2046 (2004)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-05-27
“2046” is a beautiful movie to watch and listen to; it has some powerful performances from very talented actors; the set design looks perfectly planned and executed and the cinematography is effortlessly superb. It evokes a time and place very well—the rundown hotel, packed restaurants and steamy casinos are very real. While the Hong Kong of “2046” is not as intensely crowded as the neighborhoods full of former residents of Shanghai in “In the Mood for Love”, the small rooms, ridiculously thin walls, cramped stairways and tiny common areas serve to emphasize that privacy and personal space is created only by ignoring what others do and being ignored by them. Wong Kar Wai assembled many of his repertory company of actors, added one terrific newcomer and backed them with the technical geniuses who have been part of the look and sound of his movies for years.

Unfortunately there is a huge empty spot in the middle of the movie, a black hole that sucks up much of the emotional energy and leaves only anger, despair and hopelessness. It isn’t possible to view “2046” without thinking of the rich emotional and psychological tapestry that Wong created with the relationship of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in “In the Mood for Love”. “2046” fails an all important test of a great movie—it doesn’t force the audience to care deeply about the characters. It is either a noble failure or cynical art house/film festival creation. Given the oft retold story of the agony of its birth I would assume it is the former.

The cinematography, as in all the collaborations between Christopher Doyle and Wong, is breathtaking. The lasting visual image is of shots through windows, doors, in mirrors or with part of foreground blocked. The audience becomes voyeurs, catching glimpses of the characters as they live their lives. Mr. Chow often spies on his neighbors, first Faye Wong as Wang Jingwen, the daughter of his landlord, and later on Zhang Ziyi as Bai Ling. His gaze also lingers over the (possibly) passed out but still beautifully composed form of Lulu (Carina Lau) when he takes her home after a night on the town. At least once he is seen and, in a way, engaged with Bai Ling as she is making love with an anonymous partner. Doyle generally uses a muted palette—the colors in the hotel are fine-grained and almost elegant and the train is full of pastels. In sharp contrast the nightclub scenes are brightly lit and gaudy, visually underling the emotionally crippled psyche of Mr. Chow—he is the same hollow person no matter what. He can break the heart of a woman who loves him or be the life of the party with acquaintances with the same nonchalance.

The costuming is perfect. Maggie Cheung, with her thirty or so different cheongsams in “ITMFL”, set a never to be achieved again standard of perfection of actress and costume, Zhang Ziyi looks wonderful in the several she wears and exquisite in her meticulously vulgar upscale Hong Kong hooker wardrobe. Tony Leung usually is dressed in a white shirt, skinny white tie and nondescript dark suit—he wears this outfit as a uniform or camouflage.

Tony Leung has one of the most male of male gazes in cinema—up there with, for example, Clark Gable, with whom he has an uncanny resemblance in this movie. Not so much physically—other than the mustache—but in his eyes, in the way he looks at (or through) other people, especially women. He is a real “man’s man” with all the dreary baggage that comes with it. Tony Leung moves effortlessly through this part, inhabiting Mr. Chow very comfortably. He is a rake and a reprobate who feels he has been injured by women and can hurt them with emotional impunity.

It isn’t surprising that Zhang Ziyi doesn’t fare at well. Early in the movie, in the flirtatious and then desperate and sorrowful scenes with Tony Leung she does an admirable job. Later on, during the meeting with Mr. Chow at the restaurant when she tells him she is leaving for Singapore, a scene she has to carry, her inexperience becomes more obvious. Bai Ling is a very rich character, a young woman who lives by her wits and uses the only asset she has—her body—to survive. She falls in love with the wrong men but, to Wong’s credit, who Zhang recently criticized for his coldness toward her during the filming, Bai Ling never becomes a truly pathetic figure. She throws herself at Mr. Chow one last time when he brings him to her slum of a room but is still headed for Singapore to try her luck in the nightclubs there.

Carina Lau is wonderful—as is almost always the case with the beautiful and talented actress—as Lulu. A startling and telling shot occurred in an extreme close-up of her when she opened her eyes for just a moment as Mr. Chow was leaving her room after their drunken night on the town. Carina Lau’s face was horizontal on the screen—she was lying on a bed—and she was able to express a world of longing, anger and pain with just her eyes.

The narrative structure of “2046” has been discussed a lot and I don’t have anything to add. While there are some obvious anomalies—characters referring to something that couldn’t yet have occurred are the most obvious—they are easy to overlook.

The music is terrific. “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s “Norma” expresses erotic longing and renunciation as well as can be. The hipster pop tunes—“Siboney”, “Sway”—and different arrangements of “The Christmas Song” create a sense of the 1960s. Shigeru Umebayshi’s score, especially the opening theme and violin interlude, are lovely in themselves and also fit very well with the action on the screen.

This is a difficult movie to rate—it is beautiful but empty, much like Mr. Chow. The science fiction sections on the train aren’t terribly well done, the constant use of the “secret” motif, whispering a secret into a hole in a tree, doesn’t lead anywhere at all and some of the characters are so unconvincing that they draw attention themselves, such as when Mr. Wang gave up his life-long hatred of the Japanese for the sake of his daughter.
Reviewer Score: 6