2046: Wong Kar-wai Stylish Noir

Cannes Film Fest 2004–Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a more ambitious film than In the Mood for Love, his most commercially successful picture in the U.S., but it’s not as accomplished and seamless as that 2000 film, arguably Wong’s masterpiece.

Even by the standards of the slow to shoot and edit director, it took longer to complete “2046” than previous features.   Wong is a notoriously perfectionist and notoriously indecisive filmmaker. The version that unspoiled in Cannes, which arrived just three hours before the official premiere, was not entirely ready. Wong continued to work on the film, and the current version is slightly different from the one released in Asia or Europe earlier this year.

There are also structural problems with “2046,” a noir tale, in which the sci-fi elements and the  futuristic ideas are not as strong as those of the past. Even so, Wong is such as consummate artist, and he is surrounded by such a reliable team, particularly his longtime lenser Christopher Doyle and designer-editor William Chang that, for the most part, “2046” is ravishingly beautiful, with luminous, almost surreal images.

How can you go wrong, if the film stars the most beautiful Asian stars working today: Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Carina Lau, and Maggie Cheung, who’s in the film for only a few seconds but was meant to have a bigger part. They are all courted by Hong Kong leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who carries the picture with his charm, sporting in this film the kind of thin mustache that was the mark of Clark Gable.

Though not exactly a summation work, “2046” revisits all the themes that have preoccupied Wong in his previous films.  One way he pays tribute to them is through casting. Most of the actors have appeared in previous Wong films. Moreover, Gong’s character bears the same name as Cheung’s in “In the Mood,” and at one point, Chow tells her: “I once knew a woman with the same name as yours.”

Dominating the film, however, is Zhang Ziyi, the young hot star whose luminosity and talent shone in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and in Zhang Yimou’s martial arts actioner, “House of Flying Daggers.” It does help that Zhang is featured in the most engaging part of the story.

But first about the title and its ironic, Godardian elements; Wong has said that Godard was a major influence on his work. You may recall that the hotel room in which the couple of “In the Mood” conducted their illicit affair was 2046. This number also signals the date of Hong Kong’s final integration into China, after the current “special administrative region” that followed the long British domination. Finally, 2046 is also the name of the novel that the protag-novelist writes.

Suffused with much the same languor and visual style as “In the Mood” which was a smaller movie in scale but more coherent film, “2046” is more substantial in issues, and more intense in emotions. Like “In the Mood,” most of the narrative is set in the 1960, except that instead of one central affair there are four. Adopting the noir genre as framework, “2046”could be seen as seductive reverie on memory, regret, and lost opportunities, as experienced and reflected upon by a writer- womanizer, who seems to be spending more time courting and writing.

The new film begins in 2046, with an image of a vast, speedy train network that can take its passengers all over the world. “Every now and then a train leaves for 2046,” says the narrator, “but no one ever comes back, except me.” Tak is then seen with his lover (singer-actress Faye Wong), whom he’s trying to convince to return with him. When she remains silent and non-committing, he leaves alone.

Story them moves to Singapore, circa 1966, and Chow Mo-wan (played by Leung), who’s now trying to persuade another lover, Su Lizhen (Gong Li, even more sensual than the usual), to leave with him on a boat to Hong Kong. She, too, remains silent, and Chow leaves alone.

Chow begins as a struggling pulp writer and journalist to a professional gigolo. The story follows him through three his affairs, all symmetrically set on Christmas Eve, December 24, between 1966 and 1969. That the women reside in room 2046, and Chow in 2047, goes without saying.

The first woman is goodtime girl, Lulu (Carina Lau), who gets murdered shortly after the affair begins. The second is Wang Jingwen (Wong again), the elder daughter of the hotel’s owner (Wang Sum). Defying her father, she’s in love with a Japanese guy. Chow’s sci-fi novel, “2046,” is inspired by Wang and her boyfriend, except that in his fiction, the lovers to flee to the future.

The story then switches to the last of Chow’s liaisons, this time with a tough prostitute from China, Bai Ling (Zhang). A whole reel is devoted to this almost self-contained episode. Chow and Bai become drinking pals and bosom buddies before becoming lovers. The affair, which has damaging effects on both, is the subtlest and most emotionally engaging part of the entire movie. In the end, Wang and Chow are shown having an affair, and the latter’s novel is visually excerpted, which make the film’s opening more resonant.

Main problem is that the futuristic idea doesn’t really work, and the whole film (which is way overlong) suffers from repetition. Carina Lau is the same character she played in Wong’s “The Days being Wild,” Faye Wong is from ‘Chung King Express’, Tony Leung has adopted some of his persona in Wong’s gay film, “Happy Together,” and the futuristic story “2046” recalls in moments the earlier “Fallen Angels.”

In “In the Mood for Love.” he doesn’t have the courage to love Maggie Cheung because they both are married. In “2046,” both he and Zhang Ziyi are singles, but he still lacks the courage or commitment, instead opting for an indecent relationship with her. The love between Cheung and Leung began in two adjacent apartments, and in the new film, Zhang Ziyi and Leung live in a small hotel in two adjacent rooms.

The film is suffused with a tragic feel. Chow is trapped in the past and in the future, while trying to escape the present; his true love, Faye Wong, is only in the past or future. The 2046 futuristic space, which is cold and robotic, may not exist; it’s more an existential than physical space that people carry in their minds.

The central noir motif, how impossible it is to return to or recreate the past, may strike some viewers as too familiar. And the same deja vu reaction may be generated by the notion that humans do not learn from past mistakes.

If “2046” feels like a summation work, it’s because it’s assembled from parts, characters, and actors that have appeared in his previous films. Carina Lau plays a similar role “Days of Wild.” Faye Wong is from “Chung King Express.” Tony Leung revisits some personas from ‘Happy Together.” The futuristic story “2046” offers parallels to “Fallen Angels.”

Despite thematic repetitions and structural weakness, “2046” is a feast to the eyes from start to finish. The film flaunts dark, burnished images of interiors in orange, yellow, and green. Most of the story is shot through close-ups in confined areas, which is most suitable, considering the subject matter, the claustrophobic feeling, and the stars’ glorious faces. The moody score varies from intense opera, such as Bellini’s famous aria, “Casta Diva,” to Latino rhythms and smooth melodic songs, like Nat “King” Cole’s “Merry Christmas to You.”