It’s always been one of my biggest regrets that I haven’t cultured myself sufficiently to the point where I can rattle off the titles of the operatic scores and music that shows up in Wong Kar-wai’s “2046”. Education has given me insight into a lot of things, but I do wish I had spent some time soaking up culture that I might not otherwise encounter in my lifetime. At the end of the day, films like “2046”, and most of Wong’s film in general, makes me wish I had immersed myself more in things, situations, and places beyond my current scope. But that’s the problem with life; once you realize you’ve missed out on something, it’s usually too late to make amends. Time travel works in the movies, but it’s a bitch in real life.
For fans of Wong’s “In the Mood for Love”, “2046’s” main character will seem familiar, and that’s because “2046” is a sequel to “Mood”. Familiar Wong muse Tony Leung returns as Chow Mo Wan, a writer who has written a novel called “2046”, about a futuristic world where people can travel to by train in order to relive old memories. In 1960’s Hong Kong, Chow, fresh from his adventures with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung’s character in “Mood”), moves into a hotel where he pens his novel. At the hotel, Chow meets various women, including the hotel owner’s daughter (Faye Wong), a beautiful next-door neighbor (Zhang Ziyi), a doomed ex-flame (Carina Lau), and a professional gambler also named Su Li Zhen (Gong Li).
It’s Chow’s interactions with these women that makes up the narrative of “2046”, with current “It” girl Zhang Ziyi (“The House of Flying Daggers”) filling up the bulk of the first hour and some of the second, and she could be considered the de facto lead except the movie is not so much about the women, but about Chow and his preoccupation with a certain woman from his past. In the second hour Faye Wong (also in the director’s “Chungking Express”) gets more screentime, playing a love struck young woman who pines for a Japanese beau that her father refuses to accept. As Faye’s character develops a platonic relationship with Chow, the older man starts to feel something for her, but it’s ultimately her inability to give up on her Japanese lover that makes him realize his greatest mistake in life.
Without a doubt, it’s Su Li Zhen’s memory that continues to haunt Chow, making ruins of his relationships even before they even have a chance. “2046” is, in so many ways, such a Wong Kar-Wai film that you could probably figured out the writer/director was behind it even if you didn’t see the credits. With able assistance from famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who also lensed Fruit Chan’s recent “Dumplings”), “2046” features garish neon colors, splendid 1960s wardrobe, and the themes of loneliness, isolation, unrequited love, and a past that refuses to stay in the past. Through Chow’s novel, which purports to be about the future but is in fact about the past, Wong meditates on the events that transpired in “In the Mood for Love”. In a lot of ways, “2046” represents the entire oeuvre of the director, and would stand very well as a culmination of everything he’s done as a filmmaker up to now.
It’s no coincidence that the film is isolated not just from its characters, but also from us, the viewer. When two characters are in the same frame, Wong elects to shoot the scene from the perspective of a voyeur, of someone who can’t quite get the full view of what exactly is going on. As such, many of the scenes feature characters way off to one side, with the rest obscured. It’s an interesting technique, used to keep the audience forever in the background. As a result, the audience remains an unobtrusive observer, unable to insert our presence into the action. In a movie where characters alienate themselves on purpose in the hopes of salvation, the alienation the audience feels is right at home.
Not surprisingly, no one does complex characters better than Tony Leung, who makes the switch from gritty, doomed gangster in the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy to “2046’s” charmer, but equally doomed, ladies man without missing a beat. Externally Chow appears to have gotten over his past, showing up at swinging parties and taking part in one night stands with all the concern of a gigolo, but that’s only outward appearances. Inside, the man is a tortured soul, unable to give his heart to anyone, even the beautiful Zhang Ziyi. No matter how much Chow may want to love again, he simply cannot, and in that way he’s like the androids in his “2046” novel — suffering from delayed reaction and unable to respond to a declaration of love even when he longs to do so.
The rest of “2046’s” cast does fantastic work, complimenting Leung at every turn. Of the female cast, Zhang Ziyi is most prominent, as her character enters, leaves, and re-enters Chow’s life at various intervals, offering the film its most stable female presence. Gong Li’s Su Li Zhen is featured the shortest, but her scenes with Chow are possibly the film’s most intriguing, especially a kiss against a wall that has all the force of a physical and mental assault. With Ziyi’s Bai Ling gone, and Gong Li’s Su Li Zhen still to appear in the timeline, Faye Wong takes up the slack. The pop singer doesn’t do a terrible job by any means, but her character really doesn’t impact the story as much as the other two women.
If “2046” sounds complicated, it’s really not. Wong uses a fractured narrative to keep things interesting, taking the action back and forth between different points in the timeline. It’s not really as hard to follow as it sounds, since when all is said and done, time is really not much of an issue. For instance, despite the passing of years, Chow never changes, as a character or in appearance. The same for the rest of the cast, who returns in various secondary roles like Carina Lau, whose character is murdered early in the film, but the actress returns later as an android version of herself on the train ferrying passengers back and forth between 2046.
Actually, one could easily ignore the title cards that alert us to the shift in the timeline, since the theme of the film seems to be, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s the universal truth of life that we long to fix what has become unfixable — that is, our past. Just as it’s also the universal truth of life that sometimes we don’t get over the past because we refuse to, because although the past holds painful memories, it can also hold our greatest joys.
Kar Wai Wong (director) / Kar Wai Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Leung Chiu Wai …. Chow Mo Wan
Li Gong …. Su Li Zhen/The Black Spider
Takuya Kimura …. Tak
Faye Wong …. Wang Jing Wen/wjw1967
Zhang Ziyi …. Bai Ling
Carina Lau …. Lulu/Mimi