They say that success can drive the genius mad and Wong Kar Wai seemed hellbent on proving the proverb right in the gruelling creating process that engulfed 2046. Never the most rapid of directors (Ashes of Time went on for so long he had to take a "break" and rapidly filmed Chungking Express), the worldwide success of In The Mood for Love had upped the stakes for 2046. Pair that with WKW's obsessive secretiveness, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
And of course, disaster struck - a tabloid newspaper smuggled out some furtive snaps of the set forcing WKW to have the entire set destroyed, redesigned and rebuilt. The SARS epidemic hit South-East Asia, shutting down the production for an extended period. Days turned into months which then turned into years - a cool four years after pre-production had begun, the film was finally slated for an opening slot at the Cannes film festival. Tarantino, a self-confessed WKW fan, was to head the jury so the Palme D'Or seemed quite likely to be winging its' way to the WKW mantelpiece. But Wong was still pulling his hair out in the editing suite trying to come up with an elusive final cut. As the deadline loomed closer, there was still no sign of a completed film. For the first time in the festival's history, a screening had to be re-scheduled and the Palme D'Or went to the far less impressive Fahrenheit 9/11. After the Cannes débâcle, WKW had another attempt at reshuffling the film and would have probably continued doing so until his death had someone not put pressure on him to make up his mind and release the film. But, now we can set aside the chaos that surrounded 2046 difficult birth, what is the film actually like?
Most WKW films are slow-burning and fine-tuned intimate pieces - he takes his time to let them unfold and develop their main themes. On first viewing, I have always enjoyed each film but the real proof of their brilliance comes with their unbeatable shelf-life - one can return to most WKW film a year or so later and find that time has only made it improve. As a result, I fell that grading 2046 is a cruel task for any reviewer - is it better than his other work? Is it worse?
The storyline is deceptively simple - Chow (Tony Leung) is still living in Hong Kong four years after the events that unfolded in In The Mood For Love (and also The Days of Being Wild). He's become an obscure scribbler who writes short stories and reviews for a variety of newspapers. Unsurprisingly, the phantoms of his past still haunt him. In an attempt to recreate an evanescent moment with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung), he rents a room bearing the same number as the hotel room they once shared: 2046. It's not his lucky day though, as the room is being redecorated - he settles for the neighbouring room from which he can survey room 2046 and its' pretty inhabitants. Follows a series of relationships ranging from torrid to platonic with Li Gong, Faye Wong, Ziyi Zhang and more... Simultaneously, he starts to write a sci-fi story set in the future featuring a young man (Takuya Kimura) travelling in time to 2046 since "nothing ever changes there".
I'm unsure if there is any director in operation who is able to create such a perfect symbiosis of music and image. The score mixes both original, standards as well as some mainstream crooners (Nat King Cole makes another appearance in a WKW film alongside Dean Martin). Despite the rather heterogeneous nature of the soundtrack, it perfectly espouses the characters' emotions as does Christopher Doyle's exquisite cinematography (which will incidentally be his final collaboration with WKW). As one has come to expect, each shot is perfectly composed with great detail, with only the ever-present cigarette smoke preventing the scenes from turning into an impressionistic painting. The presence of two other cinematographers on the crew does give the film a more fragmented aesthetic but this was done to reflect Chow's scattered emotions and dislocated life, and to that extent, it works perfectly.
Tony Leung gives a terrific performance as Chow, re-exploring and reinterpreting the character. As the red thread of the film, he supports the film fully, allowing the other actors to slot into the film with ease. Like almost all of WKW's protagonists, Chow is someone haunted by a lost love, bearing his fixation like a cross. He is hurtling through life looking over his shoulder at what he has missed and lost. Opposite him, the performances are just as strong - Li Gong is as usual powerful, conveying a beautiful world-weary aura, Faye Wong also demonstrates her versatility but the most surprising performance comes Ziyi Zhang who finally proves herself to be a fine actress.
Whereas In The Mood for Love focused on all that was left unsaid, 2046 seems to shift the focus to miscommunication - is it a mere coincidence that WKW chose to have the actors speak their own languages rather than settle for one language for the entire film? Probably not. Although they appear to understand one another, there is a constant misunderstanding of intent and attachment that underlies most of the film. Clearly, in love, nothing is simple and in the world of WKW, one is always too early or too late to enjoy the fruits of love...
The image varies in quality throughout the film though this may be in part due to the choice of stock. The futuristic scenes are the crispiest with a nice sharp image and strong darks. Hong Kong in the 1960s however is far grainier. The colours do come out correctly reflecting the hues that were found on the big screen. Globally a good but not excellent transfer.
The sound and subtitles:
The 5.1 mix is acceptable but is not really going to test your setup much since most of the sound emanates from the frontal scape with no noticable use of the rear speakers. As pointed out in the comments, it seems that this is not the best mix and the French release featured a much more expansive mix more in line with what WKW had envisaged as the sound team of 2046 were involved in the process.
The subtitles are globally good but not the best - for one they have chosen to not subtitle any of the credits which I find vaguely frustrating though, I concede, not essential. I also had a problem with their positioning with the bottom part of the subs being slightly clipped on my widescreen TV.
Behind the scenes (36mins): A mix of cast and crew interviews interpersed with shots from the film including what seems to be some elements that were either completely deleted or substantially edited down. As usual WKW is not really the most expansive whereas the cast seem to have a completely different vision of the movie than what WKW pulled out of his hat.
Deleted scenes and an alternate ending (10 mins): Two longish scenes that were cut along with a brief alternate ending. None of the scenes radically change the impact of the film (unlike what can be said for the deleted scenes from In The Mood For Love) but given that there is obviously hours of scenes that never made the cut, it left me dissatisfied.For the record, the French release had seven cut scenes lasting a total of 20 minutes.
Crossed looks (16 mins): A French documentary which interviews Zhang, Leung and Wong about the film - it seems to have maybe made for the Cannes opening and is a decent enough effort though retreads a lot of the same ground as the behind the scenes feature.
Anatomy of memories (5 mins):
An awful, emotionless voiceover takes us through the CGI of the sci-fi city created by BUF. It also includes a snippet of the basic special effects that were included for the Cannes cut.
Music montage (6 mins):
A rather pointless montage of shots from the film along to Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma - the image is actually pretty bad in this feature which renders it even more pointless.
Music of 2046:
A feature allowing the viewer to directly access a scene based on the music.
Numerology of 2046:
A text-only feature that takes us from one to 5000, logging each numeric occurrence in the film. An interesting feature though the writer makes some incorrect assumptions about various topics which spoil it somewhat.
An expansive gallery featuring what seems like the entire marketing posters from the film.
This release is not yet the perfect release that the avid fans of Wong Kar Wai are waiting for. The extras are decent but nowhere near as much as one would have expected. This DVD also lacks a certain rigour in the making - there are numerous small mistakes which are annoying. For example, the chapter titles are completely incorrect at times (check the title of chapter 2 for one example of this) - a very minor detail but it left me with the impression of a DVD produced far too rapidly. It's a good but not outstanding effort of a film I have every reason to believe will end up being seen as a modern classic.