Wong Kar-wai’s films often present a stunning sense of emotion to make up for otherwise weak narratives. Sometimes it all comes together to create fantastic pieces like In the Mood for Love. Other times, like in 2046, what we get are jumbled vignettes, casual coherency, and brilliant visuals (and not just the cinematography - Wong chose these actresses for a reason). It’s more Wong meditation on love at the wrong time, and those familiar with his earlier films will see plenty of recurring themes.
To make 2046’s narrative even harder to crack is it’s relation to Wong’s previous films Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. 2046 follows Chow, one of the main characters of In the Mood for Love, after the events of the film. He’s a changed man (arguably a different character, even), but throughout the film there are convoluted references to both films that don’t entirely add up. Lulu from the former film shows up for a confusing and fast paced set up to the film. Su Li-Zhen from the second film is shown briefly in a flashback, and later on (or earlier on depending on the frame of reference - the events occur first but are shown last except for a brief glimpse) is discussed when a second Su Li-Zhen (somehow) enters the picture. There are multiple narratives about Chow’s interactions with several different women who live in apartment 2046. Between it all is the sci-fi narrative within Chow’s stories about a place known as 2046 where people go to revisit lost love. No one has ever returned. It’s an interesting tool to explore the film’s themes and lessons of love.
More than anything, this is a film that wants to linger on beauty and emotion. There are shots of these women, beautiful, and little else. Doorknobs, brandy, mirrors. Much of the frame is obscured. Our eyes lead us toward these women. They are the type of women who tell you to go but leave their door wide open. Often Wong has the frame rate slowed down to a stutter. It’s an odd technique that creates an uncomfortable and fascinating feel. We see Faye Wong’s character’s feet shuffle around the floor as if in some dance as she repeats over and over again the same phrase in Japanese, the language her boyfriend speaks. “Let’s go. I’ll go with you.” Moments like these are when the film is at its strongest. The viewer learns depths about the character from the hesitancy, carefulness, curiosity of her footsteps, the way she repeats this one phrase. Will she leave with him? Is it too late, or was it never even an option?
Largely though, most of the film is not this. It’s every love theme from Wong’s previous films muddled together into different experiences for Chow. Perhaps the most interesting girl is Bai Ling. She is sometimes an escort, but she wants something truly steady for herself. She pushes Chow away until he can prove himself. Unfortunately, as the film continues, her character becomes washy as the narratives split and recur. Faye Wong’s character Wang Jing Wen is a lovely and smart girl, but her development happens too quickly. Not enough occurs between her and Chow, and it’s hard to fully grasp what’s happening with her boyfriend.
It’s not a bad film to watch, particularly in pieces. It’s in part of study of these women and in part a study of how love affects a person, Chow specifically. Nothing is allowed to bloom though. The narratives are stunted, and this limits the viewers ability to truly connect and learn. At one point Chow turns away a woman he has actively pursued - it’s a lot like the main character of Days of Being Wild, but doesn’t seem like the Chow of In the Mood for Love or even necessarily five minutes before the given scene. In all, 2046 is a number of gorgeous pieces smashed together. Their ideas expanded would stand strong, but spliced together as they are, it’s a messy, albeit visually and atmospherically strong film.