All jokes aside, Wong Kar Wai’s eagerly anticipated new film has finally arrived, thankfully predating its title by several decades, and deserves to silence the director’s many critics. After rushing to finish editing in order to debut the film at Cannes, Wong immediately returned to the cutting room, presumably unhappy with the version that was screened. I can only assume that the mixed reviews with which 2046 was greeted was because of the previous cut being inferior, as in my opinion this is easily one of his best films yet, and worth the 4 year wait.
Although Tony Leung returns as newspaper columnist (and later, writer), Chow Mo Wan, it’s important to note that this is not a direct sequel to In The Mood For Love. The two films share characters, the aforementioned lead as well as Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung in an extended cameo), and stylistic touches such as poetic quotes popping up during, and in between, certain scenes, but it is a completely separate film. In fact it is not at all necessary to have seen In The Mood For Love to appreciate all of 2046, but those who have viewed many of the director’s other films will revel in spotting the numerous references, predominately to Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love, but also to Happy Together, Chungking Express, and likely others which I was unable to pick up on on my first viewing.
The film follows Chow from relationship to relationship, mainly with Lulu (Carina Lau reprising her role from Days of Being Wild), another Su Li Zhen (Gong Li) and Wang Jin Weng (the ever captivating Faye Wong in a new role). He is left alone and trapped time after time, but when he does have a chance to seize a relationship, this time with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the owner of the hotel he is staying at, he refuses, treating her badly and insultingly paying her after they sleep together in an attempt to make sure she does not attach herself to him. She becomes determined to make something of their relationship, telling him that she will love him even if he does not feel the same, but it soon turns irreparably destructive, and they fall out bitterly after sleeping with other partners to spite each other. Chow’s relationship with Jin Weng is a much more productive affair, with the two happily writing books with each other, but no matter how much Chow wants it, the relationship can never progress beyond a close friendship as Jin Weng is still in love with her Japanese boyfriend, who her father forbade her from seeing. The eroticism present in 2046 is much more open than in its predecessor, with the characters displaying little restraint this time (Chow has passionate sexual encounters with almost all of the female characters), but the film is no less artistic or powerful for this.
The title takes its name from a sci-fi novel Chow starts to write based loosely on his own experiences and the people he meets, the “2046” coming from the number of the hotel room which he stays in. Although those specific numbers have popped up in both In The Mood For Love and a music video which he directed, Six Days, their significance lies in that it’s the date exactly 50 years after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong. The Chinese government promised to keep Hong Kong sovereign for 50 years, setting off speculation as to what would happen after that period. As it happens, this detail isn’t really explored in the plot; there are a few very brief clips of the Hong Kong riots, but no real political subtexts to fret over. The science fiction scenes surprisingly aren’t the emphasis of the plot, and don’t take up that much screen time at all, but it is a very nice touch actually seeing Chow’s story.
Wong Kar Wai has a reputation for bringing out the best in actors, even if it is at their expense – Maggie Cheung notoriously mentioned that she lost her love for acting during the filming of In The Mood For Love, perhaps the reason why she appears so briefly this time. Nevertheless, leading actor Tony Leung is on fine form, and on many occasions really looks like he’s having fun, contrary to what Maggie might say about the director. This is really one of the best performances of his career, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. The rest of the star-studded cast also do well, with Faye Wong playing a distant, dreamer type character similar to her one in Chungking Express, and Gong Li and Carina Lau both put on excellent performances in what screen-time they are given. But perhaps the biggest surprise is Zhang Ziyi. I’ve never been particularly impressed with her acting ability, but she really holds her own against the more established actresses in the film, and her immaturity perfectly suits the role she plays. Unfortunately she still falls a little short in the heavily dramatic scenes, but never to the extent of some of her previous film-ruining performances.
The cinematography and music are equally important. Christopher Doyle again collaborates with the director, and the results really are quite impressive. More complex than their previous efforts, each frame is meticulously composed, with walls or other vertical barriers often obscuring part of the screen, and often one or more of the characters. As well as emphasising the remaining visible subjects, this also serves to bring the characters closer together, and ‘shields’ them from the viewers. This of course does not apply during the several times when the characters indulge in voyeurism, spying on each other, most notably between Chow and Bai Ling as they are in neighbouring hotel rooms. As for the music, Wong Kar Wai continues to use repetition but never to the extent of In The Mood For Love or Chungking Express.
I’ve gone on long enough already, but there’s so much more I’d love to talk about in detail. The CG is stunning and not over-used, the dialogue sparkles even after translation, the intermittent humour compliments the sadness perfectly, the original costume design during the futuristic scenes, and the many allusions to the director’s previous films are a nice touch and never come at the expense of the film. As far as I’m concerned the pacing was also perfect, slightly more eventful than In The Mood For Love, but it might still be considered relatively slow. I am sure that most fans of Wong Kar Wai, and in particular those that liked In The Mood For Love will love this, I know I did, and I’d go as far as to say on first viewing I even preferred 2046. However I don’t think this is the film that’ll bridge the gap between those who love his films, and those who, well, don’t. 2046 will be released in the UK in January 2005.