Be prepared to be baffled when you go to a Wong Kar-wai movie. Metaphors and similes seem woefully inadequate, but here goes: Nothing in the Hong Kong director’s films is packaged and segregated into the emotional TV dinner trays we’ve come to rely upon in Hollywood fare. His sustenance is all over the plate, every exotic flavor commingling with the next, and then he lets you smell the creation once or twice before he takes it away forever. Wong supercharges the classic visual language of film with some of the most exquisite shots you’ll ever see, then couples them with plots wandering around like a blind man in a hedge maze. You’ve got to be ready for a new experience, or at least open to the idea you might need to exercise a different set of mental muscles to appreciate this stuff.
His latest is 2046, an oddly romantic tale with shards of science fiction and an abundance of noir imagery in an apparent examination of memory. The film also is an oblique sequel to Wong’s In the Mood for Love'a rapture of unrequited love and tantalizing visual images surrounding two married people who live in adjoining hotel rooms, sharing an attraction but apparently never acting on it because their spouses are cheating with each other. That’s all well and good, but Wong’s palette of colors, images and actors overwhelms the romance at the center'and in 2046, he doesn’t even pretend to care as much about the story.
His visual language becomes even more sophisticated in 2046, which is named both for the hotel room where the first film’s couple trysted, as well as the year when China completely subsumes Hong Kong’s government. The estimable Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Infernal Affairs) is back as Chow, the hero of In the Mood, with a weaselly mustache and a newfound confidence in his irresistibility to the finest women of the 1960s, when the story is set. He has become a ladies’ man, we’re told, shaking off the shackles of unrequited love for a series of hot flings with several of the most significant Chinese actresses working today.
The lingering melancholy of lost memory, a frequent rumination for Chow, is hard to sustain when we’re blinded by one beauty after another. There’s party girl Lulu (Carina Lau); Chow’s landlord’s daughter (Faye Wong); slick gambler Su (Gong Li), who has the same name as the character played by Maggie Cheung in In the Mood; and Maggie herself, who returns sparingly as a figure in the futuristic tale Chow is writing in his hotel room when he’s not out slutting around. Then there’s Bai Ling (not the Playboy actress, but a character’s name), the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-jade played by the yummy Ziyi Zhang. She’s the most important woman in the story, both because of her character’s changes and Zhang’s clever performance.
At times, 2046 is too cute to live, and not just for its looks and chauvinistic conceits. Geeks love the fact Wong poaches dialogue and snippets of music from In the Mood and even his earlier films, but his exhausting range of visual beauty still sticks out further. Chow’s sci-fi tale features cool-looking trains, memory excavations and female androids who can’t cry until a day after they’re sad, a surprisingly direct metaphor for such a shy screenplay.
More often, it seems the film does a Buddhist-like job of ignoring any aspirations. It’s hard to appreciate 2046 as much more than a statuesque bimbo even when you’re armed with a romantic heart, the love of a poet’s dramatic imperfections, an appreciation of film history from von Sternberg to Antonioni to Lawrence Kasdan, and a willingness to sit through a plot that never approaches narrative coherence.
And yet 2046 captivates in a way you can’t quantify, with a grip that might be nothing more than raw visual charisma. It’s a good thing movie criticism is related in words, not images; the only way to reduce Wong’s films to manageable thoughts is to chop them into sentences, adjectives and facile observations. This is the type of esoteria that will fill your mind while Leung apparently travels through time, or while Zhang achieves a timeless luminescence through Wong’s lens. The feelings 2046 spawns are chilling, thrilling and incomplete'and only appreciated after your own trip through this strange territory.