reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, September 12, 2005


Hong Kong might be the most materialistic city in the world, but its wealth has made feasible the expensive obsessions of one of the movie business' true aesthetes, Wong Kar Wai. His film "2046," a tone poem about erotic nostalgia, has finally debuted in America more than six years after he began filming with an all-star cast of China's most glamorous leading ladies.

The making of "2046" -- Wong's lavish quasi-sequel to his oblique and exquisite little ode to unrequited ardor, "In the Mood for Love" -- could be called the Asian "Eyes Wide Shut," if Stanley Kubrick's laborious production had employed not just Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, but also Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie, and Mariah Carey.

Fortunately, after infinite tribulations, Wong and his long-suffering colleagues, most notably the great Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (the lensman for last year's grand "Hero"), have emerged with a triumph, although a languorous and self-indulgent one. "2046" can induce the kind of reverie, the art buzz, that few films even attempt these days, but make sure you see it in a theatre with comfy seats.

"2046" stars five famous Chinese actresses, with Zhang Ziyi making the most indelible impact as a sultry taxi dancer who falls hopelessly in love with the caddish hero. Zhang has been seen mostly in kung fu movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but in "2046" she seems quite happy not having to kick anybody. Instead, she, like all the women in the film, wears extremely tight 1960s dresses and even tighter high heels. (Wong's foot fetish would be comic if it wasn't so lyrically visualized.)

In recent years, Hollywood's he-man directors have largely lost interest in making actresses look ravishing, but Chinese filmmakers still idolize old-fashioned silver screen goddesses. Indeed, Wong and Doyle dreamed up a clever gimmick for portraying their lovelorn ladies being wracked by sorrow. The actresses hold as still as possible for several minutes while being filmed in fast motion, so their random tiny movements make them appear to be quivering with partially repressed emotion.

Just as Evelyn Waugh's perennial characters, such as the fop Alastair Digby-Vane Trumpington, kept reappearing in novels of radically varying emotional pitch, Wong has repeatedly revived his old characters as a sort of tribute to his own genius. Fortunately, to avoid baffling viewers who haven't seen all his films, Wong makes "2046" repetitious enough that comprehension eventually sinks in.

In "2046," Tony Leung (perhaps best known in the U.S. as the noble assassin in "Hero") once again plays Mr. Chow, who was the diffident and depressed cuckolded husband in the early 1960s period piece "In the Mood." Yet, Wong's fans may be puzzled that Mr. Chow's heartbreak has now somehow afforded him a personality infusion, turning him into a lothario of devastating charm.

Newcomers will appreciate the hero's newfound charisma, however. Leung's Mr. Chow has become a film noir protagonist worthy of Hollywood's golden age, a brilliantined rake with a Clark Gable mustache and some snappy lines for the ladies. Yet, though he seems to embody the sexual self-satisfaction of Frank Sinatra singing "When I Was Seventeen," there's a deep undercurrent of sadness.

Mr. Chow is now a hack newspaper columnist who prostitutes his talents churning out thousands of words daily to pay the rent on his residential hotel room, #2047. Next door in #2046, a series of young women move in and out of his life, and Mr. Chow writes them into his pulp science fiction novel 2046 as beautiful androids. Then he falls for the hotel manager's daughter (played by the adorable Chinese singer Faye Wong, who resembles Audrey Tautou of "Amélie"). But her heart belongs to a Japanese man her father finally lets her marry, and Mr. Chow is bereft again.

So, he pens a sad sequel called 2047 about a future where nothing ever changes, which people visit to recapture lost memories, where a man develops a passion for a gorgeous but deteriorating robot who can no longer respond in time.

Although Wong's delightful 1994 comedy "Chungking Express" was a tribute to pop culture, his wistful focus has turned increasingly toward the vanished Hong Kong of the 1960s, where his family lived in a Mandarin-language cocoon trying to keep alive Shanghai's 1949 culture. "2046" is perhaps most reminiscent of another exile's science fiction novel about a future that evoked his longed-for past, Vladimir Nabokov's Ada.

Nabokov would have liked "2046."

Rated R for lots of sex.


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