Wong Kar Wai’s eighth film has had a long and troubled gestation. Pre-production on 2046 began four years ago, and it was initially conceived as a science fiction piece, although what has eventually emerged is a sort-of sequel to the director’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love (itself a loose follow-up to 1991’s Days of Being Wild). Kar Wai was still editing the film days before its Cannes premiere last May, and in the six months following that first showing he continued to rework it. The finished product is a fascinating and beguiling film, if not quite Kar Wai’s best, then certainly his most complex and thought-provoking.
Tony Leung once again plays journalist Chow Mo Wan, who returns to Hong Kong in 1963 after several years working in Singapore. Checking into room 2047 in a small hotel, Chow begins work on a sci-fi novel called 2046 while juggling a constant stream of casual girlfriends. The doomed love affair that Chow engaged in with a woman called Su Li Zhen years before continues to haunt him – he no longer has any interest in relationships beyond one-night stands, but he is equally unable to resist seducing Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), the beautiful call-girl who occupies room 2046.
2046 was a number of significance in In the Mood for Love, and the way it reoccurs throughout this film is only one element of the fragmented, cyclical tone Kar Wai strives for. Chow encounters both people from both his past and other Kar Wai films – Carina Lau reprises her role from Days of Being Wild, now working as a hostess in a bar, and Ping Lam Siu once again plays Chow’s editor. And even though Leung’s In the Mood for Love co-star Maggie Cheung appears for only seconds, the presence of Su Li Zhen hangs over the whole film, colouring Chow’s relationships with other women. One of Chow’s lovers – a mysterious gambler he meets shortly before his departure to Hong Kong – even has the same name; this Su Li Zhen is played by Gong Li, another of China’s biggest female stars.
Kar Wai regular Tony Leung plays Chow as a resigned, detached smooth-talker and the dance of seduction he performs with Bai Ling – literally the girl next door – is brilliantly realised by Leung and Ziyi Zhang. There’s never any doubt that he’ll get his own way with the younger girl, or that she will develop affection for him that he will not share, but it’s gripping to watch as Bai Ling moves from refusing Chow’s gifts to agreeing to be his drinking buddy, all the way to a full sexual relationship and inevitable heartbreaking rejection. Away from the fantasy worlds of martial arts epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang proves to be an actress of fragile sensitivity and intelligence.
The Chow/Bai Ling relationship forms the core of 2046, but there’s more to the film than that. The other woman in Chow’s life is Wang (Faye Wong, who previously romanced Leung in Kar Wai’s Chungking Express), the daughter of the hotel’s owner. She is in love with a Japanese man, but her father won’t allow the relationship and her lover is forced to return to his homeland. Wang turns out to be a terrific writer and she and Chow collaborate on a trashy novel. Wang and Bai Ling could not be more different, and Chow is unable to act upon the feelings he unexpectedly develops for her – indeed, he helps her resume her relationship with the Japanese man. Perhaps he is scared of feeling anything more than simple lust, or perhaps he knows that anything more than friendship would ultimately be pointless. Instead, Chow expresses himself in a futuristic story which Kar Wai illustrates in a series of striking sci-fi sequences, set on a high-tech train that travels a mysterious place called 2046, where lost memories can be reclaimed.
2046 is shot by Kar Wai regular Christopher Doyle (with the help of Kwan Pun Leung and Yiu-Fai Lai), and is as ravishing as you’d expect from Asia’s most in-demand cinematographer. Much of it is filmed in subdued, almost noir tones, the walls of the hotel lit with a vibrant green. The whole thing is awash in arresting imagery from occasional lapses into black and white to striking shots of characters silhouetted starkly against the sky as they stand upon the roof of the hotel. The sci-fi sequences meanwhile have a different feel all together, CGI cityscapes mixed with a hazy, dreamlike wash of brilliant white and neon. If the film does have a flaw, it’s the narration that Leung provides throughout – maybe Kar Wai felt the fractured narrative would turn viewers off, but too often the voiceover is merely describing what we are seeing, or explaining emotions that are best left implied. 2046 is a film about mood and emotion first and plot second; a voiceover is not going to make those turned off by the slow, meditative tone suddenly enjoy the film.
But those used to Kar Wai’s distinctive style will, for the most part, love this haunting, intoxicating brew. 2046 takes its time to unfold and offers a fairly bleak view of relationships – Chow leaves this film no happier than he was at the end of In the Mood for Love. Perhaps Kar Wai will give us a third part where our hero finally finds true, uncomplicated love – but somehow I doubt it.