2046 (2004)

First published by Movie Gazette

In Wong Kar-wai’s masterful study of love and loss In the Mood for Love (2000), set in early sixties Hong Kong, 2046 is the number of the hotel room where the journalist Chow secretly meets his neighbour Li-zhen to play out their confused feelings about their respective spouses’ adultery – until things become too serious and Chow moves to Singapore. In the film’s sequel, 2046, spanning the mid to late sixties (and beyond), Chow (again played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) returns to Hong Kong, an unhappy man trying to exorcise the love of his past with a string of frivolous sexual liaisons.

Running into Lulu (Carina Lau Ka-ling), an equally lovesick acquaintance from Singapore, Chow discovers that by coincidence she now lives in a hotel room numbered 2046 – and although she is murdered soon afterwards by a jealous lover, Chow cannot resist moving into the room next door. There he begins a non-commital relationship with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), the prostitute who now occupies room 2046, until things become too serious. He also befriends the hotel manager’s daughter Jing-Wen (Faye Wong), helping her to stay together with her Japanese lover, while recalling the help he himself received in Singapore from an enigmatic Cambodian woman (Gong Li) with an unexpected link to Li-Zhen. Inspired by these episodes, Chow writes an erotic science-fiction novel called 2046, about a mysterious train which takes passengers on a one-way journey to a future year where they hope to recapture their lost memories. Yet like Tak (Kimura Takuya), the Japanese hero of his stories, Chow is trapped in a limbo, incapable of either moving on or going back.

2046 is also the last projected year that Hong Kong will remain a semi-autonomous entity, before being fully reunited with China – and by making Hong Kong’s 1966 riots and 1967 curfews (both in response to China’s Cultural Revolution) form the background to his human dramas, Wong uses the history of these two separated states to underscore his multiple tales of parted lovers, suggesting, through this marriage of the personal and the political, that the future – both Chow’s and Hong Kong’s – will always be haunted by the past, even if nothing can ever be like it was before.

Wong began working on 2046 long before he had finished shooting In the Mood for Love, but then he found himself, like his protagonist, unable to let go, still obsessively editing and re-editing four years later, and presenting different last-minute cuts of the film at different film festivals. Such perfectionism, however, has ensured that the finished product is an object of rarely seen refinement and complexity. Seamlessly blending period nostalgia and science fiction futurism, so that fact and fantasy, past and future are all made to echo each other with an inescapable circularity, the film’s strange chronology turns progress into backward-looking elegy, and history into eternal return. Everyone here has a double, events and lines repeat themselves, and even key motifs from the first film – letters sent from Japan, awkward smooching in the back of a taxi, a man and a woman writing stories together, and of course a hotel room numbered 2046 – reappear in mutated, but recognisable, form to keep reminding Chow of what he had once tried to forget.

Production designer William Chang Suk-ping and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (assisted by Lai Yiu-fai and Kwan Pun-leung) have rejoined Kar-wai to create a richly stylish visual aesthetic to match the film’s narrative sophistication and subtly shaded performances. In consequence, 2046 is not only a worthy sequel to one of the finest films of the last decade, but an exquisitely beautiful evocation in its own right of human longing and melancholy, timeless enough to be still making an impression in 2046 and beyond.

strap: Wong Kar-wai’s mel(anchol)odramatic sequel to In the Mood for Love turns progress into backward-looking elegy, and history into eternal return.

© Anton Bitel