2046 by Wong Kar-Wai (Review)

An entirely logical, if sometimes sorely flawed, follow-up to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
2046 - Wong Kar Wai

Yes, yes, yes… we all know the running joke about 2046 taking so long to shoot that people were starting to think that it wouldn’t come out until the year 2046. And then there was the Cannes “debacle.” 2046 was supposed to debut at the festival, only the film wasn’t actually finished. Writer/director Wong Kar-Wai was still working on the movie, and delivered it at the very end of the festival for some special screenings.

Then the film was pulled from the Edinburgh Film Festival for a number of reasons, only to resurface later in a newly retooled, and from all accounts, much better and more concise form. Wong had apparently tightened things up, clearing up some of the film’s more enigmatic aspects.

But 2046 is still an unmistakably Wong Kar-Wai film — it’s nearly impossible to mistake the man’s films for those of anyone else — and perhaps the most Wong Kar-Wai-est film he’s ever made. Everything that you’ve come to expect from one of the man’s films — the so-lavish-they’re-almost-perverse visuals, the glacial pacing and obligue acting, the non-linear structure, the existential musings, and of course, the narration — are all there, only moreso.

2046 is ostensibly a sequel to Wong’s previous feature, 2000’s wonderful In the Mood for Love. If you’ll recall, that film follows the burgeoning relationship between a journalist named Chow (Tony Leung, in an amazing performance) and his neighbor Chen (Maggie Cheung, in another amazing performance), both of whom discover that their spouses are having an affair. 2046 picks up some time after the events of In the Mood for Love, and it’s obvious that Chow is still reeling from the fallout of his encounter with Chen.

Once unassuming, concerned, and sympathetic, Chow has been thrown to the other end of the spectrum by the heartache he’s suffered. Haunted by his memories, he’s become something of a lothario, drifting from one empty relationship to the next, sleeping with any woman that catches his eye only to cut off all ties before they get too close.

His latest interest/conquest leads him to a dingy hotel where he finds that she lives in room 2046. The number catches his eye, and he moves in next door, into room 2047. From there, he launches in a series of torrid affairs, the most prominent involving Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, in an incredibly mature role), a young dancer who lives a life that is almost as carefree as Chow’s. Although they act as if the relationship is purely casual, and both are free to have other partners, it’s obvious that Bai Ling is slowly falling in love with the debonair Chow. But just as before, he immediately cuts her off as soon as she professes any real feelings.

And on it goes, from one woman to the next. Through it all, it becomes readily apparent that Chow is still trapped by the feelings and experiences chronicled by In the Mood for Love, such that every subsequent woman pales in comparison. He’s so wounded and broken that any sign of commitment sends him packing and running the complete opposite direction, leaving a string of broken and shattered women in his wake. That, or awakens within him a serious streak of bitterness and resentment.

Although Chow is a journalist, he makes most of his money as an author. Once a moderately successful writer of martial arts novels (one of the many subtle hints at In the Mood for Love), he has now taken to writing bizarre and erotic stories. His latest work, entitled 2046, is a strange sci-fi tale set on a train travelling to the year 2046. It’s said that anyone who arrives in 2046 will be perfectly happy because nothing ever changes in 2046. However, noone knows for sure because noone ever returns.

Of course, the novel essentially becomes an attempt by Chow to work out the effects of his relationship with Chen, to understand and make sense of the aftershocks that continue to ripple outward from that relationship’s breakdown and impact Chow and every woman he meets and seduces.

It’s always a bit difficult to really get what Wong is really going after, regardless of what movie you’re talking about. At times, his films can be as maddening as they are intoxicating, with long scenes that seem to go nowhere, a complete disregard for linearity, and shots that have an almost maze-like composition.

This last element is among one of 2046’s most fascinating aspects. As was the case with In the Mood for Love, the scenes in 2046 are painstaking composed and constructed, often utilizing elaborate set-ups of reflections, interesting angles, and compositions.

Oftentimes, you’ll be watching a scene, only to realize the entire thing is taking place inside a mirror, forcing you rethink how the scene is set up, where the actors are in relation to eachother, and to you. Mirrors play an important part in the film’s visual layout, as characters often seem to be staring at themselves, trying to find something. These visuals keep the viewer at arm’s length, forcing them to remain outside of the film and look in like a voyeur, tantalizing them with breathtaking scenes of beauty and grace that are just out of reach.

While this certainly lends the film a certain aura of mystique, and reinforces the characters’ confusion and anxiety, it can also leave one feeling a bit empty, as if the film is nothing more than its style and atmosphere. They are intoxicating to be sure, and I found myself completely surrendering to the film merely on their account a number of times. However, the intoxication also quickly wears off, and the film becomes quite hard to take due to the rather dim outlook.

Much of that also has to do with the overall subject matter. It’s quite difficult to feel any sympathy whatsoever for Chow, especially as he casually breaks one woman’s heart after another, and often in the cruellest manner possible. It’s one of the main criticisms laid against the film, and one that is fairly understandable.

However, I suppose that’s all part of the point. Whereas In the Mood for Love practically simmers with repressed longing and emotion, 2046 often seems to be running on fumes, its visuals as meticulous as one of Chow’s suits, but ultimately futile. To his credit, Tony Leung (one of the finest actors working today) does manage to imbue Chow with great charm and charisma. What’s more, he manages to give us slight moments where we get to look below Chow’s well-groomed exterior and see glimpses of his brokenness, and the last remnants of nobility that might still be there.

Balancing out Leung is a veritable who’s who of female Asian stars. Gong Li, Faye Wong, Carina Lau, and Maggie Cheung all make memorable appearances. However, it’s current it-girl Zhang Ziyi that spends most of the time onscreen with Leung, and oftentimes in some fairly compromising positions (the sex scenes are as graphic as possible without actually showing you anything). Ziyi is as luminous as always, and gives Bai Ling the perfect mixture of chic, petulance, charm, and vulnerability.

Even though 2046 is essentially a sequel to In the Mood for Love, it’s not necessary to see the earlier film before this one. Indeed, it often seems like Wong Kar-Wai does everything he can to make this sequel as un-sequel-ish as possible. However, it really is worth seeing In the Mood for Love, not just because it’s a gorgeous film in its own right, but because it does provide a greater context in which to appreciate and understand what transpires in 2046.

I began my review of In the Mood for Love by saying that “Several hours after viewing In the Mood for Love, there’s a good chance that you’ll still find yourself haunted by it” and that’s exactly what we see take place in 2046. We see a man that’s still haunted by the past, as well as the pain and violence his memories inflict, not just on himself, but on everyone who gets close to him.

What would you do if you were left shattered by a past romance? If you were affected so deeply that you were were unwilling to expose yourself like that again? What would a person suffering from that, a person who is unable to move beyond his memories but instead lashes out preemptively against anything resembling commitment and trust, look like? These are the the sorts of questions 2046 deals with.

Once you see the unfulfilled passion that occurs in In the Mood for Love, it’s easier to understand why Chow acts the way that he acts, even if you still find his actions reprehensible. In the Mood for Love is still the much better film (and quite possibly Wong’s best overall film), but 2046 makes for an entirely logical, if sometimes sorely flawed, follow-up.

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