Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a sequel to his film In The Mood For Love. It has the same central character of Chow Mo-Wan, played by Tony Leung, a melancholy writer who has a series of romantic entanglements with different women.
2046 takes place after the events of In The Mood For Love, when Mo-Wan had a passionate affair with Su Li-Zhen, played by Maggie Cheung. The narrative of 2046 moves backwards and forwards in time, ranging from the far future in the year 2046, when the world becomes connected by a vast train network that is headed for a mysterious destination known only as “2046,” to the past and present love affairs of Mo-Wan. For much of the film, Mo-Wan lives in a hotel, and it is within the confines of this hotel that many of his affairs occur.
Tony Leung, who has worked before with Wong Kar-wai, brilliantly portrays Mo Wan. He is an actor who is able to express the utmost sadness and happiness with just his eyes. Throughout much of 2046, Leung’s dialogue is kept to a minimum, and much of his acting is done through facial expressions. With just a single glance, we can sense Leung’s deep longing as he tries to consummate a relationship with a character played by Faye Wong. The other performances are all also commendable; indeed, the cast reads like a who’s who of Asian superstars—Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Takuya Kimura, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, and, of course, Tony Leung and Faye Wong.
With its free flowing narrative structure, and its ruminations on the nature of time and how it effects the many characters of the story, 2046 is Wong Kar-wai’s most ambitious and experimental film to date. While he has played with parallel story arcs before in films such as Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, 2046 is Wong Kar-wai’s first film to completely break apart from narrative convention to enter a realm of cinema based upon the true, fragmentary nature of time and memories.
As we live in our present worlds, memories of past events often break into our minds at seemingly random times, disrupting the linear structure of our everyday lives. As Mo-Wan isolates himself in his hotel room in 2046, his thoughts are haunted by memories of his past affairs, and Wong Kar-wai constantly interweaves these memories into the central narrative of 2046.
For Wong Kar-wai, this active engagement of the audience is an attempt to recreate the more free-flowing nature of memories. In order to interpret the seemingly random nature of our memories, we must put in an effort to interpret them to discover why they are intruding into our minds. Similarly, the viewer of 2046 must re-interpret the many free flowing scenes in order to see how they ultimately connect with the central story of the film—that of a writer who is haunted by a long lost love.
However, this does not mean that watching 2046 is a chore that must be endured. Rather, with its gorgeous cinematography and evocative use of operatic and classical music, 2046 is an all-encompassing, truly cinematic experience. As we follow Mo Wan through his passionate love affairs, we yearn for him to find happiness and some sense of closure to the long lost love of his life. However, like Mo Wan himself, the viewer is thrust into a world where true love is fleeting.
Wong Kar-wai’s explorations in time and narrative structure are similar to what European filmmakers in the 1960s were experimenting with. Alain Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad also dealt with a central character whose story is filtered through the stream of consciousness nature of lost memories.
Also, in the realm of literature, Marcel Proust’s seven part Remembrance of Things Past dealt with the fragmentary nature of time and memories. Raul Ruiz’s 1999 film Time Regained was a bold cinematic adaptation of Proust’s tome, and an interesting cinematic parallel to the themes and structure of 2046.
Ultimately, 2046 is about the elusive nature of time, and how our actions in the present are inescapably tied to the past. No matter how hard Mo Wan tries to free himself from memories of his long lost love, he sees her image in all the women that he meets. Memory is a prison for Mo Wan, but for Wong Kar-wai, memory is a liberating force for breaking apart the limits of narrative film. With its penetrating exploration of narrative structure and time, 2046 is a bold and haunting vision.
Note: In The Mood for Love is being released by The Criterion Collection in October with a great Blu-ray upgrade.