Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Tony Leung, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, Carina Lau, Siu Ping Lam, Thongchai McIntyre, Takuya Kimura, Wang Sum, Maggie Cheung. (2004, R, 129 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 9, 2005
At once tremendously dense and gossamer-thin, this period romance/sci-fi hybrid from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai is something of a sensory clusterfuck: a riot of sight and sound that, however baffling, has an irresistible, elemental pull. It’s a loose sequel to Wong’s ravishing In the Mood for Love, although "companion piece" may be a more accurate term. 2046 carries over that film’s leading man, the lovelorn pulp writer Chow (Leung). Five years after he fled Hong Kong and the rejection of his married neighbor, Su Li-zhen (Cheung) for Singapore, Chow returns to Hong Kong in the mid-Sixties. He’s degenerated into a slick, serial womanizer with a pencil moustache. He’s no longer in the mood for love, he’s addicted to it – not to its euphorias, but to its damaging winds. At its most basic, 2046 is a nonlinear cataloging of Chow’s most recent – and all failed – affairs with a hit parade of Asia’s most stunning actresses. But that’s only the skin of the thing: Beneath is a Möbius strip-like meditation on love and loss. Wong, along with chief cinematographer and frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, creates not so much a tone poem as a tone elegy, a sumptuous keen for love interrupted, or never begun. The title refers to a fictional construct of Chow’s, a futuristic landscape called 2046 where lost memories are stored. (To add to the confusion, 2046 is also the name of a hotel room, both in 2046 and In the Mood for Love, as well as the year that Hong Kong will revert to Chinese sovereignty.) Throughout the film, Wong interpolates snatches of Chow’s stories, set on a 2046-bound train that is serviced by gorgeous android attendants who – not coincidentally – are plucked from the real-life legion of Chow’s discarded lovers (it’s no small irony that in his fiction, Chow offers these women the lasting commitment he cannot in the real world). There is one woman who doesn’t moonlight in 2046, Chow’s next door neighbor, Bai Ling (House of Flying Daggers’ Zhang), maybe because, for Chow, she represents a predator, not prey. Bai Ling isn’t quite a call girl – more like a Holly Golightly tease who extracts baubles and funds from pawing older men. She falls hard for Chow, and it’s nothing short of shocking to watch her transformation from a howling she-cat in control to a decimated ex-lover. Her heart-stopping introduction, viewed through a peephole and metered to the seductive thrum of Connie Francis’ "Siboney," ranks as one of the sexiest screen entrances ever. On first viewing, it was images such as this – or Gong Li’s face smeared with lipstick, Faye Wong’s heels clicking down a corridor – that haunted me; moody atmospherics seemed to trump rhyme or reason. But once bitten, twice eyes wide: There is a thematic clarity more apparent on second viewing, one that achieves an even greater resonance when seen alongside In the Mood for Love. Like Leung’s Chow, 2046 is forever chasing its own tail, re-enacting moments and motifs from the not-quite halcyon days of Chow and Su Li-zhen’s unconsummated courtship, as in an emotionally freighted cab ride, Nat King Cole’s thrice-played "Christmas Song," or the rejected plea of one lover to another to leave with him – for Singapore, for Hong Kong, for the world beyond 2046. Wong’s detractors – those who argue he’s all style and no substance – may cry foul, say it’s all smoke and mirrors (indeed, Doyle and co-lensers Pung-Leung Kwan and Yiu-Fai Lai are fond of both). But I’d argue nothing could be more substantive than a devastated heart and its ragged efforts to heal.