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Unknown Pleasures

Cannes '04's Eden of East: A possibly unfinished pop symphony and an anime cyber-noir

CANNES, FRANCE—Cannes, per one excited French headline, had produced "la Palme d'Or qui défie Bush." And the more that Quentin Tarantino's jury defiantly insisted that only aesthetic considerations had ruled its decision to garland Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the more shrewdly political its choices seemed.

"It validates cinema," jury member Tilda Swinton declared of Moore's documentary, and in a sense, the Palme validated Cannes as an Event. As stocked with goodies as this edition was, one's conversations with international colleagues—not to mention the questions Americans were continually asked by attending news crews—were more apt to concern the upcoming election than any celluloid discovery. And yet, for most of the festival's second half, the story might have been titled Waiting for Wong Kar-wai.

2046, Wong's In the Mood for Love spin-off, had been in production for some five years—and was even touted for the 2003 competition. But the director, famous for finding his movie as he makes it, had been in Bangkok shooting material as recently as the week the festival began—with individual reels arriving a few at a time from the lab, some only hours before 2046 had its world premiere.

The film's title is a hotel room number and a year—as well as the name of a science fiction book written by Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and the suggestion of an alternate universe. The lovelorn protagonist of In the Mood for Love is here a suave seducer. Much of the movie concerns his ambiguous, teasing relationship with the call girl next door (stellar Zhang Ziyi, complementing her athletic performance in Zhang Yimou's unexpectedly excellent martial arts movie House of Flying Daggers). Chow's lost love (Maggie Cheung) can be glimpsed in two brief shots, but to add to the disorientation, her name is assigned to a new character—a lady gambler played with full diva authority by Gong Li. ("Where's Mrs. Chow?" I asked Wong at his post-premiere party. "She's in there somewhere," he assured me.)

Despite its interpolated anime, sci-fi fashions (mainly worn by Faye Wong as an android who has "delayed reactions"), and many renditions of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song," 2046 feels closest to Wong's last film maudit, the dreamy swordplay epic Ashes of Time. It is also clearly unfinished—a coming attraction for itself, or what its producers were terming "a movie in motion." (Perhaps that's why Roger Ebert was moved to boo.) Soon, it was rumored that the completed version would premiere at Venice.

Given Wong's reputation among cinephiles, including QT, 2046 seemed the obvious favorite for 2004. But as the jury president made amply clear, he was in fact a huge fan of Korean director Park Chan-wook's over-the-top psycho-thriller Old Boy—a revenge fantasy that exudes so much adrenaline even the furniture seems lacquered with a patina of sweat. An action Kafka tale with intimations of Point Blank and Greek (or it is "geek"?) tragedy, not to mention many sadistic money shots, Old Boy would have been a far more shocking choice than Fahrenheit 9/11. One suspects that it would only have won the Palme over Tilda Swinton's dead body.

Coulda: 2046. Woulda: Old Boy. Shoulda: Innocence, a/k/a Ghost in the Shell 2, the gloriously impenetrable and extravagantly graphic anime by Mamoru Oshii. Most simply described as a cyber-noir populated by existential cyborgs, Innocence draws on Blade Runner, Dirty Harry, and the surrealist artist Hans Bellmer to posit a world in which a hard-boiled robot treasures his pet dog as much as a possibly human child does her doll, and some unscrupulous industrialists are peddling sex-toy "gynoids" with stolen souls. That's the story, but Oshii devotes as much care to animating the play of light reflected off the sleek surface of a slow-moving auto or a close-up of water sloshing down the drain as to his set pieces—a fantastic pageant of crypto Hindu gods and pagodas floating, to Bulgarian choral chants, amid spiraling snow flurries, through the concrete canyons of some reinvented New York.

Watching this fetishized spectacle for the second time, I couldn't help picturing Tarantino explicating it for his jury colleagues. To judge from the awards, however, it never happened. Who's to blame? As Oshii's cybercop says, explaining why he ran amok in a neighborhood bodega, "The bad guys hacked into my brain and made me shoot myself."

 
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