Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046” is something of a sequel to that rapturous meditation on love in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, “In the Mood for Love” (2000). Tony Leung is once again compelling as the existential journalist Mr. Chow. In voiceover Chow recounts his memories of his return to Hong Kong from Singapore in the late 1960s after the death of the love of his life, Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung). He holes up in a hotel and writes a short story about the future called “2046”, which, as it was in “Mood”, is the number of the room wherein take place his assignations.
The film concerns the passage of time, which we tend to equate with progress. But what if over time humans grow more dehumanized, more alienated from each other, our work, ourselves? In Chow’s story, people speed about on an elevated train through a shimmering cityscape, unable to alight. Robots provide intimacy which has been literally dehumanized. 2046, we are told, is a place that people go to recover lost memories, because in 2046 nothing ever changes.
Despite attempts to fill the void left by Su Li-Zen by becoming a suave ladies’ man, Chow remains essentially isolated. Both he and Ms. Bai (the lovely Ziyi Zhang of “Hero”), a prostitute, want a true friendship, but filthy lucre is both the basis for and the saboteur of their relationship. Another friend is Ms. Wang, the landlord’s daughter (Faye Wong, with whom we fell in love in Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chungking Express”), who co-writes “2046” with him. In Chow’s visualization of the story, Ms. Wang appears as one of the love-bots, as does the lost Su Li-Zhen (Cheung in a cameo).
One of the central metaphors of “2046” is history as a moving train. Unseen others control the train and thus the future. Hong Kong’s been under various foreign thumbs for so long, and therein lays yet another significance of the number 2046: it’s the year when China's agreement allowing independence for Hong Kong expires. Signifiers of that history of foreign control abound: Ms. Wang’s Japanese boyfriend signifies the Japanese occupation during WWII, and one of Chow’s sharpest memories is of the violence surrounding the demonstrations of 1967 against British colonial rule. Hong Kong culture itself has been westernized: Mr. Wang, the landlord, enjoys opera, and several scenes take place at a Christmastime suffused with the warm tones of Nat Cole.
With “2046”, Wong has given us more food for the eye, mind and heart. Here as in the rest of his oeuvre, Wong’s people struggle against roboticization to find connection in an absurd universe; they reach, in their way, for freedom and love. If “2046” isn’t a major work of art on the level of “Mood”, it is nonetheless a poetic coda.
- Sep 19, 2005