sharing the same number. A continuum of expanded time and space is therefore created because the fragments of scenes free the boundaries of imagination. The love affairs of Chow with four different women may now be considered his search for the ultimate memories for Su Li-zhen (acted by Maggie Cheung) in the room ‘2046’ and his urge for a similar relationship. While memory is the root of the past and hope is the engine for the future, ‘2046” becomes the base of the history.

Expect for the depression, the feeling of ambiguity is also the key element of Wong’s film work. It is remarkable that there always exist various obstacles foreground and partially block the eyesight of viewers especially In the love story between Wong Jing-wen and her Japanese boyfriend(screenshot2). The special mise-en-scene keeps the distance between audience and the story world not only to show that it is a forbidden love but also underlines the peep motif. When the last picture shows, the audience realize that all the images shown in front of us are actually from Chow’s peeping eyes or from his imagination. It should be ambiguous because we even not sure about the facticity of the story. Nonetheless, the blurred and uncertain visual experience expedite the viewers curiosity and desire for this forbidden love, in this way Wong achieved his goal to create ambiguous feeling.

Moreover, with reference to ‘Author as Producer’, the author’s political rightness should not be reflected through its literary technique but not through its content. As Benjamin suggests in his essay, ‘the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense.’ [1] The literary sense here means that the author should continue developing his literary technique (technik) so as to maintain the ‘function of a work within the literary production relations of its time.’ [2] This concept relies very much on Marx’s historical materialism with a belief that social relations are determined by production relations. To speak in Benjamin’s words, it is the ‘exhibition value’ [3] that decides how influential and revolutionary a work of art would be. The higher the ‘exhibition value’ is the higher potential an art work has to immerse political ideas unconsciously to the superstructure in the organization of production relations. That is to say, the only responsibility of Wong’s movie is to observe and recognize the mutation of its time, like what Chow Mo-Wan does in his own room. (The condition of room 2046 is always kept under surveillance by Chow)

Except for the feeling of peeping, mirror or reflection also plays as a key motif to create the ambiguity throughout the film (screenshot3). Mirrors are set in every space and characters always stare at their own reflections while speaking, laughing or flirting, like watching another’s behavior but not them own. The reflection motif is a metaphor of characters’ complicate inner worlds and also brings viewers the feeling of self-watchfulness. In the Christmas dinner scene(last two pictures) , the camera pans horizontally and the mirror set in foreground creates a special blurring visual effect, which can shows the misty reflection and real figure at the same time and image change with the motivation of camera. Thus an extreme feeling of ambiguity is created and contribute to explain the complex relationship between the two characters, both in the realty and the novel fantasy.

2046 and Benjamin’s modernity

As the most stylish film Wong has ever made, 2046 seems to adopt so much special techniques to remark the depressive feeling and ambiguity. Though the disorganized time-space broadened the distance between audience and story, the ambiguity and depression of Wong’s film still conveys to us successfully and bring us deep consideration of Wong’s Love Foolosophy.

“2046” has revealed Wong’s effort on observing the capitalist late modernity in Hong Kong. His examine resonates Benjamin’s enlightening ideas suggested especially in ‘The Origin of German Tragic Drama’, ‘One Way Street’ and ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire.’

What interests Benjamin most about the capitalist late modernity is the impact of industrially altered environment on the human sensorium. In the age of mechanical reproduction, techniques gained by the ancestors are no longer essential for modern people because machine has replaced its role and hence dilute the importance of our craftsmanship in the production force. Benjamin explains the condition by distinguishing “Erlebnis” from “Erfahrung” while both words are translated as ‘experience’ in English. In his emphatic sense, ‘“Erfahrung” is inseparable from that of memory, the faculty that connects sense perceptions of the present with those of the past and thus enables us to remember both past sufferings and forgotten futures.’ [4] For Benjamin, what modern people gain from life is ‘Erlebnis’---experience of shock that beyond the past and out of our expectation. That is to say, Individual experience is separated from the collective one and our present has nothing to do with the past. Our memories (of experience) are broken into fragments and filled with uncertainties. It seems that the only thing we can ensure is our alienated feeling for our senses, our interrelationship with the society and even our perception towards history and memory.

Inspiring as it may be, Benjamin’s theory about the actuality of human beings is so complicated that it alienated the general public. Nevertheless, Wong has unconsciously put his theory into practices---the impact of the declination of Efahrung is visualized in “2046” to a poetic and romantic extent:

1 The absent response:
In the science-fiction part of the movie, the robot servant performed by Faye Wong gave no answer to Tak (the Japanese traveler performed by Takuya Kimura) every time he asked her to leave with him. The train captain explained to the traveler that her absent response was due to her ebb. When she wanted to cry, it was not until the day after that her tears could fall down. I think this scene is very significant because it alludes to the inability of human beings to grasp themselves entirely. To explain In Benjamin‘s words, Faye’s ‘emotion follows upon the bodily expression’ [5] because she lacked ‘traumatic experience’. Her transcendental cognition was compressed and so her reaction was delayed.

2 Oriental Hotel versus rebellion:
The story 2046 was taken place in Oriental hotel, a chamber where people from different class lived together with little interaction. The nature of their relationship had to be proximate but not reciprocate. Even though Chow Mo-Wan and Bai Ling (Zhang Zi Yi) had developed love affairs in the hotel for a short period of time, they had no idea about each other’s past. Also, whenever the hotel owner turned his music on loudly, something he didn’t want others to know about his family must have happened. If a resident got a secret, he would probably ‘run to a tree, speak it to a tree hole and then cover it with soil so that the secret would be kept unknown forever.’ The chamber drama has successfully enhanced the feeling of alienation.

At the same time, the story was set in Hong Kong at the sixties when the society was suffered from rebellions. Rebellions and economic crisis is a couple that scares away the residents who used to live in Oriental Hotel. That is to say, the more anarchic the outside world is, the voider it is inside the hotel. Indeed, in the movie “2046”, the residents continued their normal way of living in their paradise as if they didn’t belong to the outside world. Even though the hotel owner cared about the rebellion, what he did concern about was its impact on his income but not the stability of the society. By aligning the documentary of the real rebellion in 1966 and 1968 with his provocation of fantasy, Wong has provided us a dramatic contrast that enhances the quality of the scene behind. The distinction between subjectivity and collectivity is spotlighted by the chamber drama.

3 December 24/ 1000 minutes:
A sense of time is vacant in the movie although development of the story sticks tightly to the timeline from 1966 to 1969. Here my point is, throughout the four years in the Oriental Hotel, nothing had changed to the life of Chow Mo-Wan---In December 24 as the day of Hong Kong Su Li-Zhen. In that day of 1966, he met Lulu and found that she lived in room 2046. Then he decided to move into the Oriental Hotel. In 1967’s, he dated with Bai Ling who had moved into room 2046 after Lulu was dead. In 1968’s, he had dinner with Ching Man. Then in 1969’s, he went to Singapore to look for Su Li-zhen. Time, place and the person he met seems to be different but his attempt on projecting the Hong Kong Su Li-zhen on the four ladies remains the same. In other words, it is evident that Wong’s structure of time in the story is not the pastthe present the future but constantly looping. Yet, Chow absolutely had no idea about his looping experience.

A clearer statement is made by the still image of Chow’s holding a pen in his hand, ready to write a word. He was trying to give a more optimistic ending for his story “2047” but after 1000 minutes had passed by, the blank paper was still a blank paper. The ending of “2047” could not be changed.

Spotlighting 2046 (the form of allegory)

In general speaking, Benjamin considers the post-modern function of art a training of perception in the mechanized world. [6] Therefore, he highly appreciates film as the medium of modern art because it presents ‘spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence.’[7] Film distracted the audience’s concentration because of its quick appearance and disappearance of moving images. Thus, unlike viewing paintings, ‘the distracted mass absorbs the work of art’ [8] but not absorbed by it.

Nevertheless, only relying on the nature of film is not enough. In ‘the story teller’, Benjamin suggests that meanings are to be observed from the fragments of experience. Readers have to contemplate, evaluate and reconstruct the meaning of a story so as to grasp the collective’s perception and thus a conclusive idea of our world. Hence, it is the reading process (the training of perception) but not the content that matters. For Benjamin, this is exactly the effect hat a novel provides.

The training of perception is aimed at arousing our ‘unconscious optics’ which tackle the alienation of sense. As I have mentioned before, the alienation of sense is the result of the capitalist late modernity while Benjamin’s attitude is expressed through his research on Baudelaire’s poem and Kafka’s novel. There he found the transformative function of art which can reformulate the distinction between the individual and the collective. Thus, he also found the literary technique of presenting an allegory.

The principle of interruption:
In order to distract the audience, the representation of modern art has to be destructed. For film, that is to break a story into fragments of scene and create visual vibrancy which brings the audience into a condition of shock. Only then it is possible that they innervations are invaded and so they would actively involve in a work of art.

In Wong’s vision world, the principle of interruption is reflected in his montage style of story telling and cutting. It is particular obvious when we interchange the relationship of the agonists in “2046” and Wong’s previous films. (Rule of double take) For instances, the unknown Japanese and Tak (the Japanese traveller in “2047”) are the replacement of Chow Mo Wan. The Singapore Su Li-zhen is the replacement of the Hong Kong Su Li-zhen in “In the Mood for Love”. And Bai Ling is the projection of Mimi in “The Day of being Wild”. As Ackbar Abbas comment, ‘the serial structure of repetition, exchange, and transference seems to have an independent life of its own’. [9] Only if the audience figure out the interrelationship between the agonists then they can really understand what is represented in Wong’s movies.

Abbas also comments that Wong’s visual-comic principle is that the seen is not the known. [10] As in “2046”, there are several scenes taken on the flat roof of Oriental Hotel.---The first time Ching man, the second time Bai Ling, the third time Ching man and Chow Mo-Wan, and the forth time Chow alone. Neither of us knows what the characters were doing on the flat roof. We must observe the unconscious emotional changes which allude to the mutation of the story. As a result, what invades to the audience’s memory is an image of the flat roof, not any conversation or actions taken by any character. This technique is especially significant at the modern age of visual culture.

The principle of dreariness:
The novel of Franz Kafka is dreary. It reminds us of the unfaithfulness of human beings which Benjamin considers obliterated by the history of capitalist society. And the history of unfaithfulness is what Benjamin labels as ‘traumatic experience’ which modern people are lacking of. Thus, Benjamin suggests that modern art has to be filled with dreariness in order to arouse our innervations.

All memories are traces of tears.’ ---script from “2046”

This caution is so heart-breaking that it concludes the tone of “2046” and the theory of Benjamin. It appears after Tak asks how long it takes to leave 2046 and expresses his regret for not knowing whether the woman he loves loves him back or not. He goes to 2046 to look for the lost memories. He leaves 2046 to dilute the traces of tears.

The opposition of scenes also enhances the feeling of dreariness. And the scene that Chow met Lulu again at the night club would be the most significant one. Throughout their conversation, both faces are entrapped to the edge of the screen and appear alone. It is as if the two was not talking to each other. They are separated not only by the curtain but also by the question Lulu asked Chow, “Do I really know you?” Their history is vacant. Their present is full of sadness.

“2046” is filled with disappointment. First of all, there is always no reply for the love cheque ‘would you like to come with me?”. Also, when we sense that Chow has feeling for Ching Man and expect them to develop a long lasting relationship, Ching Man finally decided to go to Japan to look for her boyfriend.

Nevertheless, one thing we have to bare in mind is that the inner feeling of the character is beyond our understanding. It is the alienation from the character that arouses our dreary feeling.

1960 of 2005, 2047 of 1960, 2046 of 2004 (the concept of history)

'History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now (Jetztzeit). Thus to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. ' ---quoted from Benjamin’s “Theses on the philosophy of history” [11]

Benjamin is a historical materialist whose concept of history is anti- universal history (Historicism). For a historical materialist, history of a society is written by the ruling class (the superstructure of the production relations which determine the society relations.) while ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. [12] That is to say, under capitalism, the history of the working class and the proletarian is oppressed and neglected. The next generation have no idea about the traumatic past but the official history of its political tactics as well as the economic views. Like the case in Hong Kong, we are informed that Hong Kong has successfully transformed itself from an industrial city to a financial city over the last decades while it is progressively important around the world. Yet, all these do not bring us a cultural identity, especially after the handover.

Thus, Benjamin suggests the “now” concept, a dialectical and constructive way of understanding history on its own. He claims that we should constantly re-discover the missing past and its meaning to the present because ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ [13] That is to say, by extracting the oppressed truth, we can figure out whether the rule, the social system “still” determines what we are experiencing at the present in the same way. The sooner we identify and overcome the traumatic past, the more possible we can succeed in the struggle against the ruling system in the future.

In “2046”, the now concept is examined in the form of abstract space and time. In fact, “2046” gives us Hong Kong in the sixties viewed from the new century and Hong Kong in the 2047 viewed from the sixties. And this two abstract time expresses indirectly the director’s attitude towards 2046 viewed from the present.

1960’s of 2004: There are many visual details that locate the movie at the sixties of Hong Kong, like the decoration of the chamber and the appearance of the characters. However, Wong never presents us a collective, universal perception of the period of time while all shots are taken in interior spaces. Even the documentary of rebellions is alienated from the movie’s provocation of fantasy. In short, what we can grasp is a nostalgic feeling in a past that is romanticized by the present’s point of view.

2047 of 1960’s: The genre of the science fiction part of the movie is very much of the classic ones, like “The Lost World” in 1960. In fact, “2047” is just an imaginative story written by Chow Mo Wan at the sixties. It is a story in a story. This reveals the director‘s attempt in looking for the future from the past.

2046 of 2004: However, by the time Chow wrote “2047”, he was still unaware of his oppressed unhappiness for the Hong Kong Su Li-zhen. Therefore, he gave a very pessimistic ending to “2047” as Tak still got an empty response for his love declaration after 10, 100 and 1000 hours had passed by. Until Bai Ling asked him to lend her a night, Chow finally figured that there is something that he would never lend. This alludes to his acceptance of his feeling for Su (the traumatic experience which has been oppressed). Then captions appear, “He didn’t turn back. It was as if he’d boarded a very long train, heading for a drowsy future.’ This symbolizes that the millstone around his head was eventually dropped down and he could start to have an optimistic future although it was still full of uncertainties. Indeed, all along the movie, “2046” only represents a room number. Who will move in is still unexpected.

The possibility of redefinition

In “2046”, Wong has asked questions which most Hong Kong people have neglected --- What does ‘being unchanged for 50 years’ really mean to Hong Kong? Does it do any good or harm? What is being unchanged? If the unchanged is the oppressed histories concerning our identity when Hong Kong was still a British colonial city, should we continue to keep the situation on? Have anyone asked why we are so afraid of changing? If it is because of the apprehension to China’s autocracy, why are most of us so apolitical about the Tiananmen affair?

Maybe the real handover has not yet come. The definition of Hong Kong is yet to be ascertained.

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