Last night I did a synopsis. Today, in the time for the weekend, I'm going to do a somewhat longer review.
2046 picks up the character that Tony Leung played in In the Mood for Love a few years down the road. At the end of the last film he had left for Singapore a broken man. At the beginning of this one he's returned from Singapore even more of a lost soul. While in the last film he was a sympathetic character as a sensitive, cuckolded husband, in this one he's become a sleazy womanizer, gambler, and drunk. He also is writing differently now. While he also does work for newspapers and still writes some martial arts stories, he is becoming mostly a writer of soft pornography, much of it with a science fiction bent. The film pretty much consists of Tony Leung's character drinking, gambling, treating various women (for the most part) badly, and writing his increasingly erotic, increasingly science fictiony stories. These stories are the basis for the approximately 10% of the film which takes place in the year 2046 or on a train returning from that year. So, all of these portions of the film have a framing fiction and it's not some sort of artsy/surreal time travel movie as I'd thought it would be.
While very little "happens", as in most of Wong's films the real action is in the creation of haunting moods, moments, and imagery. The created world of 60s Hong Kong, especially the hotel where Tony Leung stays, is impossibly rich, dark, sensuous, textured, and detailed. The 2046 scenes are brighter and cleaner, with motifs of oranges and whites.
While the film's predecessor, In the Mood for Love, was a perfect, circumscribed non-love story love story, as compact and beautifully wrought as a great short story, this sequel is meandering and languorous, more like Wong's previous work. It shows the messy after-effects of not getting to have the one you love. At times Tony Leung's behavior towards women is so callous as to be appalling, while at times it's quite tender. All the while his deep stares haunt you. It's probably one of the best portrayals of being haunted by a lost love ever. The film also touches upon another one of the great Wong themes: the difficulty of communication. The film is in three languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese and all characters speak their language all the time, even when another character is speaking another language to them.
Much has been made of the fact that the film has performances by both Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, Wong Kar-Wai's past and present muse. Even more exciting to me is the presence of Faye Wong, Tony Leung's co-star from Chungking Express. All three women are great and bring their unique acting styles and presences to bear in their roles: Gong Li severe and strong, Zhang Ziyi soulful and tortured, Faye Wong pixyish and mischievous. It's one of Zhang Ziyi's best performances in her already storied career. She can say more with her deep, soulful eyes than most actors can in speech.
So much has been made about the film because of production difficulties, extensive editing, hype about it being some sort of Blade Runneresque future film noir etc. that the real truth of it, that it's really a rather straightforward meditation on the aftermath of lost love, has been obscured. While it's not as essential and perfectly realized a piece of filmmaking as In the Mood for Love, it's probably more compact and focused than Wong's 90s work. Just by virtue of being Wong, it's a more flavorful, glorious evocation of decay and loss than virtually anything else on film the world over.
UPDATE: I should also add a link to Mahnola Dargis's (God I love that name) excellent, perceptive review in the Times today. While I think she's slightly too hyperbolic in her praise, this is uncommoly sharp, beautifully written film criticism, a critic at the height of her powers talking about something she loves and making you understand it. Great stuff, and I mostly agree with her take on the film.