2046: Wong Kar–Wai’s Finest Momentby Douglas Singleton
“Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention, to recapture lost memories.”
2046 is, quite frankly, Wong Kar-Wai’s finest film. It has the structural complexity of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, and the thick atmospherics of In the Mood for Love. As luscious a film as In the Mood for Love is I was never quite sure that I actually enjoyed its languid pace and rambling scenarios. Great, lush cinematography to look at that leaves one empty, little emotional connection made with its characters. These reservations were confirmed when I re-watched In the Mood for Love recently on DVD and viewed scenes Kar-Wai edited out of his final cut—scenes which showed his characters’ passion, fire, and a consummation of love scene in a room “2046.” I wanted those scenes and he never gave them to me, though one understands why—the longing and unrequited love of In the Mood for Love gives the film its texture and in many ways was the point.
2046 improves on the emotional asceticism of In the Mood for Love by being expressly about the hinted-at passions of that film. 2046 uses as a starting point philosophical loose ends from its predecessor; takes these, garbles, recycles and then re-explores them along with ideas from a number of Kar-Wai’s earlier films. When you get inside its DNA, 2046 is a film so layered and folding in on top of itself that it is metaphysical filmmaking. One of the most elegiac films of a career filled with stunning cinematography, Kar-Wai might have fashioned a five-hour version and been justified. There are so many narrative strains that must have been left on the cutting room floor, appearing here and there as little improvisational riffs. There are at least four films here.
At the close of In the Mood for Love married newspaperman Tony Leung “blows” the secret of his desire for a love, also married, into a hole in the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and covers the hole with mud. The first image of 2046 is a representation of that hole in an imagined, futuristic world, the bottling up and uncovering of emotional secrets referred to throughout. In 2046 Leung’s newspaperman, now divorced and moved to Singapore, is reminded of this old true love, someone he once shared a room “2046” with, when he comes across another woman who also resides in a room “2046.” The year is 1966, he moves next door and begins writing a science fiction novel set in the year 2046 where people take trains to a city (also named 2046) to get away from memories of lost lives and loves. In Mood for Love, Leung’s character was a demure, unhappily married man. In 2046, a few years into a “future 1966,” he is a womanizing playboy. That the film may be an imagining of a wished-for-persona is hinted at by Kar-Wai and even by Leung’s character himself as he proceeds to fashion a futuristic sci-fi story stand-in for his life. His story is played out metaphorically on at least three different narrative planes.
2046 is not a continuation or sequel to In the Mood for Love but an extrapolation and riff on scenarios and themes presented by it, as well as Kar-Wai’s 1991 Days of Being Wild. It takes the character of Mimi/Lulu from Days’ 1960 and places her roughly six years later in the midst of a future affair with 2046’s Leung character and a mysterious rock drummer in much the same way as her relationships with the Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung characters in Days. The results of these couplings are the same—tragically unsuccessful, this love impossible to maintain in any context. 2046 represents lost love and memories for not only its own characters and the characters from previous Kar-Wai films, but for Wong Kar-Wai himself as he reflects back on his history as a filmmaker. It is omni-reflectional. In the sci-fi story Tony Leung’s writer fashions—the imagined source of the beautiful futuristic film within a film—a female android and her human lovers stand in not only for the characters and lives of individuals in its present day 1966, but also those from In the Mood for Love’s 1962, and Days of Being Wild’s 1960. The meticulously fashioned sci-fi world recalls not only obvious influences like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner but Kar-Wai’s own Chungking Express in which mysterious individuals run amok in a dark, rainy otherworld searching for sexual and spiritual transcendence.
Lacking an understanding of characters and scenarios from Kar-Wai’s previous films might render 2046 indecipherable, but with such an understanding it is revelatory, akin to how an understanding of Orson Welles’ film oeuvre makes his F for Fake a richer experience. 2046’s narrative, though non-linear and layered, stands on its own; its cinematic lusciousness surpasses In the Mood for Love, and its extended middle section detailing Zhang Ziyi and Leung’s passionate love affair is yet another enthralling, sexy movie within the movie. 2046 is cinematic chiaroscuro reaching for emotional, thematic complexity to sum up the maturation of a career.