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Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Carina Lau
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

(Beware of spoilers)

2046 is a film about loneliness, longing, and the futility of escaping from the fetters of past memories.

The version I saw in Singapore is the same as the one shown in Shanghai, and differs from the Hong Kong version in that the steamy bed scene with Carina Lau is deleted, and the dialogue is in Mandarin.

The significance of the title is explained by the Hong Kong director, Wong Kar Wai, in an interview with The Guardian. When Hong Kong was handed back by the British to China in 1997, the Chinese government promised that there would be no change for 50 years. 2046 is the last year of this promise.

In the film Tony Leung plays a newspaper journalist who is trying to write a science fiction novel entitled 2046. It is the year where time travelers can go to find lost memories, the year when time might stand still. Who knows what 2047 will bring?

2046 is also a room number in a sleazy hotel where protagonist Tony Leung first met Maggie Cheung in their earlier film “In the Mood for Love” (2001). It is the same room where he brings a drunk Carina Lau to sleep, but when he returns a couple of days later, she is no longer there, having been stabbed by a jealous boyfriend. Carina first appeared with Tony in the film “Days of Being Wild” (1991) and “Ashes of Time” (1994), both directed by Wong Kar Wai.

The room is later occupied by a dance hostess and prostitute, played by Zhang Ziyi. Tony Leung had wanted to take room 2046 in the hope of reliving his memories of Maggie Cheung, but settled for the room opposite, number 2047. He notices the number of male clients that Ziyi brings to her room, and he can hear the bed springs oscillating. He invites her to be his drinking partner. But when he tries to force a gift onto Ziyi, he is met with a slap on the face. This provokes Tony into a teasing verbal sparring with her. His persistence leads not only in her acceptance of the gift, but also himself as her new lover. Unfortunately Ziyi makes the mistake of falling in love with Tony, because he only views her as a temporary diversion. Heartbroken she moves out.

The final occupant of room 2046 is the hotel owner’s daughter, played by Faye Wong. Previously she had appeared in the film “Chungking Express”(1994) with Tony Leung. She is passionately in love with a Japanese, Takuya Kimura. In real life he is a pop singer and teenage heart throb. Her father objects to this affair, and when he returns to Japan, she stays in Hong Kong. Faye suggests that Tony writes a science fiction novel based on her own life. In the novel, she is a humanoid living in the year 2046. Her boyfriend tries to persuade her to leave 2046, but she is unable to express any emotions, and is trapped in this time.

Wong Kar Wai does not tell the story in a linear manner. Time is shuffled like a pack of cards, and sometimes it is fast forwarded in a logarithmic manner. One travels to the future to find one’s past.

The central theme of the film is about memories. The feeling of deja vu is particularly acute if you have seen any of Wong Kar Wai’s previous films because he reprises the actors and recreates some of the visual imagery. This plays on the audience’s memory. But things are not quite the same in the present day. Thus when Tony recognizes Carina Lau, who played the role of Lulu in “Days of Being Wild” (1991), she has changed her name, and does not remember him initially. Memorable songs like Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, and Siboney, reinforce the audience’s sense of deja vu (or should it be deja entendu?).

At the core of the film is Tony Leung’s memories. He is trapped by his memories of Maggie Cheung, both having suppressed their love for each other in the past. It now leads him back to room 2046 where they first met.

While in “In the Mood for Love,” Tony and Maggie never actually fulfil their love, in 2046, Tony beds a whole string of women. And yet he is not fulfilled. His new loves are hollow, and he is haunted by his memory of Maggie.

Tony has a brief affair with a gambler in Singapore, played by Gong Li. He is attracted to her and asks her to go to Hong Kong with him. She uses a card trick to reject his offer. He leaves in sorrow, but it is Gong Li who sheds tears of regret. Much later on, when Zhang Ziyi has fallen in love with Tony, she asks him not to have any other mistresses, and to be with her only, he rejects her. She sheds tears of sorrow. His act is reminiscent of Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind” and makes him a cad.

Wong Kar Wai likes to break film-making rules. At film school you learn the dictum “show, don’t tell.” Kar Wai does the opposite. He uses voice-overs and quotations to tell the story rather than showing it. He fractures the storyline so that it is hard to follow. Style becomes more dominant than substance.

The film is suffused with a brooding mood, impregnated with angst and the melancholy of love rejected. This is now considered Wong Kar Wai’s signature style. It has been imitated so much by younger film makers that it has become a cliché.

The cinematography is luscious and ravishing. Film critic Adrian Sim makes the following comments about the cinematographic techniques:

“By dividing the screen into half and choosing to depict action on one half, Wong Kar Wai has created a sense of visual unrest and claustrophobia. In so doing, the shots look visually arresting because of the more pronounced depth of field. He has also chosen to shoot about 90% of the film in interiors (i.e., the Oriental Hotel and train) creating an insular world that the lovelorn characters live in. Interestingly, the only exteriors shown are the barren alleys, the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI)-rendered futuristic Hong Kong skyline and black and white footage of civil unrest to present the contexts of his affairs. Wong Kar Wai has also deliberately cut away a lot of “look room” (that comfortable looking space) from the characters, such that the characters often appear talking to someone off screen, thus evoking the characters’ dissociative psyche. Another Wong Kar Wai trademark to stir visual interest is the use of over-the-shoulder shots to cut away facial features of the person in the background (remember the obstructive use of billowing curtains to block characters’ faces in Ashes of Time?). In a way, he attempts to dis-map the psychological domain of the often self-centred and deceptive characters (e.g., Tony Leung’s Mr. Chow) rendering an impossibility in totally understanding them. The numerous mirror shots furthers the theme of claustrophobia and emotional entrapment. This utilizing of mirrors is quite predominant in the trilogy of films. Also interesting is the choice of a nonlinear narrative in tandem with Tony Leung’s fragmented memories of his various beaus.”

Overall, I like the film. The only part I didn’t quite like is the sudden change in heart of Faye Wong’s father when he says he will attend her wedding in Japan, adding that “all I wanted was for her to be happy.” It does not ring true!

The acting is excellent all round. I am particularly impressed with Gong Li, and although she has relatively short screen time, she makes a great impact with her aristocratic bearing. Zhang Ziyi is also a fine actor, and has come a long way since her role as a teenage girl in Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” (1999). She portrays the role of a vulnerable high class prostitute with skill and sensitivity. Tony Leung has a difficult part because he is basically a rascal, out to have a good time, and prepared to dump Ziyi who has fallen for him. He is convincing in this part.

I also like Faye Wong, with her impish look. Tony Leung asks her to help him complete the novel. When she leaves for Japan, she takes the draft with her. Later she writes to him and comments: “the ending is too sad; can you try to change it to a happier ending?” You then notice the title of the novel has been changed to “2047”. Tony starts with the revision, and for a brief moment there is a ray of hope in his life.

Wallow in the seedy half-lit angst-filled world where time fluctuates, where lovers are easily available, but true love is not. The film is not everybody’s cup of Chinese tea. It works for me, so therefore I recommend it.

2046 was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

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  • Ken, i didnt read the review on account of im wary of spoilers, but how the hell did you get to see this? i heard he was still sticking bits together and tearing bits out and rearranging (editing, i believe its called), and generally annoying the hell out of festival organisers. egads, i envy you sir.

  • ken, thanks for the email! very informative. i belive this is going to be shown at the upcoming london film festival, which is useless to the duke, but at least means that it’s that little closer to getting a proper uk release.

    also, i feel i should plug this – http://www.mondoirlando.com/asian_horror_reviews.html – since not only is it an ongoing collection of the duke’s “asian extreme” reviews, but also has a photo of the duke doing the ringu. very, very disturbing