After five years in production, dozens of interruptions, numerous cast changes, multiple cinematographers, the reconstruction of a half-million-dollar set, the completion of three major side projects, an eleventh-hour world premiere at Cannes, two radically different edits, a thousand import DVDs, endless rumors, infinite expectations—the phenomenon known as 2046 has finally arrived. What does it all add up to? First, what it is not: a science-fiction film by Wong Kar Wai. Or at least not the one suggested by the first visual tease I discovered on the Internet several years ago: a sepia-tinted still of—what?—some fabulously convoluted dystopia? I recall the numbers “2046” emblazoned lengthwise across the image in an embossed, label-gun font. I remember only the widening of my eyes and the flush of heat behind them as inchoate visions of Wongian futurism offered themselves to my imagination. The details of that evocative jpeg are vague in the memory; I can no longer find it on my hard drive; the web has since been glutted with hundreds of official images connected to the final project. Did it really exist? I just spent over an hour searching for it. I just left for 2046.
Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody knows if that’s true because nobody’s ever come back.
Vestiges of a lavish science-fiction movie turn up in 2046 as excerpts of a novel being written by Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung), a lovelorn journalist in mid-Sixties Hong Kong. Voluptuously frazzled, it looks like a space oddity designed by Hussein Chalayan. On board a sleek intergalactic locomotive, a moody youth with wild hair (Takuya Kimura) stares out the window of a crimson corridor. A smear of pixels races past. The craft is cold, labyrinthine—passengers are encouraged to hug one another for warmth. The young man does so with his obscure object of desire, a haute couture android (Faye Wong) with “delayed reactions” and avant-garde telephony. Other sequences will follow: fish-eyed sprints through fluorescent compounds, heavy android petting on wrought-iron beds, languid fembot lolling about. Not quite, as Chow describes, “as bizarre and erotic as possible without crossing the line.” Dangerously close, in fact, to avant-Barbarella.
Chow was formerly a writer of martial-arts novels. Adapted for the screen, would they look like Ashes of Time? Wong’s world is an eternal return, an iOeuvre on shuffle, an intricate, epic remix. We have met Chow before. He was first glimpsed in the enigmatic finale of Days of Being Wild, holed up in the first of many hypnotically appointed chambers (of the mind) to come. Smoking a cigarette, paring his fingernails, filling his pockets, combing his hair, he was readying for a night on the town. It took him nearly a decade. Days’s famous coda is the (delayed) madeleine of Wong’s celluloid recherche: the great Proustian reverie of In the Mood for Love comes flooding out from its shape, sound, and texture.
I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not.
Set in early Sixties Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love was the story of a rapturously sublimated romance between Chow and his impossibly beautiful neighbor Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). Muffled by shyness and powerful codes of propriety, their affections detonated as if deep underwater. Mood was an erotic depth charge; 2046 is the pattern made by its aftershocks. Echoing with repetitions, synchronicities, somnambulistic swoons, dream states, meta-narrative, and many kinds of doppelgangers, it is a ghost story haunted by the absence of Su Li Zhen. So the first thing 2046 adds up to is a sequel. This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t nearly as explicit in the notorious ur-cut shown at Cannes last year. One suspects that the extent to which the release version directly continues the narrative of Mood may have been settled on very late in the game. And it isn’t difficult to imagine other versions surfacing some day: a pure sci-fi, an experimental montage, a wordless pantomime, a melodrama in Japanese, a half-dozen self-contained romances. A poem is never finished, said Valéry, only abandoned.
Returned to Hong Kong after a sojourn in Singapore, Chow has grown dissolute (and a mustache). He is surrounded by women, sirens, pseudo-Sus. The first we meet is a shadowy femme fatale known as (among other things) the Black Spider (Gong Li). 2046 will return to her mysteries and so will we. Next is Lulu, aka Mimi (Carina Lau Ka Ling), a doleful, tempestuous former lover with whom Chow reunites one drunk evening at a nightclub. Ever the gentleman, he returns her unconscious form to the Oriental Hotel, room 2046. It was in room 2046 of another hotel that Chow and Su Li Zhen may or may not have consummated their affair. A few days later, returning to check on Lulu, the hotel manager, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), tells him she has checked out. Chow inquires about moving into her room. It is being “renovated.” Several nights earlier Lulu was stabbed by a jealous lover. Chow moves into 2047.
Down the hall sizzles Miss Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), an intensely alluring courtesan wrapped in diamonds, embroidery, coral-colored silk, and contemptuous sass. Li Zhen was modest; Miss Bai is coy, her reticence an easily foiled gambit. It’s a sign of Chow’s malaise that he treats her unkindly—I mean, it’s fucking Ziyi Zhang! Still, she is frivolous and, far worse, available. Chow fatigues and shifts his attentions to Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong, again), eldest daughter of the hotel manager. (Her sister is reduced to a Popsicle-sucking Lolita with a single scene, but for all we know appears on several thousand feet of discarded film.) Wang is claimed—an ideal object of adoration. Against the wishes of her father, she is in love with Japanese Tak (Kimura Takuya, again). Chow facilitates their affair by receiving his letters and passing them on. Wang, an aspiring writer, is soon collaborating on his potboilers.
All of the women of 2046 are, in a sense, aspects of one woman, the woman, and not the woman that Su Li Zhen was, but the one she might or could have been. He’ll never know. Why can’t it be like it was before?
A synthesizing, retrospective work, 2046 is the summation of Wong’s lyrical melancholia. As such, there’s something decadent, terminal, and slightly suffocating about it. Production designer William Chang’s shabby-chic surrealism reaches apotheosis: peppermint-stripe sconces, op art wallpaper, lush velvet curtains, boas of thick gold tinsel, mirror upon mirror upon mirror, each of supernal lucidity. For the first time in his career, in his longest film to date, Wong frames in cinemascope, as if to accommodate the full flexing of his plastic muscle. From Ashes of Time to Happy Together, he is all dizzy kinesis, step-printed expressionism, giddy new-wave verve. In the Mood for Love slowed everything back down, narrowed the focus, keyed itself to the character’s concentration and a rapt backward gaze. 2046 is hieratic, frieze-like, neo-classical. Shot almost entirely in medium-to-tight shots, heads fill the frame like marble busts propped on hidden supports. The far ends of his compositions are habitually given over to a shallow-focus volume of wall or curtain, so that Wong often seems to be shooting in 1.66:1 or 4:3, with a luxurious buffer of pure form. 2046 is a voyeuristic narrative we peek at through apertures and spy on around corners. The geometry of the film is parabolic: our sight line follows its relativistic poetry along a curvature of space.
There is nothing in the editing as conspicuously virtuoso as Maggie Cheung’s jump-cut quickstep up and down the hotel stairs of Mood, unless it’s the first, flabbergasting montage of sci-fi fragments spilling from Chow’s pen. More expansive, plot-wise, than its laser-lean predecessor, the episodic sequel is micro-tight within any given scene, but the cumulative shape has a drifting, arbitrary quality. God knows it could go on and on, variation upon variation—it must have been a monumental task in the editing room. Where the rhythm clicks magically is in the pas de deux between Chow and the women. 2046 is a sequence of two-handers, and for each Wong has invented a unique variation on the inescapable shot/counter shot. Chronologically, the first encounter with Black Spider is also the last, so Wong pivots the layout of their talk around a wide axis, flipping them to the edge of the frame with a swerving, hook-like energy. (The dominant visual motif of the scene is a curved wooden balustrade.) Dialogue with the pained, passionate Lulu is arranged into deep-red diptychs that trap her in little boxes of open space, hot chromatic weight pressing in. Wang’s goodbye to Tak is another study in diptychs, green-black in hue. Her dinner with Chow late in the picture is bewildered by a prismatic effect, as if photographed through the tear of a crystal chandelier. The relationship with Bai is consummated, with physical directness and the cutting reflects this, remaining perfectly clear and keeping classical sight lines in synch. The opposite is the case in the tour de force of the method, Chow’s conversation with Mr. Wang about the renting of room 2046. They stand in a hallway, withholding information and guarding ulterior motives. Wong fragments the space into shards, breaking up the actors in mirrors and offsetting their eye lines. They dissemble; Wong disassembles.
For all its balance and grandeur, 2046 is the most nervous of Wong’s films. Political anxiety gave the film its title: China’s promise, in 1997, that nothing would change in the free-market enclave of Hong Kong for 50 years. Money problems permeate the narrative. Chow is a low-end gambler, a low-paid hack, late on the rent. His relationship with Bai is complicated by ambiguity and embarrassment over the expectation of payment. Riots sparked by economic resentment invade the film’s texture as archival footage. (The first resulted from an increase in the Star Ferry fare; the second was an anti-colonial uprising by angry young Maoists.) Implicit as well is Wong’s own anxiety about his $15 million project running amok.
If someone wants to leave 2046, how long will it take? Some people get away very easily. Others find that it takes them much longer.
2046 is a place, a time, the name of a novel, the number of a hotel room, and, in the form of an anime megalopolis, the first digital representation in Wong’s cinema. 2046 is also, always, 2046: a cine-Narcissus enraptured by its own depths, unnerved by what it sees, struggling to pull away from its own image. Given the difficulties, the expectations, the reputation at stake, the scrutiny, the daunting perfection of In the Mood for Love—how could it have been otherwise? Anxiety: “Science-fiction films are not about science,” wrote Susan Sontag. “They are about disaster.” Ground control to Major Wong … 2046 is a vacuum touched by death. Lulu is stabbed, Wang (it is hinted) attempts suicide, Su Li Zhen’s absence vexes the narrative. The movie embarked on its long gestation at the dawn of the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Wong’s future is digital; celluloid has a shelf life, like canned pineapple. The future is sold; a logo for LG Communications is prominently displayed in the opening animation. Time and space collapse in memory—memory collapses in memory. The trials of the present are projected onto the future. Both times are fiction. 2046 is a spectacular act of self-interrogation. Why can’t it be like it was before?
At the end of The Hand, Wong’s contribution to the omnibus Eros, a prostitute played by Gong Li melodramatically expires in the arms of her tailor (Chang Chen, briefly seen in Chow’s sci-fi). A concentrated ars poetica on the trilogy of Days/Mood/2046, Wong’s masterly short took the making of quipao gowns as the radiant symbol of his own craft. The Hand annotates the most portentous visual motif in 2046: the slo-mo sway of Gong Li’s glove. Attired entirely in her namesake color, Black Spider is the film’s most obscure figure. Her past was like her black glove, a mystery with no solution. Her name, we discover, is Su Li Zhen.