Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai might be the signal filmmaker of the past decade, his frenetic, romantic, spontaneous, and visually extravagant mix-tape movies offering a definitive image of modern urban life and inspiring a large, slavishly devoted cult. Quentin Tarantino, who tapped Wong's delirious Chungking Express as the first release on the Pulp Fiction director's video series, introduced him to a wide American audience. A decade later, another indie admirer, Sofia Coppola, delivered an Americanized version of the Wong Kar-Wai style to a mainstream audience with Lost in Translation.
Wong made his Memphis debut four years ago with In the Mood for Love, a laser-focused '60s period piece about a man (Tony Leung) and woman (Maggie Cheung) who live in adjacent apartments and whose respective spouses are having an affair, a predicament that draws them together. This sublimated romance was made into a hushed, tender tour de force, and the new 2046 is an ostensible sequel that's really a series of aftershocks.
2046 picks up Leung's character from In the Mood for Love soon after that film's heartbroken conclusion, but the new film is less about story than mood. It's sequel as reverie, as meditation, with the ghost of the previous film's failed affair haunting every frame.
Rather than the controlled, deliberate visual style of In the Mood for Love, 2046 is a return to the jittery, flamboyant sensibility of Wong's earlier classics such as Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. And it isn't an easy film to follow. I suspect those who have never seen one of the director's films will be lost.
The film follows Leung's pulp novelist through the remainder of the decade and through womanizing, unsatisfied relationships with a series of magnetic women, played by such iconic Asian actresses as Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern), Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Faye Wong (Chungking Express). Zhang in particular is stunning. Wong makes her a modern equivalent of a Dietrich or Garbo or Rita Hayworth. When she's on screen, the eyes never stray.
Leung has an insolent charm that is reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, and his sexually charged interactions with these women, the film's noirish atmosphere, and disregard for conventional plot makes 2046 feel something like Wong's The Big Sleep: You may not be quite sure what's happening, but you might be mesmerized anyway.
The film's title has multiple meanings. It's a hotel room number -- of the room where the affair in In the Mood for Love was consummated and of the room next door to Leung's character here. It's the title of a sci-fi novel Leung's character is writing, which we see scenes from. And it also refers to the last year of Hong Kong's economic and political independence from China, which only enhances the film's feeling of melancholy and reverie.
Right now, 2046 is my least favorite of the five Wong features I've seen, but I can't pretend that one viewing -- on video, no less -- is enough to pass judgment. Like so many of his films, it's a delicate dance around nearly unrepresentable desires. It feels scattered, but not in the purposeful way that earlier Wong films have been, and the futuristic sequences are more a distraction than enhancement.
Regardless of whether these are legitimate flaws or the film just hasn't fully cohered for me yet, 2046 demands to be seen for the brief time it will play here. If nothing else, it's the most visually ravishing film to screen locally since, well, since In the Mood for Love played here in 2001.
Opening Friday, October 7th