“If I was born in a different time or place, I might have had a happier ending,” Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) observes at one point in 2046. He’s probably right, but his ending is perfect as is. That Chow Mo-Wan is the same Chow Mo-wan as the one in Wong Kar-Wai’s previous feature, In The Mood For Love (2000). 2046 is comprehensible without seeing that film, but viewers of both that and Days of Being Wild (1990) will recall backstories that are suggested here and heighten your understanding of the thematic arc.
Whether or not you have seen them or not, it’s hard to prepare for 2046, a sprawling account of Chow Mo-Wan looking to reclaim love, the story he writes about “2046” and the people who go there to recapture memories, and the women whom Chow meets in his journey. The women come in and out of his life, and Chow’s story weaves in and out, first narrated by the protagonist he writes and later by himself. It is an epic meditation on memory and the future, utilizing non-linear storytelling, a gorgeous palette of greens and golds, and a beautiful soundtrack that only Wong could select. The cinema of Wong has always been the cinema of eroticism and memory, but with 2046, he takes it to a new level. Its ambition within his oeuvre is matched only by Ashes of Time (1994), but 2046 boasts a script far more coherent with themes fleshed out.
Each character in 2046, from the prostitute whom Chow pushes away to the hotel owner’s daughter who is in love with a Japanese man (much to her father’s chagrin) to the perpetually miserable Lulu/Mimi of Days of Being Wild to the gambler who shares the name of Chow’s old love,is struggling with love in their own ways. If it weren’t for loneliness and broken hearts, these characters would not feel anything at all. Luckily for us, it is all narrated in flashback, and Chow gives us backstory and insights that a only a wise man looking back at a less wise version of himself can give. He lets us into his own heart, he tries to open everyone else’s, and he tells the story in such a way that rooms 2046 and 2047 are constantly evolving symbols that only reach their peak when we know exactly how everything is going to end. We know that Chow writes of people going to 2046—a place, a year, a hotel room—to escape a loveless dystopia, but what do we learn about Chow himself, who wanted apartment 2046 but got too comfortable with 2047 to switch? And what of the women constantly moving in next door at 2046? The script wisely avoids sweeping monologues that a film of this scope could easily employ. But the themes here never become signpost, and while Chow helps us along the way, he leaves more than enough for the viewer.
Much of what is left for us is in the cinematography, the editing, the costuming—compare Bai Ling’s (the scene-stealing Zhang Yiyi) qipao dresses with the one’s Su Li-Zhen wore in In The Mood For Love—and the aesthetic in general. Christopher Doyle, Wong’s longtime cinematographer, left 2046 because he was frustrated with the time commitment and having to reshoot so many key scenes. The shots that result are as precisely crafted as such a departure would make you believe. Despite all that Chow tells us, our real answers are still primarily in the mise-en-scene. It’s unfortunate that some stretches of this film are so beautiful, because it makes others look far too grounded, and the ethereal quality of the film is occasionally lost, and for short bursts, it begins to drag.
Dragging is not a big detractor, however, because ultimately, 2046 is a story about moving on. Some of the characters we observe do it some do not. But how they interact with 2046 the story and the room, how they influence what Chow writes in his story and its sequel, “2047,” are element s of the journey with rewards of their own, rewards that are a bit redundant but still quite rich.
I have never fully grasped a Wong film on first viewing. Days of Being Wild bored me, In The Mood For Love went over the head of my 15 year old self, and even those I enjoyed most, Happy Together and Chungking Express, clearly had far more for me to uncover. 2046 is no exception. At times, I found the narration to be a bit overpowering and some of the narrative strands a bit too repetitive. 2046 sweeps you away in the power of its narrative, but it’s a film that requires constant close analysis while viewing. Swept away by scope and power of the story, I found myself more passive than I was in recent re-watches of the two prequels. As much as any movie I have seen, it begs for me to come back to it. For now, it was a powerful, somewhat messy film whose greatness is apparent to me even if it has not revealed itself. I have no doubt that a revisit will uncover more greatness.
Grade: B+ (for now)