There are a lot of reasons I can cite for hating The Notebook. It was a melodramatic, predictable, lugubrious movie made for 16-year-old girls. It was a waste of Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, and James Garner’s talent. It was proof that Nicholas Sparks has as much writing ability as a hamster. But my biggest problem with it was that it was just straight up unoriginal. Guy likes girl, girl likes guy, some problem comes between them, their love remains strong, they triumph in the end, roll credits. I know the producers behind The Notebook probably didn’t intend for it to do anything other than make money, but the point I’m trying to make here is that today’s love story movies are rarely pitched as anything outside of the same tired formula. I haven’t seen a love story in years that wasn’t either hopelessly uncreative or only a side plot.
I never thought that there was anything wrong with the concept of the love story movie in and of itself. After all, love is one of the most confusing, destructive, and uplifting emotions humans can experience. There are so many areas of it that can be explored, so many muddled and complex affairs (pun intended) that can result from it. That’s what I love about 2046.
The story isn’t simple. The love triangles aren’t clear-cut. There are layers of symbolism laced with reality, heightened by director Wong Kar Wai’s creativity and fearlessness with the camera. The movie is set in late 1960s Hong Kong, and the feel of the period is played up to an almost ridiculous, yet wonderfully fantastic degree. All of this combines to create a story that not only draws the audience in, but captures them in this fantasy world.
But despite 2046’s dream-like feel, it remains true to reality in at least one respect: It tells a realistic, uncompromising, and non-formulaic love story. The main character, Chow Mo Wan—played with wonderful subtlety by Tony Leung—is a writer who tells a story of a train that can travel forward in time to the year 2046. No one quite knows what’s in 2046, except that it’s a place to recapture lost memories. It’s clear from the start that Chow Mo Wan’s story has little to do with science fiction or some strange vision of the future. It’s simply a stylized version of his own life, and his own story of a twisted love affair involving his current flame, Bai Ling (with a performance that proves Ziyi Zhang can act), and his past love Su Li Zhen—played by the enchanting Gong Li.
The story twists and turns and, quite honestly, is difficult to follow sometimes. But this is because the story isn’t told; it’s simply presented as it is. It’s as if Wong Kar Wai simply trained his camera on a hotel in Hong Kong and filmed what went on. Tony Leung has a few voice-over monologues, but they don’t reveal a whole lot about the inner workings of himself or his lovers. The real meat of the story is told through symbols and through the short story “2046” that is written in the movie. The characters—just as in real life—rarely come out and tell the camera what they’re feeling, nor is it readily apparent from their words or actions. 2046 is love presented how it actually is: confusing and impenetrable, yet powerful enough to push the story and the characters forward.
It may seem a bit contradictory to say that a movie so fraught with science fiction, fantasy, and symbolism can be in any way realistic. But to a certain extent, it’s impossible to realistically tell a love story in any other way. Love, and all the emotions that it brings along with it, color our reality and twist our views of things, just as Wong Kar Wai’s unique and somewhat disorienting cinematography color and distort every aspect of the movie. Love infects every aspect of a person’s life, just as it seeps so easily into Chow Mo Wan’s story. This is not to say that you can’t tell a wonderful love story without these things, but Wong Kar Wai’s unique vision has captured the whole range of experiences that goes along with any love story in the way that few movies have.
I wish I had more space to cover this movie a bit more, I’ve haven’t even touched on the multiple side plots, or some of the more specific quirks of the movie. And I’ve completely skipped the amazing soundtrack, and how it fits so perfectly into the movie. Just please, go rent this wonderful yet overlooked cinema gem. Then buy the soundtrack. And if I catch you renting The Notebook, I will probably shoot you a nasty look and then go sip cognac while musing over how much more taste I have than anyone else.
That’s all for this week. As always, suggestions are welcomed and encouraged. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week I will be comparing the artistic merits of a UChicago literary magazine with those of Nicholas Sparks. No matter who wins, we all lose!