In his latest movie, 2046, director Wong Kar-Wai follows the adventures of the lovelorn journalist who surfaced in In The Mood For Love. The subject of a forthcoming IFI retrospective talks to Michael Dwyer.
WONG KAR-WAI caused consternation at Cannes last year when his new film, 2046, failed to materialise for its first two screenings, the print finally arriving in time for its gala screening. 2046 has been such a long time coming that a recurring film industry joke was that it might not be ready until the year 2046.
As soon as it had been shown at Cannes, Wong continued to make changes before the film went on release in China last October. The project had been in gestation for five years, but when we met in London recently, Wong insisted that he had not been shooting it for five years.
One of those people who choose to wear dark glasses even while indoors, Wong chain-smokes during our interview and speaks in near-perfect English. "In fact, the first three years was mainly spent waiting," he says. "We had to finish shooting In the Mood For Love, and the main actors in 2046 are all very popular, so they are always in great demand and very busy. For example, Fay Wong had committed to doing a long concert tour and Tony Leung works all the time. I think he must have made 10 films during that period. So we had to wait until we could gather this cast to work together.
"We also looked at many different locations. We were going to shoot it in Japan, but that didn't work out, and then in Shanghai, but we couldn't shoot there because of the outbreak of SARS. So we had to cancel the shooting and to release the team and let them go back to all their other projects. So, most of the shooting on the film happened in the last 18 months of those five years."
Although 2046 continues the story of the lovelorn journalist played by Tony Leung in In the Mood For Love, Wong says that they were originally conceived as two separate films. "For various reasons, including the schedules of the actors, we had to start the two projects almost around the same time. At first, we thought In the Mood For Love would take only two months to make, but it took much longer than we expected. It's very hard for me to work on two projects at the same time - it's like falling in love with two women - and the story of 2046 changed a lot."
That is a euphemism given that the film started out as a thriller set in 2046, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. "That idea was getting more and more expensive as a movie," Wong says, "and even though the film I made of 2046 is more expensive than my previous films, I still had to work with a very limited budget. When the shooting period got longer and longer, we had to cut several things out of the original plan.
"One reason why I decided not to make a film about the handover of Hong Kong was that you need more time to notice changes. If you have a friend you see all the time, you don't notice changes in them, but if it's a friend you haven't seen for years, you notice the changes immediately. With Hong Kong, I think we should wait about 20 years to really understand the changes that will have taken place."
Born in Shanghai in 1958, Wong was five when he moved with his parents to Hong Kong, leaving behind his brother and sister, whom he did not see for a decade. "I'm very interested in the Sixties because I think it was one of the best times in Hong Kong, or maybe that's the way I remember it. When I was a child growing up in Hong King, my mother took me to the cinema every day after school. We watched all kinds of films, so that period is very memorable for me. It was a different adventure every day."
A recurring motif in 2046 is Christmas Eve as a setting down the years in the life of the writer played with such brooding intensity by Leung.
"The film is more like a diary of this writer, and I wanted to have each chapter related to a certain day. I read a newspaper story that said we have the highest suicide rate every year on Christmas Eve. For some people it's the loneliest moment in their life, so I put Christmas Eve in each chapter in the story."
Wong worked as a screenwriter and a script doctor before turning director in 1989 with As Tears Go By, but he prefers to approach each of his own film projects with the maximum of flexibility. "The actors and actresses know their stories, so Zhang Ziyi knows the story of her character, but she does not need to know the story of the other characters. Every day I give the script for that day to the actors before shooting their scenes. A lot of people think we improvise, but we don't, particularly with the dialogue."
He evidently finds it hard to let a film go, even when he is in the final stages of post-production. "I had no choice with 2046 because we had agreed to present the film in Cannes. We were almost at the end of the film and physically and financially it was impossible to stay working on it any longer. I wanted to create a deadline so everyone could focus on getting it done, and Cannes was our deadline.
"But, as I was finishing the post-production, I realised there were some problems with the sound, and that some scenes that were supposed to be there were missing because the CGI was not ready. So after the screenings at Cannes, we remixed the sound and put the missing scenes into the film. Finally the film was done and I could do something else, and that made me feel very happy."
I asked him how the film has been received by cinema audiences in China.
"They were very surprised by it," he says. "Normally, a film like this would not be released there because there are a lot of sexual relationships in the film. I think the film bureau in China is trying to show the audience and also the industry that the censor's department is going through changes. It's going to be more open and more liberal. They also have realised that they have to have ratings in China, and 2046 was going to be the first film released there with a rating, but they need more time to organise their ratings system."
While working on 2046, Wong shot a short film for the BMW Internet series, The Hire, and he completed a half-hour film, The Hand, as his contribution to the portmanteau film, Eros, for which Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh directed the other two segments. The Hand deals with the relationship between a beautiful courtesan (Gong Li) and her tailor (Chang Chen).
Antonioni's producer approached Wong about Eros when they met at Cannes in 2001. "He said the maestro wanted to make a new film, an erotic film, but as he didn't feel strong enough to make a feature film on his own, he wanted to share the film with two other directors. I thought it was a great honour and I liked the idea of making a 30-minute film because that's easy for me."
Wong's next film will be The Lady From Shanghai with Nicole Kidman in the leading role. That is just the working title, he says, and the film is not related to the Orson Welles film of the same name. "The only thing I know now is that it is a kind of a thriller," he says. "It's about this very mysterious woman who claims she came from Shanghai. Nicole knows very well the way I work. I've explained that to her and she's very understanding. She's a very smart, intelligent actress. She is not like a big Hollywood star. She's very humble. She's very knowledgeable about Asian cinema and how it works, and that makes everything much easier."
2046 is released today