One of my favorite authors is Paul Watkins, and what I particularly enjoy about his work is that characters from one novel often have a surprising connection to those of another of his work. One can read each piece of fiction separately, but the awareness of the links between them adds a layer of enjoyment. The films of Wong Kar-Wai contain some of those same qualities. 2046, his long-awaited new film, is actually a companion piece to the masterpiece IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), which itself owed a debt to his earlier DAYS OF BEING WILD (1991). Like Preston Sturges, Wong has an unofficial stock company of actors, some of whom appear as incarnations from earlier films, while others portray different characters. Seen separately or together, the films are each superb, and they clearly prove that Wong is one of the most ambitious and fascinating filmmakers working in contemporary cinema.
The opening scene may make one think of a science fiction epic. As a narrator explains, there’s a train that can take a person to the future – to 2046 where one may relive memories, but from which no one (save the narrator) has ever returned. It soon becomes clear that this sequence is a dramatization of a story being written by Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), the film’s anti-hero. Viewers of Wong’s films will recall the character, first introduced in a wordless scene at the end of DAYS OF BEING WILD, where it was implied he had landed in Singapore to gamble. By the time of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, Chow was married and working as a newspaperman, but harbored a desire to write novels. Here in 2046, he is an author and inveterate ladies’ man.
Chow is also a man filled with secrets, which gnaw at him and fill him with regret and a sense of longing. At the end of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, he is seen whispering something into a hole carved in a tree at Angkor Wat, and in 2046, we hear of this as a folk tale, not once, but thrice. 2046, while including the dramatized elements from Chow’s story, mostly focuses on the man and his relationships with three women. First is Mimi, also known as Lulu (Carina Lau reprising her role from DAYS OF BEING WILD). There’s an implication that Chow and Mimi knew one another briefly in Singapore, and she is briefly the inhabitant of Room 2046. Chow had hoped to rent that room for sentiment’s sake, but it becomes unavailable and he must make do with 2047. Later, the room is occupied by Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a prostitute who eventually embarks on an affair with Chow. In the interim, Chow becomes fascinated with Wang Jing-Wen (Faye Wong), the eldest daughter of the hotel’s owner. She’s in love with a Japanese man of whom her father disapproves. She and Chow collaborate on a science fiction story called “2047.” And then there is the mysterious Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li), a mysterious professional gambler who happens to have the same name as Chow’s great love, the character played by Maggie Cheung in both DAYS OF BEING WILD and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. (Cheung is seen all too briefly in 2046, barely meriting her name in the credits.)
The film is a rich and complex tale of love, regret, and remorse. Bai Ling actually falls for Chow but he is unable to return her feelings. Zhang Ziyi delivers her best work to date in this role. Moving away from the martial arts films that established her, she proves to be a tremendous talent, exhibiting a range heretofore unseen. Chow, for his part, is more infatuated with Jing-Wen, but she is not as interested in him. Faye Wong delivers a lovely performance that serves as counterpoint to Zhang’s.
The film, though, is centered on Leung and he delivers a multi-layered performance. Although the Chow of 2046 is less likeable than the one from IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, Leung manages to make the audience (at least this member) remain invested in his story. It is superior work and ranks among the best this actor has achieved.
As with all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, 2046 looks gorgeous thanks to the superlative production and costume design of William Chang Suk Ping (who also edited the film) and the work of a troika of cinematographers including frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pung-Leung, and Lai Yui-Fai. The soundtrack also includes many Latin-flavored tunes as well as versions of “The Christmas Song,” since several key scenes are set on Christmas Eve.
Just as the film has many layers, the title of 2046 also signifies several things. It was the number of the hotel room in which Chow and Cheung's Su Li-Zhen collaborated on their martial arts novel (and in deleted scenes included on the Criterion Collection DVD, consummated their affair). It is the year that Chow sets his science fiction tale, and it is also the final year of a fifty-year period that the Chinese government promised to allow self-regulation for Hong Kong.
At one point in the film, Chow says “Love is a matter of timing.” Indeed, in 2046, timing in love is all. While I might rank the film just below some of the other work by Wong Kar-Wai, it still remains a highlight.
Rating: A- MPAA rating: R for sexual content Running time: 129 mins.