2046 is the 2004 sequel (if that is the right word) to Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000). Named for the number of the hotel room in which the main character in the first film has an affair with a married woman, 2046 apparently relates his life after the affair ends. The films benefit from being viewed together, though they can stand alone.
2046 is a beautiful, seductive, hypnotic experience. It is a mistake to expect it to make immediate sense, and definitely a mistake to expect it to work in the linear, straightforward way of most conventional western films. It took me quite a while to learn how to watch it. The same was true with In the Mood for Love. Both are highly stylized. Every scene is a pictorial creation—deliberately conceived and beautifully realized. The key color is red—signifying passion, love? The pervasive mood is loss, regret, nostalgia of a painful and unhappy kind. Music, image, characters, and action are beautifully choreographed. Human faces in particular are stunningly photographed.
Because the affair leaves him wounded for life, the main character, Chow Mo Wan, becomes a hardened “ladies man” (the film uses this term to describe him--he never again gives himself away in love—although he occasionally would like to).
2046 is set in the hotel where the affair of the first film took place. Chow Mo Wan tries to rent the room, but because it is not immediately available, he rents room 2047 instead. The film details his relationships with a number of women—a hardened beauty named Lulu, a prostitute, the older daughter of the hotel owner, a professional gambler known as the Black Widow. (The prostitute, Bai Ling, is played by Ziyi Zhang, who also appeared memorably in Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero and in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her love for Chow Mo Wan is deeply tragic). In each of these relationships there is the potential for love that is never realized. In some way each relationship replicates or echoes the failed love affair of the first film. Chow Mo Wan is constantly trying to recover that first love affair and at the same time trying to make sure that he cannot and does not recover it.
Chow Mo Wan is a journalist turned pulp novelist—he writes junk, to make money. But he has higher aspirations as well. One of his stories, entitled “2046” is about a city where people go to recover lost memories. They never return. The premise of this story gives the second film its frame and context. Is Chow the main character of his own story? Is he trying to recover lost memories in the real or created scenes of this film? He confesses that the women from his relationships have found their way into his stories, but is he aware how fully he himself is what his stories are about?
You are never certain whether you are seeing in this film events and people that are real or that are the writer’s imagined experiences. Certainly scenes set on the train leaving the city of 2046 are imagined (apparently), but other scenes and characters may be imagined too. It is difficult to separate the real from the unreal, reality from fantasy. The film explores the intersections of life and art. But this is really an incidental concern. Time, memory, the hold of one’s past on one’s present—these are the central obsessions, realized as much in the style of the film as in its substance.
In the Mood for Love and 2046 reminded me more than once of David Lynch, in such films as
2046 seems to be set in the middle 1960s (there are occasional references to world events from that period), though the historical period of the film doesn’t seem particularly important to what happens. There is constant jumping back and forth between past and future events, some in Chow’s memory and some in the present time of the film.
Chow Mo Wan is constantly smoking a cigarette that droops languorously and jagged from his mouth, as it would from James Dean’s. His hair is greased and carefully combed. He gives the impression of a character from a 1930s or 40s film—a suave and debonair rake—the sort of Fernando Lamas character satirized on Saturday Night Live. There is too much of that shtick in the film, which itself is a bit long. From an American viewer’s point of view, Chow’s character seems almost a parody of a certain character-type, and I am sure this was not Wong’s intention. But these are initial impressions that the action and events in the film soon dispel. Chow’s character breaks through the stereotype, which may be the result of my own western inability to recognize the codes and methods of this eastern filmmaker.
Wong Kar Wai is a visionary and extremely talented filmmaker. Right now, there is no better director making films.