Wong Kar Wai’s 2004 film 2046 is a movie I admire a great deal. It’s a complex, thematically rich, thoughtful, and sensual film that won’t appeal to those for whom entertainment value is measured in megatons. 2046 builds on extensive references to two of Wong’s previous films, Days of Being Wild from 1991 and In the Mood for Love from 2000, which were not originally related but share some of the same stars from Wong’s stable of regular collaborators. 2046 looks back on the previous works in a way that connects them and turns them into prequels. Familiarity with both movies adds clarity and texture to viewing 2046. But 2046 is more ambitious than its predecessors. Wong has taken off the training wheels to engage with a range of issues, from the deeply intimate to the macropolitical. Something I really like about Wong is his ability to address complicated topics in a profound way without being didactic.
A key theme in 2046 is the alchemy the imagination works on experience, ideas, and memories to create art—a rumination that immediately brings to mind Wong’s notoriously elliptical, languid approach to filmmaking. In the Mood for Love protagonist Chow Mowan (Tony Leung) has morphed from being a journalist in the earlier movie to a creative writer here. His grand work of fiction, a novel called 2046, slowly evolves over the years portrayed in the film, incorporating the people he meets, his life experiences, and his inadequate attempts to reconcile past and present through the process of memory and iteration. Ultimately 2046 the film depicts the creation of 2046 the novel, until the two works merge and become indistinguishable as a single piece of art.
Overlaid on this framework are many of Wong’s frequent themes, including the role of time in human experience and issues of separation and loss as metaphors for the melancholy situation of the Chinese people. 2046 has a wealth of social, cultural, and psychological insights that could (and probably will) generate a lifetime of term papers in film schools. Hardly a frame of this two-hour-plus movie fails to illuminate one of Wong’s core themes.
Coming to Wong’s service in making his story compelling are not only the often-remarked-upon gorgeous cast that includes many of Asia’s most beautiful stars, both male and female, but also the extraordinary visual talents of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and production designer/editor William Chang, both reprising their contributions to In the Mood for Love. Doyle, who has worked with Wong on most of his films, brings a vision and style of camerawork that seems a perfect complement to Wong’s storytelling approach. The legendary Chang, among the most talented visual stylists ever to work in the film industry, brings an incomparable sensuality to the sets and costumes—and also lends his impeccable taste to the task of storytelling in the film editor role.