By Xing Zhao
It has been close to 20 years since I first saw the film based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. In a store so narrow it had only the depth to fit one person between one wall and the built-in product shelf on the opposite wall, I walked past the shelf displaying products which I can no longer recall, and gently tapped on a small door at the far end of the cramped store. The door opened a crack, through which a man behind it revealed half of his face. I gave him a faint nod, and he let me in knowingly, as though I had been a customer looking to buy drugs.
Inside the hidden room were rows and rows of makeshift plywood shelves displaying the store’s real products: movies. It was Hangzhou, China, and it was 2002. It was before Netflix, Youtube, online streaming, and internet downloads. For us living in China at the time, imported foreign movies shown in the cinema were limited to the highly censored 10 each year, and the open secret of “fake” DVD stores were our cultural treasure troves.
I remember watching The Hours, and I remember reading about it in a popular movie magazine prior to that. The article gave lengthy descriptions of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose which made her resemble Virginia Woolf. Why had there been such a magazine publishing reports about the countless movies–blockbuster and arthouse–each month to an audience who had such limited access to the cinema was an unrealistically romantic gesture to those of us culturally starved. Many of us at the time read the magazine ravenously and plunged ourselves into a sea of “fake” DVDs like men who have been trudging for days in a desert into a sudden-discovered spring.
I don’t know how a 19-year-old me would like a film such as The Hours. To revisit moments like “You were 18 and I was 19…and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful as the sight of you walking out a glass door on a morning as fresh as if issued to children on a beach” was not for someone who’s actually 19. How would a 19-year-old boy whose life had yet to be lived and whose idea of life and this world was obtained second hand from books, magazines, and “fake” DVDs bought from a narrow little store tucked behind a plywood board know what it is like to grow older and look back at fresh summer mornings when love and desire and youthful nakedness of the body smelled like a pink, resplendent, dew-dripped lotus flower coming to bloom, thinking the 19-year-old self is gone forever?
But I did understand the film, I did understand the hours were moving, were going somewhere, were slipping, like sand sifting through my fingers and blown away in the wind. What I didn’t understand was it was going to be that fast. I liked a pop musician from Singapore. When she released her first album, her record label made a major commercial to broadcast on TV and radio, with a catchy line, “No other 22-year-old girl sings like her”. She had a beautiful voice that expanded and contracted boundlessly, as though there was no limit to it in this world, and a face cloudless like a rain-washed summer’s day on the equator. I knew the ad meant to emphasize her youth and the possibilities lay ahead in her voice and in her life. 22-year-old, it’s still some years away, I thought, because I was even younger, I was foolish enough to think I could do anything, anything at all.
Almost 20 years later, in another store, I come face to face for the first time with the novel. Now that I mention the store I realize it calls to mind the long-gone “fake” DVD store I first encountered the film although this time there is no surreptitiousness in visiting it. The books are “real”; they are second-hand. It is sitting quietly next to a blue-spined copy of Anna Karenina. After a moment of hesitation, I pick up them both.
I am 135 pages into The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I lay the two newly purchased books on the dinner table and read the first pages of both, and decide to allow myself a few more pages of The Hours. Soon I learn Clarissa had been given the choice of Isabel Archer or Anna Karenina or Mrs. Dalloway for a name. Three heroines, I am simultaneously reading, all laid side by side on the dinner table, but only one “is destined to prosper”.
But being destined to prosper doesn’t mean a life without its struggles, its cannot-haves, its wondering about another life one could have lived, and its grief at life slowly slipping away through one’s fingers.
So I go on reading. I do not want to stop reading, just like the heroine from 1950s California, for it is through seeing the lives of others go on, no matter how good, bad, or worse, one begins to feel his own unfold. To lose oneself in a story where not much happens is very much like watching one’s own life, for most of the time not much happens and yet so much happens within, one finds an entryway into an inner world of his own.
Virginia Woolf’s dreamy floating through the English suburb and ruminating about who will die in her book, Laura Brown’s aimless driving on the highway and finding herself without exist, and Clarissa’s memories of the past 25 years in one day, what do they all have to do with me, a man who practices yoga every day, eats Ramien for lunch alone, puts a pot of la moka on the stove in the afternoon while typing away at his laptop, and spends hours reading 19th-century novels under lamplight at night?
They have a great deal to do with me, for I live in the same hours, the hours present, the hours to come, the hours that are gone, the hours to savor, the hours to bear. The 1920s Richmond, 1950s California, and 1990s New York; Virginia Woolf’s chair, Laura Brown’s hotel room with green wallpaper, Clarissa’s flowers, Richard’s filthy little tenement apartment in a neighborhood that emanates a smell of squalor and threat, and the two long and curved old streets in the Shanghai French Concession I traverse on my bicycle to and fro every day, they are all at once their stories and mine. I am the ghost in their stories and they are the ghosts in mine. I watch them, hear their thoughts, anticipate their next moves, and wait for their watergates to collapse; they linger in my living room, stand behind me when I look into the mirror in the middle of the night, and whisper in my ears words only meant for themselves. Their loneliness is my loneliness, a bottomless void that cannot be filled with food, wine, flowers, poetry, friendship, sex, or even love.
I watch the film one more time, with my boyfriend, almost 20 years after I first saw it. Halfway through it, he decides to go to bed. “What is this film trying to say anyway?” He yawns with disinterest.
What makes each of us a ghost is, even when next to the one person we are closest to, the loneliness never ceases to exist. That is precisely the reason some slips out of bed alone to read heavy Russian novels all night long when her husband is snoring away, some protracts brushing of her teeth in the bathroom before bed, and some tucks a stone inside her pocket and wades into a swirling river. How is love not enough? One might inquire. How is love not going to save one from drowning, from becoming gray-haired, from turning into ashes, and eventually ghosts? Because it’s not. It’s just not. Sometimes one has to choose to let go of love to stay alive, sometimes one has to choose to kill oneself so that she could go on living.
No wise man needs 100,000 words to write a about day on which not much happens and yet so much happens, to look for an answer which cannot be answered in words and sentences. Not one story, ten stories, or even ten thousand stories can tell us how to live. Regardless of one’s living it, or not living it (how would one even begin to define it?), the hours are moving, like sand blowing in wind in the desert, and there is nowhere for you to hold on to but go with the flow of it.