Story? Well, it’s pretty to look at.
Director Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is a thing of beauty to behold. There’s not a wasted shot in his ode to unrequited love, with every frame of the film exuding some degree of elegant style and devotion. And yet, while Wong has made a beautiful-looking film here, there isn’t much good to say about its intentionally near-nonexistent story. It’s really just a pastiche of thoughts and yearnings, with no real attention to a cohesive narrative.
Chow (Tony Leung) is a writer in Hong Kong, circa 1966, working on a science-fiction novel that shares the film’s title. His book is a Blade Runner-like story of a man in love with an android that can’t love him back, and Wong uses this story as a parallel to Chow’s struggles with the sacred emotion. Wong occasionally cuts to a visual recreation of Chow’s written words, juxtaposing the late-’60s film-noir imagery with a futuristic world that would be right at home in, well, a Ridley Scott movie, like Blade Runner. The technique is more stunt than substance.
Various of Chow’s love affairs are detailed, sketchily, as he takes up residence in a hotel, room 2047, after seeing the room number 2046 on a female friend’s door. Shortly after taking the room, Chow hears the hotel landlord’s eldest daughter, Jing (Faye Wong), talking to herself. She disappears shortly thereafter but will return, significantly, before the film is over.
Enter Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a stunning prostitute who’s falling for Chow. For mysterious reasons, he doesn’t emotionally reciprocate Ling’s affection. Is it because she’s a hooker? Maybe, as he makes money an issue the first time they sleep together. Is it pigheadedness, an effort to feel superior by dismissing someone’s loving advances? Maybe that, too, as Chow doesn’t relent in his efforts to keep their relationship at a shallow level and does little to console his friend. Wong does take some time to explain Chow’s motivations, saving this revelation until the movie’s almost over, but the effect isn’t the profound statement that the filmmaker might have sought. It’s actually kind of a cliché.
There’s another significant relationship between Chow and a Singapore gambler (Gong Li). These two share a kiss so hard and passionate that it looks as if it will cave in their faces. It appears that the relationship with the gambler is the catalyst for Chow’s erratic behavior.
All of these relationships in three years’ time make Chow a truly unsympathetic character. His penchant for falling in love and morosely whining about it gets tiresome fast. Had the story focused on one or perhaps even two true-love dilemmas during its chosen stretch of time, it would’ve had more resonance. As it stands, Chow is nothing more than a very fickle individual, and I’m thinking that wasn’t Wong’s intent.
Wong uses three cinematographers to achieve the film’s dreamlike look. The future world doesn’t get much screen time, but it does make an impression—namely, that this portion of the film deserves its own movie. His use of Nat King Cole music provides interesting atmosphere while making little sense, which is pretty much the problem with the entire film.
In one of her more interesting screen turns to date, Zhang steals the film with a heartbreaking performance. Her part, too, deserves its own movie, instead of being stuck in a sea of swirling love stories. Zhang has always shown a softer side in her martial-arts movies. That’s on full display here, and she doesn’t kick a single ass. And Tony Leung is an interesting leading man in all this, providing some levity during the confusion.
Some undoubtedly will see Wong’s vision as magical and profound, and, indeed, some moments in 2046 are just that. But the flaws in his storytelling, or lack thereof, eventually overwhelm his film. It can be appreciated as a work of tremendous visual art, but it says nothing new about love, and it repeats its unoriginal message in a few too many boring plot threads.