2046 Review

Four years in the making, it seems like Wong Kar-Wai’s cherished project 2046 had to be finally prised out of his hands to make the constantly delayed premiere screening at Cannes 2004. Keeping the press and critics running around built up an anticipation that the film was never going to live up to and inevitably the critical reaction was polarised. Reaction to the film’s appearance on DVD is very much likely to attract the same difference of opinions.

Wong Kar-Wai’s previous film In The Mood For Love started out as one segment of a series of interlinked stories, all based around a series of affairs that played out for protagonist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) in hotel room number 2046 – but the film soon acquired a life of its own that the director – ever open to improvisation and new possibilities that the mise en scène presents – allowed to develop into the masterpiece that is In The Mood For Love. Although it doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a sequel to the earlier film, 2046 comes from the same source, the mood of In The Mood For Love and the memory of Chow Mo-wan’s unfulfilled affair with Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen permeates every single frame of the 2046. It’s not necessary to have seen In The Mood For Love to follow 2046, but familiarity with the circumstances of the earlier relationship greatly enhances the experience here.

That is not to say that 2046 slavishly follows in the path of In The Mood For Love, although a superficial examination of the film will certainly give that impression – retaining some of the same characters, set in the same period, retaining the same look, fashions, colours and music as well as some quite deliberate visual references. 2046 is however completely different in its intent and in its treatment. In The Mood For Love, as the title implicitly implies, locates itself entirely within a mood, revelling in all the emotions of love – attraction, flirtation, anticipation and ultimately loss, disappointment and heartbreak. In this respect, the Hong Kong locations of the film took on a heightened, illusory quality that perfectly matched the emotions presented. Scarred by the events of In The Mood For Love, the protagonist in 2046 has now cut himself off from any feelings in his relationships with a number of women who all inhabit room 2046 of a little hotel where he lives. 2046 therefore operates in a melancholic no-man’s land where Chow tries to suppress and deny emotion, sublimating his feelings into erotic stories and cold science-fiction fables or losing himself in purely sexual adventures with no emotional attachments.

Although the initial impression with this film is that the hermetic intensity of the relationship between Chow and Su Li-zhen in In The Mood For Love is diluted being spread across a string of affairs with characters portrayed by different leading ladies – Gong Li, Faye Wong, Zhang Ziyi, Carina Lau – 2046 actually takes on an even greater force. In each of his relationships with the women he tries to bury the memory of Maggie Cheung’s character, again using the metaphor of whispering a secret into a hole in a tree and filling it with earth to be free of it. The metaphor here takes on a sexual dimension, each of the women little more than holes into which Chow buries his pain and memories, trying to efface the memory of Su Li-zhen. This intention is particularly evident in the science-fiction parable featuring Faye Wong, who plays an emotionless sex-toy, the ideal vehicle who offers a metaphorical hole for him to unburden his lusts, his anger and his loss. However, the android soon evolves emotions of her own that Chow is unable to deal with. The effects of his callous insensitivity in each relationship, albeit the unintentional behaviour of an emotionally damaged character, is immensely powerful.

Trying to define the differences in two films that look and sound almost exactly the same down to a distinction between the emotions they engender may seem like scant justification and splitting of hairs, but when you have a director who can draw the full power from an emotion in the alchemy between image and sound, examined with precision down to the nth detail, it makes a hell of a lot of difference.

To examine mood and character to that degree of precision requires an outstanding cast and it is hard to imagine anyone bettering the performances of the stellar cast in 2046. Words fail to adequately describe Tony Leung’s performance. He has worked with the director for a long time and has inhabited this particular character on and off for about six years. Every look, gesture and mannerism speaks volumes, raises questions and sparks off reactions in the viewer, allowing for any number of interpretations. Although I have always had reservations about Zhang Ziyi’s acting ability, she not only holds her own alongside the likes of Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, she carries the central relationship of the film with remarkable finesse. Her character is the typically headstrong and brash character Ziyi usually plays, but here she plays it within a much wider range, with perfect naturalism and conviction. The other actresses have rather less to do, but their brief presence makes a significant impression in the film nonetheless.

Repetitive? Yes – but that’s the nature of memory and a feature that Wong Kar-Wai has used frequently – in music, in colours, in locations – for a specific effect. It’s also symptomatic of Leung’s character to fall back on familiar, safe patterns in his relationships. Precious? Undoubtedly. It’s understandable that the director would want to work and re-work this material until it was finally prised from his hands, yet each repetition, continual layering and overlapping of stories only serves to deepen the emotions of the film further. 2046 has no ending. If it were three or five hours longer, it would lose none of its power – Chow’s pain is infinite, the journey unending, the destination he seeks in the past is somewhere he can never reach. His failure to develop each of the relationships and the single teardrop that rolls down the cheek of each woman takes on a cumulatively powerful force as the realisation dawns that nothing is going to change. But the viewer is as seduced by the fictional constructs as much as Chow. Once we get over that initial pang of recognition in the characteristics of each of the women he meets, and then the disillusionment that this is not In The Mood For Love and none of them are Su Li-zhen, like Chow you can enter into the entrancing little fantasy of those idealised fictions, where memory can recreate the magic of romance and assuage the bitterness of heartbreak.

The DVD is released in Hong Kong by Mei Ah on a Region 0 release. The film is available on DVD as a single disc and as a two-disc Limited Edition. The extra features on the Special Edition are fully subtitled in English. Mei Ah have not had the greatest of reputations in the past, releasing some very poor discs, but they have certainly improved in recent years.

The aspect ratio seems to be about 2.45:1 and the transfer is anamorphic. There is a faint level of grain throughout and the occasional white-fleck of dust on the print. Some macro-blocking artefacts can be seen from time to time, but they rarely cause much of a problem. There is a slight jerk in the image between scene transitions, but this is also barely noticeable. Colours are strong and vivid, but perhaps do not have the warmth and richness of tone that they ought to have. Blacks are generally strong and have a reasonable tone, but lack sufficient detail and can be a bit hazy in some scenes. Detail is quite good in close-ups and there are certainly quite a number of close-ups in the film. It fares less well in medium to wide shots, with faces and edges particularly becoming rather fuzzy,as edges taking on a jagged appearance. It does look very close to the print quality I saw in the cinema though, so perhaps this is the intended look for the film, with a slightly more hazy and misty quality than In The Mood For Love.

The original Cantonese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and it's quite good throughout. It makes wide use of the speakers for rain effects, for the dominant music score and for the science-fiction effects, particularly of the train hurtling down the tracks to 2046. There's even some decent use of the sub-woofer in one or two scenes. The sound is quite clear and strong - there is some minor background noise and it doesn't quite have the fullness of sound that the film could perhaps have, but in a film where the soundtrack is vitally important to the whole impact of the film, this is more than effective here.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are easy to read and seem to translate the film quite well. I only noticed one or two very minor grammatical errors.

Disc 1 Extras
Trailer (2:24)
The trailer is presented in 2.35:1 letterbox and captures the exquisite beauty of the film.

This text feature contains a very brief Synopsis of the film (in English and Chinese) and a Cast and Crew listing, which just lists the principals without any details, biographies or filmographies.

Disc 2 Extras
Trailer 1 (2:34)
Trailer 1 looks very similar to the trailer included on disc 1.

Trailer 2 (1:15)
The second trailer is a US teaser, playing-up very much the Sci-Fi element of the film to the exclusion of anything else.

Photo Gallery (2:41)
A series of beautiful film images and promo shots are shown in a 4:3 aspect slideshow.

Making Of (35:43)
The making of is based largely around interviews with Wong Kar-Wai and most of the cast – Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Takuya Kimura, Chang Chen, Carina Lau and Zhang Ziyi. The interviews are intercut with footage of behind-the-scenes filming, but no signs of any deleted scenes or unused footage. The interviews give a good sense of what the film and the characters are all about.

Ziyi Footage (2:54)
This section shows a number of scenes of Zhang Ziyi filming scenes, posing for promo shots and playing-up for the camera.

Theme Music (7:11)
Using the Casta Diva (titled Costa Diva here) aria used in the film, taken from the opera Norma and sung here by Angela Gheorghiu, this is a grainy low-quality music-video presented in 2.35:1 letterbox. It captures the film’s air of glamour and melancholy, but fails to be really representative of the film.

6 Lovers (1:03)
This is another teaser for the film focussing on Chow’s women in the film.

I don’t think we have a definitive release of 2046 on the Hong Kong Mei Ah Limited Edition. I’d certainly recommend seeing the film in a movie theatre first and waiting for the eventual fully packed disc set that will inevitably follow with the numerous deleted scenes from all the false starts. I'm certain we'll see a better transfer than this but if you really can’t wait – and considering how long people have been waiting for this film, that is excusable – the Mei Ah release isn’t a bad set, with a reasonably good transfer and a fair selection of extra features.
2046 is the quintessential Wong Kar-Wai film, summarising all the moods, memories and themes developed through nearly all his films so far, taking them to their ultimate level. In 2046 the director, like his character Chow, painstakingly tries to recreate a past that cannot be recaptured, but can be idealised in the memory and savoured endlessly. Certainly many critics and viewers have already found the film's obsessive-compulsive repetition pointless, but that is entirely the film's point. Wong Kar-Wai has shown here how beautiful and creatively inspiring it can be to linger in the exquisite and unique emotions engendered by love and heartbreak, yet how ultimately damaging and tragic this can be. It remains to be seen whether the director can move on from this or whether, like Tony Leung's Chow Mo-wan, he is doomed to endlessly look back on his past. Whichever route he takes and however long it takes to get there, it will be fascinating to see where one of the most brilliant directors working in cinema at the moment goes to from here.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:43:02

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