2046, Dir. Kar Wai Wong

Arte / Jet Tone / Columbia

Starring: Tony Leung, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong

Reviewed by Danny Hydrus

2046 is in part a sequel to Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000), but it is not simply a continuation of the story of the doomed lovers from the earlier film. The theme of unhappy love does recur, with perhaps a lighter touch, but the central image here is of an eternal train heading toward a futuristic city called 2046, the narrator (Leung, or his fictional Japanese alter ego) being the only passenger ever to have made the return journey. This single feature does not exactly make 2046 a science fiction movie, but the best cinema eschews genre in any case.

Leung's character is the dejected lover of the previous film, now become somewhat of a playboy and a gambler, while earning his living as a journalist and fiction writer. In the course of the film he moves from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and from one lover to another: from the gambling 'Black Spider' (Li) and namesake of his lost love Su Li Zhen, who leaves him, via his beautiful neighbour Ling (Ziyi) who loves him, but he cannot commit to; and finally to the young writer of martial arts stories whom he becomes obsessed with but never confesses his affection for (Wong), to whom he dedicates the story ‘2046’ which inspires her to follow her Japanese lover against her father's wishes. 2046, therefore, is both the room number of the appartment in Hong Kong where he has his affair with Ziyi (and, of course, the number of the room he shared with his married lover in In the Mood for Love), and the futuristic city he writes about in the story about the train with the android stewardesses, and story which symbolises his unrequited love for the young writer.

It has been pointed out that 2046 is also the year that will see the end of China's promise to maintain a 'hands off' approach to Hong Kong for fifty years after the handover of the former British colony. This date can only be symbolic for Kar Wai's audience, not the characters, since the film's action is set in the 1960s, with strikes and riots in the news forming a backdrop to the otherwise unpolitical action; ironically, some of the historical riots of this era were in fact pro-Chinese demonstrations, so the protesters may be said to have their way after all. The number was already symbolic in In the Mood for Love, of course (released in 2000), since the room in which the affair blossomed and failed had the same number as the date in which, one might say, "the honeymoon is over" for Hong Kong.

The main speculative fictional element of this film is the mysterious dream city of 2046, which we never see, and the train forever heading there (or back?), which we do. Periodically we see a pattern of red and white lights, as if we are moving down the inside of a tunnel with a 1960s idea of the futuristic, and later we are on the train itself, watching the Japanese protagonist who represents both Leung and his beloved's boyfriend as he tries to persuade the failing android stewardess to come away with him. Again, there is nothing in this image that could not have been envisaged by a science fiction writer in the 1960s. The musical score enhances the nostalgic mood: I think I detected several musical references to love stories set in Hong Kong, including a tune from Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing (1955).

The mood throughout this film is subdued: Leung is always either in a doomed relationship, pining for someone who barely registers his existence, or himself mistreating the one woman who does love him. It seems that he has that all-too-common personality disorder whereby he wants what he is chasing, primarily what he cannot have, and has no interest in that which is available to him. As such, we are both frustrated with the protagonist, and recognise his recurrent failed affairs that we have seen before, or perhaps even experienced ourselves. The love stories are poignant and convincing, sometimes funny, but this is no romantic slush-drama. Each of the relationships invokes pity for the emotional nomads who indulge themselves in their loneliness, misery and self-pity. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful, luxuriously paced if over-long piece of film-making which will delight anyone who has enjoyed Hong Kong cinema and the more artistic tone of quality film from around the world.

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