Review: 2046

2046 is the third in a trilogy by Wong Kar Wai, and it contains references to its predecessors, Days of Being Wild and In The Mood for Love. Tony Leung plays Mo Wan Chow, who we first saw in the last scene of Days of Being Wild, preparing to carry on in the footsteps of a lothario played by Leslie Cheung. In In The Mood for Love, Mo Wan Chow and his neighbor's wife Su Li-zhen, played by Maggie Cheung, flirt with romance but never indulge their mutual attraction, even though their spouses are having an affair.
The experience seems to break him, and in 2046 we find Mo Wan Chow has returned to his womanizing ways, his heart scarred by the memory of Su Li-zhen. And if you're going to dabble on the rebound, one can do worse than bed the likes of Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang (apparently Zhang has decided to order her name in the Western tradition of first-middle-last name instead of the more Chinese last-first-middle sequencing; I doubt American audiences felt distanced by her previous ordering, but I'll respect her wishes because she's a doll).
Fans of Wong Kar Wai will realize that further plot summary is mostly futile. 2046's meandering, spiralling, and sometimes shapeless narrative. It's not surprising considering that WKW shoots without a script. That also means his shoots take years. 2046 took nearly five years to shoot, and Ziyi Zhang has joked she'd love to do another movie but can't afford to take so long off. The advantage of his shooting style is that his movies feel fluid, organic, and improvisational, like jazz. Linear time collapses altogether.
2046 contains other WKW signature qualities. The lush, voluptuous cinematography by Christopher Doyle which renders the movie screen like some sort of lurid colored tapestry (though it's rumored Doyle and WKW had a falling out during the shoot and have parted ways). The languid tempo set to the gentle, swaying rhythms of Latin music. The tight quarters, a symbol of the character's attempts to compartmentalize their feelings and memories, to no avail (WKW and Doyle's organic/Eastern philosophy of filmmaking eschews, for the most parts, constructed sets, so many shots are framed tight and narrow and feel almost voyeuristic). The muted languor Tony Leung. WKW is a master at evoking mood, not through plot, but through these elements of his distinctive style.
What is missing, and what makes the film so frustrating, is those moments when a WKW movie seems to be running in circles, quiet moments when suddenly a character's guard seems to drop away and his or her soul spills onto the screen. Leung has always been the foremost WKW interpreter because his natural expression is one of a cool surface, almost cryptic, and what emotions he does display seep out of him like the happiness out of the corner of Mona Lisa's smile. His character seems to be trapped in this movie, though, unable to move forward towards 2046, unable to move on from his past, haunted as he is by memory. 2046 feels like an echo of pain; it reverberates at times with surpassing beauty and sadness, but it fails to resolve.
Much of the screen time is occupied by Ziyi Zhang and Faye Wong. Maggie Cheung appears only briefly, in flashbacks, and Gong Li has a minor part. If the ratio of screen time among these two pairs had been reversed, the movie might have had a richer emotional life. Cheung and Li have a gift for turning their fragility inside out that Zhang and Wong's striking young faces can't match.
We all have our story of the one that got away, and for Mo Wan Chow is destined to chase after her for life. The repetition drags on a few beats too long at times, leaving several dead spots. Still, it's tempting to wallow in the misery, especially when it's filmed so beautifully. Sitting next to the chatty drunk at the neighborhood bar, the one who won't stop pattering on about the woman who got away, can be maddening, but empathy for his plight keeps us seated at the barstool long enough for one drink too many, the drunk being our only companion in our existential loneliness.
P.S.: Supposedly WKW is on tap to direct The Lady from Shanghai starring Nicole Kidman, the hardest working lady in Hollywood, and also to direct a movie about Bruce Lee, also starring Leung. WKW also directed 1 of 3 short films from Eros, due to release in the US in April 2005.