2046, Hong Kong director Kar Wai Wong’s latest foray in art-house cinema is a moody, melancholic film about love deferred and longing that, like its dissolute protagonist and intermittent narrator, is a piebald accumulation of fractured episodes held together by a weak foundation.
Just as Tony Leung’s Chow Mo Wan meanders through life, treating the women he meets, falls in love with, and subsequently rejects as the mere fillers of his time, Wong’s 2046 is oblique, choppy and frustrating, lacking a concrete direction and purpose. But it sure is something to look at. Wong’s film follows Chow Mo Wan, a hack pulp writer and journalist, through 1960s Hong Kong and his relationships with four beautiful women: Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), Jing (Faye Wong), Lulu (Carina Lau), and Su Li Zhen (Gong Li). After leaving Singapore and Su Li Zhen, Chow moves to Hong Kong where he takes up residence in a grimy, dilapidated hotel.
The reasons for his departure are unclear, but when he arrives at the Oriental Hotel, Chow is insistent upon taking room 2046. As we come to know, the room number happens to be the name of the science-fiction serial he is working on and also the year that a futuristic express train in his serial takes people to to reclaim their memories. Nobody has returned from 2046, Chow tells us in his narration; nobody except him.
A louche man of loose morals, Chow is immediately smitten with Bai Ling, a coy prostitute who lives next door. From the start, Bai Ling turns up her nose at his advances, but Chow soon endears himself to her with his charm and the two begin a passionate love affair.
In these scenes 2046 is at its best, melding strikingly romantic visuals and breathtaking cinematography with cohesive storytelling. With her chic, high-necked Oriental dresses and mod outfits, Ziyi Zhang is a sight to behold as she teases Chow during their courtship. Wong’s camera indulges in Zhang’s lissome features to the point of fetish, treating Chow’s reptilian smile with equal attention and achieves a transcendent visual ambience rarely experienced in contemporary cinema. His mise-en-scène glows in all its noirish brilliance – a lurid palette of tinted reds, yellows and greens fill out every frame, injecting each scene with a certain aesthetic aura, a certain mood.
But, alas, their romance is short-lived. A consummate ladies’ man, having done the deed, Chow is ready to move on. Bai Ling is still deeply enraptured, so much so that she abandons her profession and refuses to see other men. Chow has other ideas, however, and pursues a myriad of women – including the hotel manager’s daughter, who later becomes his personal amanuensis – as a tacit cold shoulder between the two obviates any interactions for the remainder of the film. In one particularly affecting scene, the camera holds on Bai Ling’s tearful, tragic face as we hear an indiscreet Chow and nameless woman thumping in the adjacent room. The rickety walls of the hotel sound as if they’re going to come down.
As much as scenes like this elevate Wong’s film to great emotional heights, the narrative is an unmitigated mess. Instead of isolating the enchanting Bai Ling-Chow relationship, he intercuts segments from Chow’s pulp serial and unnecessary, half-baked subplots which should have been winnowed out in the development process. In his over-attentiveness to visual style, Wong is no doubt remiss in his neglect of pacing and fundamental storytelling principles – and this inattention makes 2046 a pain to watch.
Slow-paced and languorous, 2046 is no less than a cathartic, deeply affecting mood-film – the stunning visuals guarantee it – but its story is an altogether different picture.
Archived article by Jason Remsen