Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 arrived in Cannes last year in editing limbo and left prizeless, which didn’t exactly come as a surprise to those who saw the film, even those who ardently came to its defense. As a fan of Wong’s films, I’m tempted to give 2046 the benefit of the doubt, except this unofficial sequel to the director’s In the Mood for Love is a mess. The great Tony Leung Chiu Wai reprises his earlier role of Mr. Chow, but this facsimile of the actor’s In the Mood for Love dreamboat is much rougher around the edges (like 2046, he is something like a “work in progress”). Living in ’60s Hong Kong, the writer rents a hotel room, 2047, adjacent to a room that’s occupied throughout the film by a number of women he’ll inevitably seduce, among them Zhang Ziyi and Carina Lau. Frustrated desire never looked and felt as ravishing as it did throughout In the Mood for Love. 2046, though, is like In the Mood for Love stripped of all feeling—it’s depressing in all the wrong ways.
The film is haunted—not by the politics of a country (Wong shuns readings of the film as a fetishistic allegory for the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the expiration of the mainland’s promise of self-regulation in 2046), but by the past: Fans of In the Mood for Love will remember 2046 as the room where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung, who appears briefly in the new film) met to write one of Chow’s kung-fu serials (and where they may—or may not—have consummated their relationship). It’s only natural, then, that this room comes to taunt Mr. Chow—a place he wants to simultaneously escape from and run to. In the sci-fi novel he’s writing, titled 2046 (natch), the number represents a futuristic city that can only be accessed by a CGI train ride, and where his doppelganger (read: subconscious) has an affair with a beautiful android (Faye Wong) who, like everyone else in the film, seems to be in the mood for love but spends an eternity waiting for it.
From the hotel rooms of the past to the train compartments of the future, every space in the film suggests a memory deprivation chamber, a place where erotic obsession is cultured to near-breaking points. It’s no coincidence, then, that 2046 begins with a pan out from a vagina-like orifice carved into an ancient stone and ends with a pan into the same hole—Wong means to let us in on the secret Mr. Chow whispers into a hole at the end of In the Mood for Love, or, at the very least, trap us in amber along with the film’s characters. Except Wong never really tells us what’s on Mr. Chow’s mind; instead, characters repeat (over and over and over again) the myth of whispering secrets into holes carved into trees and covering those holes with mud, so no one will ever know, except the audience…or not. It’s irritating the way Wong beckons us with 2046. In this way, the film isn’t exactly incoherent, simply vague—it’s as if Wong has absolutely nothing to tell us.
Like In the Mood for Love, 2046 is gorgeous through and through, intoxicating even, but not necessarily in a good way. Like a fucked-up commentary track for its predecessor, the film is both coyly self-reflexive and self-consciously detached, irritating even, not unlike Baz Luhrmann’s indulgent Chanel No. 5 commercial starring Nicole Kidman, a dessert treat for those who couldn’t get enough of Moulin Rouge. Mr. Chow meets one girl after another as if they’re arriving at his doorstep via conveyor belt. Each one has a gimmick (the most fabulous one, played by Gong Li, wears a black glove that may be covering a wooden hand)—none bring love, simply baggage…and pretty couture (which, again, seems to have been modeled after whatever wallpaper decorates a room). Though these women seem to mean very little to Mr. Chow, they also mean very little to the audience—for sure, Wong means to depress Mr. Chow, but he bums out his audience in the process.
What is 2046, in the end, but a series of preciously hollow romantic imbroglios interspersed with ostentatious ruminations on memory repeated ad nauseam? If the experience of 2046 is not unlike the sensation of whatever secret Mr. Chow whispered into the tree at the end of In the Mood for Love, then maybe the film is meant to be so befuddling. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that the film needs to be so chilly. 2046 seems to evoke the movement of a strange animal morphing into a cocoon—like watching a lover roll into bed in the fetal position in a depressed stupor with no intention of ever getting up. Except this lover refuses to hold you in return, which means their pain is selfish. After the generous In the Mood for Love, then, the solipsistic 2046 feels bogus. To its credit, though, it makes us long for what we had before.
(This is a review of the film’s Cannes cut.)