A train to a strange place in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046
Contextualizing Wong Kar-Wai’s Love Trilogy, Chris Forrester explains how the films are in conversation with Hong Kong’s political atmosphere, the world-building that connects the films and their characters, and more.
Few filmmakers have become so synonymous with a specific kind of lovelorn loneliness as Wong Kar-Wai, the Hong Kong auteur whose parables of yearning and urban melancholia often feel like a genre of their own. Amidst a slew of celebrated classics (Happy Together, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) and lesser known deep cuts (As Tears Go By, Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster) sit three of the director’s finest works, which together comprise his “Love Trilogy,” about the lives before and after a fateful near-romance between neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong: Days of Being Wild (1990), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004).
As in all of his feature films, excepting Ashes of Time, Happy Together, My Blueberry Nights, and The Grandmaster, Hong Kong is the backdrop in all three installments of Wong’s trilogy, and it proves a setting of both moody beauty — has any director since made such poetry of urban nighttime? — and geopolitical significance. As much as these are films about lonely people in search of love that forever eludes them, they also ache with the loneliness of Hong Kong’s political precarity through the ’90s, each film channeling a distinct facet of its dizzying uncertainty.
Hong Kong was born in 1842 as a colony of the British Empire following the island’s ceding by the Qing Empire the year prior. It was, then, a sparsely populated area of farming and fishing villages, but through 156 years of British rule — interrupted briefly by Japanese occupation from 1941-45 during World War II — it grew into the bustling metropolis of nearly 7.5 million people it’s more recognizably known as. Hong Kong expanded significantly during that rule, first to the Kowloon peninsula in 1860 and later to the New Territories (one of the three main regions of Hong Kong, accounting for about 80% of its population), leased almost arbitrarily for 99 years under the assumption that the territory would always reside under British rule. That 99 year lease, which expired in 1997, ultimately marked the handover of Hong Kong from British rule, where it would retain its existing political and economic systems for a 50-year buffer period as a special administrative region under Chinese rule. The result for Hong Kong was thus a period of great uncertainty, both preceding the handover and following it, in anticipation of the five decades’ end and the true beginning of a new political existence.
Su Li-zhen (Mrs. Chan) and Chow Mo-wan long for a connection they can’t have in In the Mood for Love
In In the Mood for Love, one of the great films about romantic and sexual yearning, missed connection and unrequited love, a man and woman meet in a hotel room. Outside of this space, they are neighbors, friends, but here they are something more: comrades in a strange game of consolation and romantic intimacy born of a shared discovery. Their partners are having an affair together. They’ve both noticed it independently — Chow’s (Tony Leung, devastatingly cool and handsome) wife has a handbag much like one Su (Maggie Cheung, an image of singular grace clad in 20 unforgettably beautiful cheongsams) got from her husband, and her husband wears ties exactly like the ones Chow’s wife has gifted him — and together try to re-enact how their partners’ betrayal might have begun. The number of the room in which they meet, and the title of the eventual sequel to the film, is 2046, the year in which Hong Kong’s relative independence as a special administrative region comes to an end.
The deep, swooning feelings and aching, yearning mood of In the Mood for Love are such that it’s easy, even pleasurable, to become swept up in the tortured feelings of its protagonists: might their purposeful union be tinged with its own complicated romance? If they act on those feelings, are they no better than their adulterous spouses? But this film, and indeed much of Wong’s oeuvre, operates on a more sophisticated level of cultural awareness, filtering the lonely uncertainty of an entire political moment — the end of Hong Kong’s existence as a British colony and the dubiousness of its ability to operate harmoniously with Chinese governance — through the romantic torment of its lovelorn protagonists. Much as the anguished lovers of Happy Together represent the angst of Hong Kong and mainland China’s potential incompatibility, so too does the missed connection and eventual nostalgic longing of In the Mood for Love sting with desire for a bygone era.
The film only explicitly contextualizes itself politically near its end, during the years in which fate has separated the two would-be lovers, with footage of French president Charles de Gaulle arriving at Phnom Penh’s airport, roughly denoting the end of French Indochina (an observation of another colonial regime change) and the beginning of the Vietnam War. Thus the lovers’ near-romance becomes anchored in the currents of history, a past yearned for but unreachable, and the film’s ending (at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia) emphasizes its subsumed notions of dislocation and displacement. Even in a necessary moment of emotional purification, Chow is entirely separated from the site of his heartbreak.
Yuddy and Su Li-zhen share a tender moment in Days of Being Wild
Likewise, Days of Being Wild also figures a prototypical Wong Kar-Wai romance as study of dislocation. In that film, about a slew of would-be lovers and their bevy of missed connections, smooth-talking playboy Yuddy learns from his mother figure (Rebecca Pan, who appears again in In the Mood for Love as a different character) that he is adopted, and later that his birth mother lives in the Philippines. Thus the film becomes, implicitly, a study of cultural and personal detachment, where Yuddy’s stunted relationship with the woman who raised him and distance from his birthplace and birth family becomes an echo of the same cultural melancholy that would later animate In the Mood for Love.
Also looming over the film and clarifying its general sense of gloomy, rain-soaked malaise is the passage of time, as emphasized by frequent images of ticking clocks (a motif that reappears in In the Mood for Love and again as intertitles in 2046). The ephemerality of life and love haunt Yuddy as he meanders stuntedly from affair to affair (first with Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-Zhen, the introduction of her character from In the Mood for Love, and later with a cabaret dancer named Mimi) and ultimately to the Philippines in an attempt to reconnect with a home he’s never known and a mother who abandoned him. But time and ticking clocks also feel distinctly weighty in Wong’s cinema when considering its broader connection to the political and cultural atmospheres of ’90s Hong Kong (it’s worth noting here that the 1997 handover deadline was established in 1984 by the Sino-British Joint Declaration). The ticking clock becomes, then, a signifier of not only life’s end, but the end of an entire way of life, to be imposed upon by the political uncertainty of Chinese rule.
Time looms similarly large in 2046, a loose sequel to both In the Mood for Love and Days of Being Wild laced with tinges of science fiction, as imagined by Tony Leung’s Chow, now a heartbroken, womanizing author in the image of Yuddy before him. In his many stories, which punctuate the film and reimagine the lives of its characters in much the same manner as Chow and Mrs. Chan did with their hypothetical re-enactments of infidelity in In the Mood for Love, people in the future journey via a global rail system to a mysterious place called 2046, where nothing ever changes. The relationship between 2046, this fantastical place, and 2046, the year, is never specified, but the train that takes the people of the future there is populated by lovelorn travelers, cybercriminals, and androids perhaps capable of human warmth and emotion, each beautifully realized in some of the most moving and stylish vignettes the director ever put to film.
Faye Wong appears in a fictitious moment of 2046 as an android who may or may not have the capacity for emotion.
One can imagine that for Wong, this vaporously nonspecific 2046 holds a similarly weighted significance as to his character; an escape from the sadness of great change (both political and personal), but also a tool for processing its inevitability. As the film moves episodically through the various trysts and romances that define Chow’s life through the ’60s, echoes of real-world pains crop up in his stories – a passage of cold through sectors of train track that mirror a period of winter loneliness in his life, the stabbing of a woman in his apartment building (Mimi, returning from Days of Being Wild, a woman who may or may not be able to love the man who desires her, thus literalizing the notion of fiction as a means of processing, twisting and reimagining reality). In the ways that it draws on both its two narrative predecessors, as well as the highlights of Wong’s entire canon (Faye Wong makes an appearance that recalls Chungking Express; a brief shootout in the future echoes Fallen Angels; its forlorn-lovers-on-a-journey-to-a-place-they-might-never-reach narrative parallels Happy Together’s; Gong Li’s presence as a cold, assertive mystery woman even ties back to his short The Hand, conceived for the omnibus film Eros), 2046 feels like a sort of mission statement from the filmmaker: a reflection on the capacity of his art to subsume real-world aches into imagined-but-no-less-potent bouts of insatiable yearning and romantic melancholy, a gently wry sendup of the artist’s toils and ego, a reckoning with a looming, inevitable future.
Still, as the union of two characters otherwise separated by time and circumstance, the centerpiece of the trilogy and one of the cinema’s great portraits of missed connection, In the Mood for Love looms large. It seems recalled faintly in nearly every scene of 2046 — a ghost felt but never glimpsed — and anticipated in the lonely, rain-soaked nights and glowing streetlights of Days of Being Wild. And through all of those moments seem to reverberate its final intertitles:
That era has passed.
Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.
He remembers those vanished years.
As though looking through a dusty windowpane,
the past is something he could see, but not touch.
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
IU Cinema presents Wong Kar-Wai’s Love Trilogy as part of the Michael A. McRobbie’s Choice film series, a program established in 2017 to celebrate the President Emeritus and IU Chancellor’s affinity for cinema and programmed each semester in perpetuity by McRobbie himself. The last film in the series, 2046, will be screened on November 17.
IU Cinema previously screened select films by Wong Kar-Wai virtually in 2020 as part of the filmmaker’s touring World of Wong Kar-Wai retrospective.