Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Wong Kar-wai’s luxurious 2046 and Ingmar Bergman’s astringent Saraband are very different experiences, yet they have some things in common. Both are tales of love and regret, and both are rooted in the same historical period, when Bergman was a star and Wong a child. Yet the two films’ closest link is the singularity of their respective visions: Neither could be mistaken for the work of anyone else.
Since his second feature, 1990’s Days of Being Wild, Wong has been notorious for his method: He begins without a finished script, shoots several movies’ worth of footage, and in the editing room finally assembles something that barely resembles the description he offered before he began. Increasingly, the writer-director’s films look like episodes in one huge, ongoing romantic epic. This is particularly true of 2046, which plays like a series of addenda and extrapolations to its predecessor, In the Mood for Love. Yet the result is unexpectedly coherent. All the parts fit together, although you probably have to be a Wong devotee to understand just how, and the film’s narrative unity actually doesn’t matter that much. Storytelling has never been as central to Wong’s style as atmosphere, and this gorgeous film is the culmination of that approach.
Careful observers may remember that 2046 is the number of the hotel room where In the Mood for Love’s Chow (Tony Leung) is visited by the married object of his long-repressed passion (Maggie Cheung). Before that, however, it was the number that represents the end of Hong Kong: the year when China’s promise of relative independence for the former British colony expires. Wong once said that Hong Kong’s political future would be a major theme of 2046, but it isn’t. Tomorrow is instead represented by moments from a science-fiction story written by Chow, who has abandoned journalism for womanizing, gambling, and tossing off occasional pulp novels to pay the bills. The most direct reference to Hong Kong in 2046 is quite indirect: Amid the chatter of overlapping voices that accompanies the closing credit, a woman—Margaret Thatcher, presumably—can be heard announcing that Hong Kong’s system will last for 50 years. Perhaps Wong will make a film about that sometime before 2046.
Probably not, although it’s hard to imagine what could follow 2046. The movie reiterates, ritualizes, and even fetishizes the romantic longing—for lost love and for the lost 1960s—of Wong’s previous films, in a way that seems impossible to top. Cheung flickers briefly and enigmatically through the film, but the central character is Leung’s Chow, transformed from the upright fellow of In the Mood for Love into an easygoing rogue, perhaps the character he would have played in the never-made sequel to Days of Being Wild. Returning to the riot-torn Hong Kong of 1966 after working in Singapore, he meets Lulu/Mimi (Carina Lau), a character from Days of Being Wild, who lives in room 2046 at the Oriental Hotel. Chow moves into 2047, and Lulu is replaced next door by Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), an exquisite prostitute with whom Chow has an affair that she takes more seriously than he does. Chow also has relationships of various sorts with girlish Wang Jing Wen (Chungking Express’s Faye Wong) and jaded Su Li Zhen (Gong Li, the near-divine presence of Wong’s recent short The Hand).
All these people, it could be said, live in an Oriental Hotel. Although Wong painstakingly evokes the Hong Kong of his youth, he has shot in many Asian countries and has presented such places as the Philippines, Cambodia, and Singapore as possible refuges. 2046 opens on a sleek, high-tech train in the title year—conjured from Chow’s sci-fi tale—where a bereft lover (Takuya Kimura) analyzes his melancholy in voice-over. He speaks Japanese, a language Chow later hears through the wall of his hotel room; Wang is trying to teach herself some basic phrases, because she’s fallen in love with a young Japanese businessman (the same Kimura, now dressed for the past rather than the future). Wang’s father strongly disapproves, cranking up his record of Bellini’s Norma—another tale of forbidden love—to cover his arguments with his daughter. At the end, some of the film’s opening remarks are repeated, this time in Chinese. Has the story come full circle, or is it something of Möbius strip, curling through a Pan-Asian Tomorrowland?
Answers to such questions will not be forthcoming. Although its story is unexpectedly lucid, 2046’s emotional core is a private matter. Despite myriad tears, Leung’s immense charm, and intensely focused performances from Zhang (hot with desire) and Li (cold with calculation), the movie expresses itself most articulately through hue, lighting, framing, and production design. It’s a vision of distance and disunity—symbolized by many compositions split precisely between a person and a door or panel that appears as a patch of pure color—and of claustrophobia and continuity: The tubelike 2046 train is essentially the same space as the endless hallways of the Oriental Hotel.
Wong (and cinematographers Christopher Doyle, Lai Yiu Fai, and Kwan Pun Leung) relies on such staples as rain, neon, and slow motion, but never before have the results been so abstract. It no longer matters where or when Wong’s films are filmed or set. 2046 goes beyond all that, presenting its unified field theory of obsessive love as a visual rapture outside time and place.
Bergman’s latest last movie, Saraband breaks a pattern that began with his supposedly final film, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander. That memoir inaugurated a series of works about Bergman’s youth and his adult relatives, most them scripted by him and directed by others. But Saraband—which, like 1997’s In the Presence of a Clown, was made for TV—returns to one of his best-known films, 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage, a bruising examination of adultery’s consequences. (That movie was also made for TV; it was cut roughly in half for theatrical release outside Sweden.) This reprise opens with Marianne (Liv Ullmann) facing the camera and explaining a few of the many photos piled in front of her. (Ullmann, a onetime Bergman muse, directed 2000’s Faithless, another of the director’s infidelity-inspired scripts.) Marianne has decided that it’s time to revisit the past, although she—like her creator—can’t explain exactly why.
What follows is a sequence of duets, most of them theatrical, a few instrumental. (The music, all of it characteristically severe, is by Bach, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berg.) In the first of 10 chapters, Marianne goes to visit ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson) at his country cottage. The two haven’t seen each in other in 32 years, and their reunion is convincingly awkward, prompting Marianne to declare it “a mistake.” Yet the meeting reawakens something. Marianne, a part-time lawyer whose next case is weeks away, decides to stay for a while.
Living nearby are Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), who loathes his father as much as the older man reviles him, and Henrik’s daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Both are musicians, although on different trajectories: Bitter, heartbroken Henrik is withdrawing from the world, while 19-year-old Karin is contemplating various possible paths—and juggling the advice of her father and grandfather, each eager to propel her in a different direction. Every member of the quartet gets to share a conversation with another one, until finally Marianne and Johan meet again for a moment of tenderness, one that offers a glimmer of hope amid the characteristic litany of apologies, recriminations, and auguries of godly wrath. One character—it hardly matters which—says he expects someday to experience “incredible punishment.”
There is nothing to fault in Saraband, unless you fault everything. At 87, the writer-director still knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his cast demonstrate impeccable control of the Bergmanesque. The performances exactly split the difference between naturalism and theatricality, and the cinematography (by P.O. Lantto, Sofi Stridh, and Raymond Wemmelöv) is unobtrusive yet powerfully intimate. The principal question is whether anyone other than Bergman and his most faithful admirers want to revisit such painful territory, especially since the director tramped through it so often in his prime. Marianne and Johan’s reunion is not a mistake, but it is an ordeal. The film’s austerity suggests that no future punishment could be more incredible than Bergman’s pitiless self-analysis.CP