Reverie and Regret

A serial womanizer and his paramours are a cultural metaphor for Hong Kong’s future

Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, “2046,” is a film of blurs. More often than not, when two characters share the screen, one’s face is out of focus. If you wear glasses, the cinematography will leave you wondering if you washed them properly.

Although it was shot in Cinemascope, the screen looks narrower because walls constantly block large portions of the frame. Wong’s visual textures are dazzling, but beyond their poetic qualities, they reflect the characters’ power struggles by making it difficult to see two people clearly at the same time. Such images don’t exist simply for their own sake.

“2046” is a sequel to Wong’s 2000 “In the Mood for Love,” although several critics have described it as a remix. Set in the late 1960s, it picks up with Chow (Tony Leung), who fell in love with a married woman but resisted sleeping with her in the previous film. After an introductory segment in Singapore, he relocates to Hong Kong. He lives in a hotel, writing science fiction, journalism, soft-core porn and martial arts novels.

The hotel owner’s daughter Jing-wen (Faye Wong) has earned her father’s disfavor by falling in love with a Japanese man. Chow has relationships with several women and many one-night stands, but he’s become a caddish playboy. Still haunted by his memories, he’s incapable of loving any present-day woman wholeheartedly.

So far this year, the shock of the new has come from Asian cinema, rather than American or European. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady” dug into a banal love story, revealing an undercurrent of passion, difficult yet necessary to express. Less successfully but still compellingly, “2046” reworks the melodrama in a way that feels both old-fashioned and ultramodern; the former stems from the period setting and Chow’s concentration on his past, the latter from the mood of overwhelming disconnection and the way the film generates emotion more from resonant combinations of image and music than the story.

“2046” is a narrative film, dense and full of doubles. Chow’s sci-fi story recycles images from life in the hotel. Its owner pops up again there, while Faye Wong also plays an android. Kimura Takuya plays both Jing-wen’s boyfriend and the man who falls in love with her android incarnation.

Repeatedly, Wong shows Jing-wen standing on the hotel roof, smoking a cigarette and standing just to the left of its neon sign. Toward the end, Chow occupies the exact same position. The Black Spider (Gong Li), the woman he meets in Singapore, turns out to be named Su Li Zhen, just like the woman he loved in “In The Mood for Love.” Trying to imagine a new world, Chow can do nothing but create variations on his own dilemmas.

“2046” is also a non-narrative film; in fact, it’s most powerful as one. In addition to being a writer, Chow’s a talkative guy, so the film is full of voice-over. However, his silences speak loudly. Only at the very end does he really acknowledge that he’s squandering the present by living in the past, recognizing that the advice he gave Su about escaping from her memories was really aimed at himself.

The shot in which Chow stands in a casino, smoking slowly as life moves around him at a much faster pace and music blares on the soundtrack, reflects his state of mind better than any of his words. Wong already used that particular effect in “Chung King Express,” but here it’s stripped of any trace of that film’s bittersweet excitement.

The film’s heart lies in such moments of rapture. Few directors have used music—including Western and Chinese opera and rock artists as different as the Mamas and Papas, Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson—as powerfully as Wong does. It doesn’t supplement the story; it tells the real story.

“2046” is weakest when narrative takes precedence: the lengthy interpolation of Chow’s story halfway through brings the film to a grinding halt, although it’s not without a few striking moments. It’s a bit flat emotionally, largely because its plot and themes feel banal compared to the images.

Sony Pictures Classics may end up giving it a wider release than any previous Wong film, but it’s likely to leave anyone who missed Chow’s previous incarnation in “In The Mood for Love” unmoved. The strength of Leung’s performance is most apparent if one compares the two films: here, he plays a formerly nice guy turned bitter and gone to seed.

Wong’s synthesis of storytelling, sound and visuals doesn’t always gel, but it’s provocative enough to make a fascinating film, despite its longueurs. Although he has many imitators, no one else makes films quite like him. His best films—“Chung King Express,” “Ashes of Time,” “Fallen Angels” and “In the Mood for Love”—offer a potential glimpse of cinema’s future.

“Chung King Express” and “Fallen Angels” also serve as time capsules of the possibilities and disappointments of ‘90s urban life, captured just before Hong Kong became a possession of mainland China. “2046” isn’t quite that visionary, but it’s a satisfying example of what the medium can, but rarely, accomplishes right now.

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