A little history: I’ve been waiting for this movie for about three years. That’s a long time, especially when the movie in question comes from one’s favorite director, but thankfully my expectation still hadn’t bloated to anticlimactic levels before I went to see 2046. When I walked into the theater I had the anxiousness of something long waited for; what followed was elation. So what is it? And what’s it about? As many other critics have noticed, the answers to these questions are either too simple or too complicated. Both sequel and inverted analogue to In the Mood for Love, 2046 is sort of a sum of Wong Kar Wai’s film-making aesthetic and a little push forward at the same time. It also happens to be a great fucking movie.
Does anyone who hasn’t seen this film really need to know the plot? Nobody watches Wong Kar Wai movies for the strong and cohesive narratives: they watch them because they’re either stylish cool or emotionally involving, usually both at the same time. He makes the slow motion action sequence into something to be relished, and the modern jump cut into something fun and relevant, not pretentious or ill-used like so many directors trying to rip some of the cool out of ’60s New Wave. And the stylish amalgam of his technique is certainly not underrepresented in 2046. The dull business front to which I exited the theater afterwards didn’t feel a tenth as wonderful as this film’s gorgeousness. The frames buzz with texture and color, but not with the usual or expected palette: except for the wild train scenes, it stays fairly subdued. Low browns, silky skin tones and the cracked and lived-in streets and interiors that sidle through our main character’s life make the movie accessibly beautiful without being flashy.
Take it as an interesting anecdote that three cinematographers worked on the film: Christopher Doyle, with his signature style established by many years of fruitful partnership with Wong, and two fairly new guys from the Hong Kong scene, Pung Leung Kwan and Yiu Fai Li, the latter notable for working on Hong Kong mega-hit Infernal Affairs. And all three make the actors look as good as possible, even though they already look impossibly good. Three practically flawless female leads – Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern), Zhang Ziyi (House of Flying Daggers) and Faye Wong (Chungking Express) – what more could a movie like this need? Well, music, I suppose. Wong Kar Wai’s musical tastes have always been an eclectic layer that stabs through the image to really set things off, from C-Pop and old American songs to a Cantonese version of “Karmacoma.” It’s hard to imagine a lot of classic scenes in his movies without these. But the music in 2046 is different, and certainly much different than In the Mood for Love, with its endlessly repeating melancholy-soaked strings. These strings are tense and anxious, and when Nat King Cole jumps into the mix? Perfect.
But although 2046 has those flakes of grim and static perfection that were nailed to near perfection in Mood for Love, it doesn’t quite reach that level. It’s the old dilemma: where does the artist go after the obvious masterpiece? In Wong’s case, it’s to make a movie that nods a bit to what came before. Fans like me will notice all the inside gestures to the other films, but will also notice the differences. 2046 is like the same picture we’ve seen a few times before, but painted differently. It ponders more, is a little dreamier, and feels a little more fragmented. It’s sort of the culmination of what Wong Kar Wai has been trying to do for a long time but never could until now: many stories, presented in the same film, with different patterns but a consistent mood and emotion. In the Mood for Love was love that couldn’t be consummated and the smothering sadness that came with it; 2046 is the melancholy after the heartbreak.
Four women after the first reel begins, and Tony Leung’s character is still alone, his fictional alter ego is still riding the train back from 2046 and his memories. He can’t keep a relationship; his heart is in limbo. 2046 presents this sadness and melancholy with the elegance it deserves. But maybe these words can’t really express how I feel about this movie, which is that I love it, because it fulfills a lot of what I want from this film and from movies in general. Here is a director who has incorporated his glowing pop fixation into a larger scheme of emotion and produced … art.
Reviewed by Jon Cameron
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.