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In Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s genre-bending science fiction-romance drama, visual splendor and thematic complexity vie for the viewer’s attention as drop dead gorgeous but heartless gynoid women, the revival of memory as a fool’s errand, and the manifold consequences of heartbreak coalesce to form an interconnected but tightly structured set of vignettes. A master at the height of his powers, Wong Kar-wai in the culmination of his trilogy examines a poetics of melancholia with his attunement to the configuration of space and time in the parallel universe of 2046. Through an explosion of color and a tumultuous series of affairs, the film’s ultimate message about belatedness is made out to be one as intense as it is emotional, its cinematic lyricism sending us on our own journey to reconcile with our lost past.
Tony Leung plays Chow Mo-wan, who is writing a novel, 2047, for himself as he grieves his last failed love, whom he had considered the love of his life. Maggie Cheung, for those who care to see the thematically connected triptych in order, stars alongside him in the previous film in the series, In the Mood for Love. A delightful Faye Wong, Hong Kong Cantopop icon turned multilingual actress and singing sensation, known primarily for her cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” in the U.S., takes on the part of Leung’s landlord’s daughter, Wang Jing-wen. Jing-wen lives next door and gives him a stack of her nascent writings to read. Smiling as he recognizes her talent, Mr. Chow tells her that she might just put him out of work. They begin to collaborate on a project together, writing their own romance as they spend more and more time together, whether in taking cigarette breaks together on the roof or tossing out story ideas indoors while paging through old martial arts novels, sitting side by side.
The scenario feels familiar, like a cut scene from my own life that has passed, and it is this particular quality of temporal dislocation, of a heady nostalgia that captivates precisely because of its ubiquitous nature, that marks the melancholy poetics of the film. In a sense, melancholia arises due to mourning, the struggle between the dead and the living for influence over lived experience; in the case of 2046’s story arc, both Mr. Chow and Jing-wen give representation to characters who are negotiating their own fundamental incoherence after a figurative death, an unconsoled loss—Mr. Chow’s the loss of Su Li-zhen, his once-beloved, and Jing-wen’s, her Japanese boyfriend whom her father wholly rejects.
Those experiencing mourning dissociate the one they are grieving from their physical body, invoking a rupture in their hold over reality as they lose agency of their experience of their lost love. For Jing-wen, her boyfriend’s memory is sudden and irrepressible; she speaks to herself in her room in Japanese as though he is still there in front of her, which Chow hears through the walls, piquing his curiosity.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chow’s novel becomes the locus for his sublimated desires, and as we are given to see in the movie, it is all-consuming, containing all of his unshed tears and secrets. Only when Jing-wen, whom he helps write to her boyfriend in Japan on the sly, leaves to join her lover does he realize the depth of his feeling for her. His love for her has helped him along the process of healing from his failed relationship with Li-zhen. By then, however, it is too late to be with Jing-wen, and she writes to him from the future, saying that she liked his novel but its ending was much too sad, and could he please change it for her?
The ramifications of belatedness, or the state of being “detained beyond the usual time, coming or staying too late; out of date, behind date” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), are far-reaching, and Wong Kar-wai’s exploration of grieving the end of a relationship demonstrates the way in which, during mourning, the dead return to structure the identities of those bound to their memory. Figurative death attains a generative power as those left behind reorient their existences around such sites of melancholia until they recuperate and fully experience the sadness that accompanies incomprehensible loss.
The space of 2046 is the space that Li-zhen, the Japanese boyfriend, and later Jing-wen herself occupy. “Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention, they want to recapture lost memories,” he writes. “Because in 2046 nothing ever changes. But nobody knows if that is true or not because no-one has ever come back.” Like one’s college years or childhood, past relationships are easy to romanticize, and it is a mystery whether everyone feels this way about the past as it intersects with the future. We can move forward as time unceasingly skips ahead. Is it possible for us to move backwards? Tune in to the next installment of “Chinese Cinema of Belated Space and Time” to find out.