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(Credit: Sony Pictures)

An erotic saga of longing and loss: Exploring Wong Kar-wai film '2046'

'2046' - Wong Kar-wai
4.5

“Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. If I’d lived in another time or place, my story might have had a very different ending.”

The production of Wong Kar-wai film 2046 was anything but hassle-free. The project took nearly four years to complete due to various spiralling issues, problems ranging from the SARS epidemic, constant cast changes, switching cinematographers, set reconstructions and more. At times, the picture appeared more of a burden than a passion project destined for romantic cinematic prowess.

Released in 2005, the film arrived as a quasi-sequel to the trilogy that had begun with Days of Being Wild in 1990 and In the Mood for Love ten years later in 2000. The first look at the film might make one think of a torrid love affair set in a futuristic dystopia; however, the film moves effortlessly between various timelines, following the departure of Chow from Hong Kong to Singapore as shown in In the Mood for Love, a time when his beloved Su Li-zhen makes an effort to neither follow nor stop him. As always, Wong Kar-wai’s film is luscious and evocative, steeped in the filmmaker’s favourite trope of wrong timing. 2046 is a visual delight, one shrouded in slow, sensual images that evoke the erotic melancholy and poetic sadness quintessential in Wong’s films. 

2046 is elusive and an escape route for those who want to relive their lost memories. Remembrance has always played a vital part in Wong’s movies, and 2046 is no different. The movie develops into the name of a sci-fi novel that a lovelorn Chow writes while sitting in his hotel room in a riot-ridden Hong Kong during the mid-1960s, comprising characters based on people that have left an impact on him in real life. Amidst jarring neon lights, the sleek train carries passengers to a memory haven from were none but Takuya Kimura’s Tak as the sole moody passenger with unkempt hair returns. The journey is long, arduous and lonesome, and he soon finds himself engulfed in the hug of an android played by Faye Wong, who is dressed in high heels and futuristic fashion. As he considers the warmth in her embrace, melting into it completely, proclaiming his love for her, she does not reply. Her delayed response indicates her being in love with someone else. It is via 2046 that Chow soon finds closure. 

Tony Leung is back as the melancholic Chow who arrived in Hong Kong following the events of its famed prequel. He has a thin strip of moustache, smokes cigarettes and dresses in crisp suits while hankering for the love he lost with his beloved Su Li-zhen. In retrospect, it is shown that Chow had initially lost a lot in Singapore, gambling away all his money when a mysterious woman, also by the name of Su Li-zhen, descends wordlessly to help him win back his profits to go back to Hong Kong. Just like the previous film, the cinematography focuses on the close up of her gloved hand and stocking-clad legs. Their parting is equally tragic and heartbreaking as Chow leaves her yet again, forgetting the other Su Li-zhen in pursuit of the woman that he once loved.  

The sublime romance that Wong Kar-wai created forces the viewer to indulge, portraying a burst of colours and harrowing tunes as the earlier effort, In the Mood for Love, gets a heightened, erotic tinge with this film as Wong blurs the lines of his creations. 2046 is a synchronous dream-like repetition of the events of the first film where women transition seamlessly in and out of Chow’s life, trying to fill in the Su Li-zhen-shaped void left in his heart following the first film. The timing is never right for Chow. He is either too early or too late in love, much like the other characters who are caught in a pathetic web of one-sided love affairs. 2046 is more experimental as Wong weaves into the plot a parallel montage of sci-fi elements; characters engage in a melodramatic pantomime, silently loving one another, trying to find respite from their unfinished romantic ballads. 

Chow is no longer the man he used to be. He misses Su Li-zhen — and how. At first, he meets Lulu, a volatile former lover known for the intensity of her jealousy. She seems not to recognise him yet sheds tears at the pained memories when he reminisces. After she gets blindly drunk, Chow is an absolute gentleman, placing her in her hotel room, number 2046. Keen observers will know all too well that 2046 was the room number of another dingy hotel in Hong Kong in which Chow would meet Su amidst all the raging rumours in the conservative society. It is here that they would try and find warmth in each other’s presence. While Wong never showed whether Chow and Su consummated their affair, 2046 is filled with suggestive visuals as it depicts the meaningless sexual escapades that Chow indulges in to get rid of the feeling of emptiness within his heart. 

When Chow returns Lulu’s room key, he discovers that she has been stabbed by a jealous lover, and her room is being renovated, due to which Chow has to move into 2047. He keeps a watch on 2046 via various cracks, making the viewers feel like voyeurs along with Chow, glancing into the lives of the inhabitants of the room. It is during this time we’re introduced to Miss Bai Ling – played by Ziyi Zhang – who is clad in diamond, with well-made buns, embroidered silk dresses and qipaos, flaunting sass and perfection. She is coy yet seductive; Chow does not engage in frivolity immediately, yet the sexual tension is palpable. He becomes her confidante when she talks about her heartbreak, and soon, they transition from being drinking buddies and indulge in a sultry affair filled with passionate sex and dinner parties. Their relationship becomes complicated and embarrassing when Chow starts paying ten dollars for every encounter, and Bai falls hopelessly in love with him despite knowing how he does not reciprocate her feelings. Soon, love culminates into jealousy and anger, and Chow brings an end to their relationship. Bai tries to gain his attention by indulging in more affairs but in vain. However, they meet shortly after, a time when Bai needs Chow’s help to escape to Singapore for a new life.

(Credit: Sony Pictures)

As if the story didn’t have enough tangled and emotive relationships, the hotel owner, Mr Wang’s younger daughter, then attempts to seduce the writer in a Lolita-esque fashion, but that is indeed brief when Chow rebuffs her advances. However, in moves Wang’s elder daughter, Wang Jing Wen, who had been sent to rehab after losing herself over a Japanese man, Tak, with whom her father does not approve of a relationship due to socio-political prejudices. With Jing, Chow develops a connection remotely similar to Su when they indulge in writing and editing together. He even aids her in keeping the affair with Tak alive by receiving his letters on her behalf; despite knowing how much in love with her he is, he lets her indulge in a long-distance phone call with her lover on Christmas Eve while he silently observes her with a sad smile on his face. Chow even relents to Jing’s request and begins writing a story called 2047 based on Tak, but goes on to realise how he is seeking answers about himself via the story. His attempts to start a romance are thwarted by Jing’s undying love for Tak, and they soon get reunited. The android’s silence in Chow’s 2046 speaks volumes, as does Jing’s. Completing 2047 helps Chow feel liberated, embarking on a process of healing.  

With Christopher Doyle’s brilliant and perceptive cinematography, the filmmaker shamelessly presents a buffet of desire and longing with indulgent close-ups and lucid lighting. With the seamless transition from Chow’s life in ’60s Hong Kong to the futuristic world of escapism he weaves, the protagonist finds a cathartic escape from the confines of being in love with a woman whom he could never call his. With his shots, the filmmaker deliberately turns the audience into shameless voyeurs, and one cannot help but gawk at the meandering hallways and alleys as Chow moves on from one woman to the next. In truth, the women in the film are all extensions of Su, what she was and what she could have been. The flashback to the scene from the previous movie, in which Tony Leung leans on Maggie Cheung’s shoulder in a taxi, is pertinent as we are later shown a shot where Tony Leung sits in a similar fashion, seeking the warmth and familiarity of the shoulder in an empty taxi seat. 

The film also reflects the political turmoil and Wong’s sensibility as he directly hints at the Chinese promise made in 1997 about Hong King’s free-market enclave never changing – even after 50 years – by naming the film 2046. Financial insecurities and monetary conflicts overwhelm the narrative, being reflective of the economic resentment brewing in the society that led to various riots that found their way into the narrative when Chow smokes his cigarettes, confined within his room, writing his novel, thinking about the riots that plagued Hong Kong during the time. From ping revealing Chow’s compulsive desire to splurge, thus being broke every month-end, to Chow asking Mr Wang to deduce his rent, the characters are caught in a financial conflict.

Memories merge into one another. The past gains prevalence over the future and the present. The characters echo Bai’s sentiment when she asks Chow, “Why can’t it be like it was before?” Much like In the Mood for Love, the characters are caught unaware by the sudden development of feelings and longing for one another. Amidst growing anxiety and paranoia about the political conflicts, something that mirrored Wong’s fears about delayed production, the characters are all caught in a self-destructive web of love and longing that shall culminate into nothingness and heartbreaks. Sensual and visually stirring, 2046 is not Wong’s masterpiece, but a close second. The film ends with the camera zooming into a hole before displaying the logo for LG Communications, foreshadowing the tech nature of the future. The hole is symbolic, much like the previous film, a hole where one could whisper their secrets and sheath from the world. The amorphous and ambiguous haze surrounding the fate of the characters is like Su Li-zhen’s gloved hand, intriguing and unknown. One can only hope that Chow finally found closure in this destructive and melancholic saga of longing, self-interrogation, desire and wrongly timed love. 

“Every passenger who goes to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody knows if that’s true because nobody’s ever come back.”


Far Out is currently the BFI media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.

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