When work on the film 2046 began before 2004, Hong Kong film star Tony Leung lobbied hard for director Wong Kar-wai to let him grow a mustache. This was because his character, Chow Mo-wan, was totally different to how he was in 2046‘s prequel In the Mood for Love: whereas Chow in Mood was a gentlemanly journalist, 2046‘s Chow was an emotionally hollow hack writing erotic tales and obsessed with the room number “2046,” which serves as the recurring motif of memories concerning his neighbor’s wife, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Leung simply could not recognize the identity of 2046‘s Chow as the same Chow of Mood. Leung needed some visual distinction that would help him concentrate on acting a character he had played to near-perfection before, but whose script he couldn’t meaningfully read as belonging to the same man.
One can sympathize with Leung if the two films are watched back-to-back. It’s particularly striking how different the personalities of Mood’s Chow and 2046′s Chow are. The former is a kindhearted but lonely individual who speaks tenderly and will only express his affection for Su through indirect but loving words and deeds. He is bound by personal propriety and the social constraints of the 1960s. 2046 Chow is a callous and womanizing hack who cares not for the opinions of others. He is no honorable newsman, but whores his pen out to write whatever will help him pay the rent. Both ooze charisma, but the latter is undoubtedly more of the bad boy type. Both are the same man yet not the same, different yet tied together by their loss of Su Li-zhen and their attachment to “2046.”
Selfhood is a human concept that needs to be enforced through language, such as giving things and people names, and social mores like family units, a sense of community, and national identity. In most societies, the human person is uniquely inclined to attach themselves to an identity, assisted by infrastructures of language and culture that the Buddha correctly saw through and tried to help others break free from.
Of course, karma, the Three Poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, and the fundamental condition of the cosmos, ignorance or illusion, all play their part. But in rare moments of clarity and inspiration we are able to pause and reflect on how absurd the notion of a permanent, abiding self is, just because it has been assigned a single name throughout its lifetime. That was the absurdity Leung found with the two Chows. They had the same name and had a continuity of experience, but these were not meaningful criteria for an abiding identity.
Last year I wrote a blog post about a reunion I had with my best friends. I hope we stay closest chums for as long as we live. But at the ultimate level, who was I really reuniting with? All three of them were recognizably “the same” and they were also delighted by how little I had changed. How absurd that assumption feels when one steps back, even if I myself hold it to this day in regard to them. We had all unmistakably changed thanks to the mere fact of the march of time. Yet without insight we are imprisoned in the confines of our selves, only able to conceptualize and “dualize” on Mara’s terms.
Recently my three friends reunited for yum cha in our city of many beloved memories, Brisbane, and as I connected with them on Skype in the restaurant we saw in each other the same old buddies we always had been. But we were different, so obviously different, even if we recognized each other’s continuity of identity. . . It’s this continuity of identity that haunts me, as a Buddhist. It should haunt anyone who seeks insight, to peer past the fog of lies our minds have constructed. And every now and then, in art and pop culture and human activity generally, we see that reality of no-self breaking out in momentary, striking fragments.