Almost anyone I spoke to who saw Wong Kar-Wei’s previous film In the Mood For Love was of similar opinion. It was a wonderfully shot film, starring one of the screen’s most breathtaking couples, featuring a perfect and complimentary soundtrack that pulls you along with the story’s emotional sway.
Not a lot happened, mind, but that scarcely mattered. Set in Hong Kong at the outset of the 1960s, it portrayed Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) spending a lot of time together, while it gradually becomes apparent that their respective spouses are having an affair. Time moves on, very slowly, and both principal characters behave with great dignity, while the viewer wills them on to the union that we know will never take place. In the Mood For Love had beauty and sadness in spades.
Fast forward to the late ’60s, and Chow is now an out-of-work journalist and pulp writer working on a science fiction story called 2046. He lives in a Hong Kong hotel, and still haunted by Su-Lizhen, is caught in a series of meaningless one-night stands. For those few dissenting voices that found In the Mood For Love slow, boring, and complained that ‘nothing happened’, give up now.
Stylistically the film is all Wong Kar Wei. Like his earlier Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express, and especially In the Mood For Love, it’s non-linear. It’s full of flashbacks, of vivid colour (red still dominates in 2046), with woozy, dreamlike cinematography from regular collaborator Christopher Doyle. The action, as such, mostly takes place within the confines of the hotel where Chow lives in Room 2047.
Chow messes with the hotel manager’s oldest daughter (Faye Wong, Chungking Express), while refusing the advances of her younger sister. He slips into a co-dependent relationship with a prostitute living in Room 2046 (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and fuelled by boredom, hangs out with a professional gambler, whose name happens to be Su Li-zhen (Gong Li, Raise the Red Lantern), just like the woman he loved years before. Such coincidences serve only to enhance the picture’s almost hallucinatory feel.
In the meantime, using a voiceover, Chow pours his life into the parallel world of 2046 the novel, where once in a while, a mysterious train leaves for the year 2046, and no-one ever comes back. He imagines himself as a Japanese (played in these sequences by Takuya Kiumra), who, like everyone in the future year, is looking to recapture lost memories. At the same time Chow is writing about his past.
So, we have another visually sumptuous Wong Kar-Wei picture, with Tony Leung in immaculate form, and making a simple task like drawing on a cigarette seem like the saddest thing in the world. We have a supporting cast of Asian cinema’s A-list actresses (Maggie Cheung too makes a tragically fleeting – or fleetingly tragic – appearance).
We’ve got the slo-mo beauty of its characters, the rain, the interiors, the wonder of the Hong Kong sky, the neon sign above the hotel, and the half-glimpsed neighbours through its doorways. And once again, the director’s choice of music, so integral to his films, is faultless, with original scores from Shigeru Umebayashi and former Fassbinder collaborator Peer Rabin vying with the hotel wireless blasting out Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.
Yet, plush as it is, 2046 feels a little muddled, even emotionally empty, after its predecessor. Perhaps expectations were entitled to be high. Either way, two hours in Wong Kar Wei’s company is still no bad way to spend your time.