2046 (2004, Hong Kong, Wong Kar Wai)
Those of us who fell in love with the seductive and luscious In the Mood for Love have been waiting a loooooong time for this one, Wong Kar-Wai’s much-anticipated follow-up to perhaps the most highly-regarded film of this millennium. The famously meticulous director debuted his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2004, with Wong Kar-Wai reportedly working on the final cut a mere days before the festival’s launch. Ominously, the film did not receive any awards, despite the fact that WKW acolyte Quentin Tarantino chaired the jury. Yet, despite such harbingers of disaster, 2046 proves to be a slippery and trippy tale whose charms may at first seem somewhat elusive, but whose sensuous imagery and melancholy romanticism will eventually win you over.
The wait has most certainly been worth it.
The enigmatically-titled film refers to a hotel room number, but it is also the year in which some of the pulpy tales of our hero, the fiction-writing playboy Cow Mo Wan are set, where the number also doubles as the emotional equivalent of the Holy Grail to his characters, who seek out their very own room 2046 in order to recapture memories of past romantic bliss. This is appropriate enough given that as the film begins is ensconced in room 2047 so he could keep tabs on the goings-on in the room across the hall, the number of which reminds him of his one great love, the very beautiful and very married Si Lu Zhen (Maggie Cheung) with whom he had once shared a room with this very same number.
While most film cycles aim towards some sort of resolution in their final installments, things in 2046 don’t come full circle so much as they move incessantly forward. The cycle of love, betrayal and heartache as initiated in The Days of Being Wild and continued through In the Mood for Love, claims even more victims in 2046, as the trio of 1960s-set Hong Kong films culminates here with Wong’s most worthy successor to those fine films. Just as Maggie Cheung’s Si Lu, whose heart was crushed by Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild, is subsequently unable to give herself over to the smitten Mr. Chow in In the Mood for Love, in 2046 it is Leung’s character who, having made but a brief cameo appearance in Days, and perhaps in response to this romantic defeat in the middle film of this troika, retreats from emotional contact with women, preferring instead a series of affairs, thereby carrying the misery forward by inflicting the pain on others that was previously inflicted on himself. In this vital role Tony Leung does little to damage his reputation as my favourite film actor working today, conveying his character’s complexity with characteristic subtlety and grace.
The idea, first posited in Days of Being Wild, that even the most brief (“one minute”) relationships can achieve a level of intensity that will have an effect that will be lasting, lifelong and even potentially disastrous, is moved forward here, and leaves us with a sense that in these days of transience, when we treat people with the disposability of a razor blade, it ought not to surprise us that we will occasionally come away from these sorta relationships with the wounds that never heal. In 2046 the misery is fanned out, as Leung engages in three affairs of the heart, drawing Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong (all of whom are marvelous here, by the way) into his net, resulting in a growth in the web of romantic dissatisfaction that, it is implied, will continue to grow, now at exponential rates. Despite the fact that the relationships are varied and distinct, and include intellectual, emotional and carnal elements, they all share one quality: They are doomed to end badly.
Yet, while I make the film sound incessantly grim, it is anything but, for 2046 is a celebration of a very specific time and place that clearly has deep meaning for WKW, and his affection for it is evident in every frame. With trusty sidekick and director of photography Christopher Doyle at his side, 2046 is filled with the sorta eye candy that we’ve come to expect from the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Doyle’s painterly eye for composition and his wizardry with the camera includes a self-referential shot on the train platform of his famous coffee shop shot in Chungking Express is matched here by Wong’s artful use of a rich and sensual colour palette. Wong’s pitch perfect set design is aided by a delightful merger of music and image that results in a seemingly effortless evocation of the period. And even though some have complained about the sometimes-cheesy futuristic CGI effects, even this fits the film’s overall aesthetic in that they are used only when we are plunged into Leung’s fictional futuristic fantasy world, where the world is filled with people and things of increasing cheapness and superficiality. So while 2046 may be a melancholic and elegiac story of damaged and yearning people unhappy in and out of love, it is also a multi-sensual delight, and I will consider myself greatly blessed if I see a more glorious piece of celluloid art this year.