It's the third film in Kar Wai Wong's very loose trilogy with Days of Being Wild
and In the Mood for Love
. It looks ravishing, it premiered at Cannes and it appeared in many critics' Best of the Year lists. Personally though it bored me and I wouldn't suggest wasting your time on it.
Firstly, the story. This might take a while, because plotting isn't a big concern of Kar Wai Wong's.
1. Days of Being Wild
is set in Hong Kong and the Philippines in 1960 and stars Leslie Cheung as a near-psychopath who treats women so badly that you start thinking badly of them too for putting up with him. One of the women he hurts is Maggie Cheung. The story appears to be about rejection, the failure of all romance and the inevitability of unhappy endings.
2. In the Mood for Love
brings back Maggie Cheung for a haunting, unconsummated romance with Tony Leung that, yes, ends up falling apart for no particularly good reason except that people are inherently rubbish. It's also the only one of the trilogy that I kind of like.
3. This film turns Tony Leung into a cock. I liked him previously and of course he's still an excellent actor, but here his character is almost turning into Leslie Cheung in the first film. It's not quite that bad though, because he's not evil. He's often kind and nice. You can see that he's weatherbeaten and he'd be a charming, loyal friend if you can just avoid the mistake of sleeping with him, but he's reacted to his disappointments by becoming a womaniser who regards his sex partners as disposable. Everything he said and did with Ziyi Zhang made me hate him, from their introduction where he's being a creep to his well-spoken brutality later when it's clear that Zhang's falling for him. After they've had sex, he tries to pay her. She makes a joke of it, but even so.
Leung plays the character excellently, though. He's not meant to be likeable and there's great texture and depth to his performance. Roger Ebert's review calls him Kar Wai Wong's Bogart, which is a simile so perfect that I've just stolen it. Furthermore Leung's a perfect gentlemen to many characters in the movie, which partly redeems him. He's a rich, flawed, very human and all too believable lead character... but I didn't like him and I didn't care about what he might or might not choose to do next. You couldn't call him loathsome, unlike Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild
, but my level of emotional engagement was zero. I nearly started surfing the internet and reading emails to give me something to do while I was meant to be watching the movie.
That's only some of the film, though. It's a rather jumbled piece, with bits and pieces sticking out of the story in all directions. Kar Wai Wong took four years to make it, although some of that delay is due to the 2003 SARS epidemic, and premiered it at Cannes late and incomplete. The film reels were straight from the laboratory. After its premiere, Wong then took the film home again and went back to editing it. Can you say "messy"? Yes, it's a beautifully made and massively prestigious art film in which the storyline is the least important feature, but even so I suspect it just never gelled. It's always the stuff that's not working that gives you the most difficulty when you're writing, for instance. When you've hit a rich seam, it flows out. Anyway, other threads (presented in non-chronological order, both here and in the film) include:
(a) a science-fiction story set in the year 2046, which is being written by Tony Leung's character and yet is also being realised on-screen in the film. Takuya Kimura is its main character and he's speaking Japanese. This involves yet more unfulfilled romantic yearnings, this time involving Kimura's relationships with androids, and it stars characters from the rest of the film in other roles. (2046 is usually just a hotel room number in this trilogy, although in real life it's also the expiry date of Britain's fifty-year agreement with China to allow Hong Kong some administrative independence.)
(b) Other characters return (e.g. Carina Lau), although they're not going to get a happy ending this time either.
(c) Faye Wong is in love with a Japanese man (Kimura), but her father hates the Japanese and won't hear of it. She befriends Leung and we get another "maybe sort of might have been".
...and others, I think. To be honest, I can't really be bothered to work any harder at teasing out the strands. After all, they weren't gripping me much at the time.
What's best about the film is the women. Kar Wai Wong yet again has a powerful cast and he's given all of his women haunting scenes to play and a loving camera to play them to. They're all every bit as excellent as Leung, who's almost a kind of template or framework for these other women's stories. That's not true, obviously, since the film's much more about what nearly happened but didn't. Thus Leung is, despite appearances, indispensable. Take all the men out of the picture and you'd be left with no regrets, pain or wasted opportunities. (In this film, that's not an exaggeration, but simply true.)
It's also, sort of, a stealth Christmas movie. We keep visiting different 24 Decembers, although of course this doesn't mean so much in Hong Kong.
Did I like the film? Hell, no. Admittedly I didn't hate it as much as Days of Being Wild
, but I had almost no emotional involvement and I'd have stood up and cheered had Ziyi Zhang pushed Tony Leung out of a window. It's obviously a wonderful artistic achievement, but I also don't think it works. Admire the cinematography. Be impressed by some of the finest actors in Asia getting their teeth into much subtler, richer material than anyone usually gets. I can at least understand the rapturous praise from many (but not all) quarters, but I'm afraid on this occasion I won't be joining in. I'll be surprised if I ever find myself watching any more Kar Wai Wong, talented though he is.
"Most of her affairs ended badly, but she didn't mind. She liked sad endings."