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I’ve never fully “gotten” the genius of Wong Kar Wai. In the Mood for Love was pretty, but it was painfully slow. Nevertheless, many critics (including Movie Habit contributor Breck Patty) found it brilliant.

So for the screening of 2046, I anticipated a slow pace and found much to like. And although I would be hard-pressed to give this film a blanket recommendation to American audiences, it is a gorgeous, rich film.

Round-Trip Ticket to the Future

Lovers meet in a lonely corner of the screen
Lovers meet in a lonely corner of the screen

2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but only loosely. It stars the same actor playing the same character (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Hero, playing Chow Mo-Wan), but the story line is very different.

The film takes place mostly in the late 1960s. There are flash-forwards to 2046 and flashbacks to some of Chow’s earlier love affairs, including one with a version of Mrs. Chan from the previous film.

According to one of Chow’s stories — he’s now a writer — the year 2046 is a twilight-zone paradise. People go there via a special train; they never leave, it never changes. People in his story assume 2046 is heaven, but to our narrator, and to us, it has the whiff of a cosmic trap.

The movie opens on our narrator, Chow, saying that he was the first to return from 2046; he went back to 1966 and started writing stories and articles. Chow may be narrating from the future, but he is also the writer who invented the future from which he narrates. This is not a puzzle you are supposed to solve. It just illustrates that 2046 is a movie with layers upon layers.

Looking for Love

Our writer got the number “2046” from an apartment where a girl he loved once lived. He tried to move in to the apartment after her tragic death, but it was unavailable and he had to settle for 2047. 2046 is also the year Hong Kong will be reunited with China. For the movie’s purposes, though, the number seems to stand, roughly, for Mr. Chow’s hopes.

The protagonist of Chow’s story is stuck on the train coming back from 2046, but it’s an endless voyage, a sort of Mobius tunnel where you keep moving forward but don’t actually get anywhere. On the train there are robotic women who service the male passengers, but they are incapable of love. That, to the passenger, is the greatest tragedy, riding forever, getting nowhere, having companionship, but never finding love.

The passenger is Chow’s own reflection. Chow himself is constantly looking for love in the 1960s. Through the film there are six women he loves, and none of them ends up being the woman for him. The press notes call Chow a womanizer, but I found him much more complex and sympathetic than that. He does love serially. But Chow just can’t bring himself to settle down, no matter how frustrating his loneliness becomes. Germaine Greer once said that men don’t pay prostitutes to have sex with them, they pay prostitutes to leave afterwards. That’s the situation that Chow needs, in spite of his longing for a more normal, settled life.

Hey Good-Lookin’

In addition to the rich, layered drama there is some outstanding cinematography. Veteran Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Hero, Rabbit-Proof Fence) shot much of the movie, although two other photographers are credited as well: Lai Yiu-Fai and Kwan Pun Leung (Wong took so long to finish this film that Doyle lost patience and left the shoot). The look of the film is often voyeuristic. Lovers meet in a lonely corner of the screen, sometimes seen from around corners or through glass. The photography often makes the love seem forbidden.

There are also cinematic moments that are inspiring, although they probably sound gimmicky until you see them. There is an amazing shot at a restaurant where Chow is talking to one of his lovers. The camera dollies from her to him, then catches his half-reflection in an unseen beveled glass, just as he starts speaking. One could easily read some meaning into such a shot: maybe it’s a sign that the real Chow isn’t speaking, but rather some half-real reflection of the man. In any case, it’s the kind of wonderful photography that adds interest, depth, and meaning to a movie.

Wong uses some computer-generated footage for the scenes in 2046 and for the train, but it’s not nearly as impressive as the organic, earthy colors of the late 1960s. Nothing is white. Everything is warmed by orange light, olive-green paint, or rust and shadows. The hotel where Chow stays is grubby, with cardboard-thin walls. And yet the place seems warm and lived-in, not dank and cold.

Wong’s vision of the late 1960s is wonderful. The men are all smartly dressed in suits with neat, small ties. They have thin moustaches and pomaded, carefully controlled hairstyles. The women poof their hair and wear elegant robes or dresses. Everybody looks formal. Nobody looks casual. On the radio plays dance music from hot Latin countries and Nat King Cole at Christmas time. Wong’s 1960s are radically different from the futuristic world of 2046, and they are probably more foreign to modern audiences than his vision of the future, but they are more welcoming. Wong seems to find this era captivating and magnetic.

The editing in 2046 is also very good, although the slow pace may lose some audiences. Wong moves from 2046 to 1966 and back, not at random, but to tell the story of love. Flashes of memory and jumps to the future punctuate the smaller moments to help tell the complete story of Mr. Chow’s loneliness.

So Wong, So Right

So 2046 offers a lot to like. But like its predecessor, it doesn’t offer enough to love or to get excited about. It’s a must-see for fans of Wong Kar Wai, and recommended for the international movie lover.

But for meat-and-potatoes, four-movies-a-year Americans, I’m afraid Wong Kar Wai still won’t become a household name. 2046 is certainly an engaging drama and character study, but there isn’t much there to get behind and really get excited about, unless you already know and love Wong’s style.