It is difficult to imagine two styles more dissimilair than Wong Kar-Wai's and Jim Jarmusch's; though both arthouse darlings and amongst the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today, they seem to come from different universes. Wong's world is one of intense romanticism and eroticism that knows that the erotic is impossible without knowledge of death and loss. Jarmusch is our foremost minimalist, disguising his characters' emotions with irony and deadpan.
Yet somehow it seems fitting that both of these directors have given us films about trying to deal with the past, and the consequences of lost love.
Wong's 2046 is a sequel to his 2000 In the Mood for Love, though knowledge of that film is not a prerequisite for viewing this one. In the Mood for Love tells the tale of an unconsummated love affair between Chow (Tony Leung Chu-Wai, one of Hong Kong's hugest stars) and his neighbor, Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung, also a tremendous star) in 1960s Hong Kong. When Chow and Su discover that their spouses are cheating on them with each other, they begin meeting on their own and eventually fall in love, but keep their desires to themselves out of their own decency and the ethics of their time. The film ends with the lovers separated, both from each other and their now former spouses; Chow, in accordance with ancient custom, whispers the secret of his love into a hole as to bury it.
It is that final image that kicks off 2046, though its setting has been transferred from the scenic temples of Cambodia to a colorful and mysterious future. Soon enough, we discover that these futuristic images come from a titular science fiction novel written by protagonist Chow. In Chow's conception, "2046" is both a place and a year; it's where people to go reclaim lost memories, a place where nothing changes.
"The place where nothing changes" is the thematic underpinning of the film. Originally conceived as a science fiction feature, 2046 began its production in concert with In the Mood for Love, and got its title from the year that will be the last year of capitalism promised Hong Kong by China at the outset of its 1997 takeover -- the promise that "nothing will change" for fifty years. Intrigued by this premise, Wong kept it as an undercurrent to a complicated narrative intercutting Chow's science fiction parables with his affairs with a bevy of Hong Kong beauties.
For Chow, who in Love was the consummate gentleman, has been so jaded by his lost love for Su Lizhen that he has become a callous ladies' man. The objects of his affection are depicted a Who's Who of Beautiful and Talented Actresses, including Faye Wong, Gong Li, and Ziyi Zhang (with another small, but notable, part played by Carina Lau, revisiting the character she played in Wong's Days of Being Wild). Chow's interplays with these very different women in consistently fascinating and entertaining ways, allowing the contrasts between them -- and his idealized view of his lost love -- to shine.
Chow gradually comes to realize that his superficial romances are all attempts to re-create his love for Su Lizhen; Faye Wong's character shares Su's interest in Chow's writing, Gong Li's character shares a name with Su, and Ziyi Zhang's delivers on the sexual promise Su denied. The implications of this are moving, and when the Chow of 2046 is compared to the Chow of Love, tragic.
As always, Wong's visual style is ravishing, and his use of music is unparelleled in contemporary cinema. The result is an immersive experience that demonstrates movies at their best.
Whereas 2046's protagonist is trying to escape his past, Broken Flowers' is trying to find his. Bill Murray's Don Johnston plays a one-time Lothario who receives an anonymous letter informing him that he fathered a son twenty years prior. At the urging and planning of his amateur detective Ethiopan neighbor (a delightful turn by Jeffrey Wright), Johnston goes on a journey to visit the women he knew once upon a time so as to discover the truth.
If Wong's baroque stylings are the embodiment of his main character's view of the world, Jarmusch's understated deadpan provide the same service for his. Murray can do more with nothing than most actors can dream, and as the absurd, funny, and sad events he witnesses reflect off his barely scrutable expressions, we are sucked into a worldview that matches his own.
Which isn't to say that Murray does nothing while a bunch of goofy things happen around him. He plays a character who doesn't do "nothing" so much as he does "anti-things"; when his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him at the onset of the film, he barely protests and simply lies down on his couch. Don Johnston is a man that has been curling up and hiding from responsibility for his whole life, and Broken Flowers is about his gradual journey toward caring.
Murray is assisted along the way with a number of spot-on performances from the prospective mothers (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) and the others he encounters (most notably Alexis Dziena as a Lolita-type named, um, Lolita). Like most Jarmusch, the emotion isn't in your face, and builds up slowly under your skin until an ending both unexpected, unsatisfying, and completely right. This might allow the mainstream to take note of Jarmusch, notice that is well overdue.