If one hallmark of a Wong Kar-wai film is a specificity of place — not only geographic but also temporal — then 2046 is notable for its ambiguity across both space and time. The first words of the film are a voiceover narration by the writer Chow Mo-wan, played by Tony Leung, describing a worldwide railway network in the year 2046. Then, suddenly, he begins referring to 2046 not as a year, but as a place where lonely passengers travel in order that they might forget events from their lives — failed love affairs, perhaps.
If 2046 is Wong’s version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it lacks that film’s essential optimism. Where Kaufman’s script is all about the ways that emotional trauma shapes us and helps us grow as human beings, Wong portrays lost love as a dangerous obsession, one that can destroy us if we don’t manage to get out from under our own expectations. The film opens in the science fiction environment of Chow’s story, “2046,” with a slow tracking image of a bell-like structure into which the characters — who appear terminally lost in their own thoughts, often moving at half-speed like ornately costumed refugees from the most desolate anime ever — can whisper and then lock away their secrets, a direct echo of the hole in the wall at the ruins of Angkor Wat into which Chow whispers at the end of In the Mood For Love.
As usual, though he has complained about the film’s five-year production schedule, cinematographer Chris Doyle (with the help of others; some reports suggest Doyle finally shot only about half of the final movie) has lent Wong luminous images so consistently and impossibly gorgeous they’re heartbreaking. A recurrent visual strategy is the presence of vertical lines — textures running up and down a wall, the folds of curtains, etc — spanning the width of the scope frame. Those may be the tracks of tears streaming down the face (the physical representation of so many memories), or merely suggestive of the figurative bars that trap Leung in the haunted prison of his own memory. Those verticals are matched by an occasional luxe explosion of horizontal lens flares — anamorphic photography, a first for Wong, treats this material very well. The visual strategy is lush but psychologically compelling, with negative space in the image suggesting a potential for happiness and fulfillment that’s been blocked out — Chow is frequently isolated visually in a small, boxy portion of the widescreen frame, suggesting the minimal emotional space in which he allows himself to move. Women are framed horizontally, seen in full figure in shots that codify the erotic gaze. Interactions between lovers and would-be lovers are shot with a voyeur’s eye that emphasizes the continued disconnection, the camera watching one over the shoulder of another, hidden away on the other side of a window or doorway. So much yearning in the eyes of the men, such a quiet confidence and resolve on the faces of the women (until the tears finally come, sometimes in frame and sometimes unseen outside of it; we know that there must be tears).
Leung’s Chow has developed from the utterly sympathetic protagonist of In the Mood For Love into someone more flawed and less likable — here, he’s dapper and charming, sporting a ladies-man mustache, but also condescending and self-absorbed. His status as a tragic figure is only reinforced once you figure out that his problem comes when he evaluates any potential relationship by comparing it to the romantic ideal that’s lodged inside his brain. 2046 isn’t really a time or place depicted in the film — it’s a reference to an old love affair Chow can’t shake, the one depicted with such rapt attention in the previous film. 2046 was the number of a hotel room the two of them shared, and now “2046” is the title of an erotic science-fiction story Chow is writing. (Soft digital backgrounds visualize the architecture of the future as an impressionistic interior, as the neon lines of buildings sketch out a cityscape that may as well be a neural network inside the human brain.)
There’s another shade of meaning – 2046 is the year that the Chinese government’s promise not to meddle too much in the Hong Kong government expires. In this film, Chow writes his story during a time of political turmoil in Hong Kong — as riots erupt following a labor dispute, reflecting the cultural revolution taking place across the Chinese border and essentially shutting down the local economy, Chow stays indoors and keeps writing — which helps solidify the reference. But if the number is meant to be a political allusion, it’s unclear why it made an appearance at all in the previous film, except perhaps as a nod to Wong’s own nostalgia (his family moved to Hong Kong in 1962, when In the Mood for Love was set, and his memories of the riots of 1967 would be those of a nine-year-old witnessing great political change) as well as to the relative ease of living in the past without dealing in real terms with the present or impending future. It’s a gentle reminder that cultural change continues apace, and that Hong Kong enjoys a cordial but uneasy relationship with its governors on the mainland.
Too schematic? Maybe. But if the fictional “2046” is Chow’s way of psychoanalyzing his own dissatisfaction with the way life has turned out — with his knack for finding the right women at the wrong time — perhaps Wong’s 2046 itself has its roots in autobiography. It’s not going too far to say that this is not just a deeply sad movie, but one whose every image seems haunted by ghosts of lovers, burdened by regret and loss. (Is it borderline offensive or just symbolic of emotional disconnection for Chow to reimagine his relationships with the women in his life as a series of fruitless attempts to communicate with androids?) Maybe it’s no coincidence that the trains traveling through 2046 itself resemble, from some angles, strips of film winding through some fantastic projection machinery. “All memories are traces of tears,” reads one of the intertitles. Wong would know as well as anyone that once a film burns itself into the brains of its audience it becomes, itself, a memory, taking up intimate physical residence and manifesting the tears that went into its making.