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Coming at us along the suspenseful trajectory of a meteor we've helplessly watched approach for five years now, Wong Kar-wai's 2046 is what you should've expected in your loneliest fanboy wet dreams: a sweaty, teeming, hot-to-the-touch life-swarm of a movie. From the portentous credits and first orchestral surge, the film knows it's a post-millennial big bang, and thunderously demands your intimate surrender even as it refuses to let you get close. Wong has never sought to be graded for coloring inside the lines, and the movie's present, "final" state is a living, not-finished-only-abandoned product of notorious production delays, reshoots, reconstructions, recastings, rewrites, firings, shutdowns (including for the 2003 SARS breakout), re-edits, and festival boondoggles. Reportedly, Wong began only with the numberthe hotel room in In the Mood for Loveand an idea about a Thai hit man, or a Dickian futureworld of isolating technology. And the nagging ghost of heartbreak. If the contextual slippages are unavoidable, they've got nothing on the film itself, which careens, broods, glides, and tear-blooms around inside an untrustworthy and self-pitying memory, itself coming to resemble a movie vision that would not be tamed into completeness. One reason Wong's film is so profoundly fascinating is that it feels as if it's still evolving.
Can we get away with calling it poetic abstraction? 2046 retains fragments of virtually everything its creator had ever thought it might be, making it less a "project" than an organic coalescence of the artist as a not-so-young melancholic. In fact, in many ways it forms a Wong codexhis other films haunt the movie's fringes and anterooms. Predominantly, In the Mood for Love serves as 2046's agonizing preludeafter that, Tony Leung's Mr. Chow lives out the remainder of the 1960s in an embittered state of romantic confusion, bouncing between cities and unfathomable women. He revisits the eponymous digs years later, and decides to board in the flat next door; still, the ubiquitous numeral also refers to the edge-moment when Deng Xiaoping said that Hong Kong would go "unchanged" after the 1997 Chinese takeover, a year represented in the film by Chow's sci-fi stories of unattainable androids and wastrel romantics riding atomic tube-trains to nowhere. In Wong's bruised narrative weft, 2046 is also a mysterious emotional destination, a frontier no one returns from, a rumor of a myth of love.
As with Wong's contribution to the portmanteau film Eros (one of several detours taken during the making of this career- summarizing behemoth), humankind lives with, desires for, and listens to itself through thin urban walls, mottled-glass windows, and implacable doors. Newspaperman Chow skitters his narrated taleas he writes it?around, from Christmas to Christmas, 1966 to 1969, from Gong Li's darkly vulnerable casino gambler to Ziyi Zhang's tempestuous low-rent courtesan to Faye Wong's emotionally unstable hotelier's daughter, and back again, often in flashbacks and often in new encounters raw enough to rip the scabs right off. In Chow's world, all women seem to have multiple identities, or stand as doubled-up avatars of his own lovelorn ideas, much of it sifting down to the earlier film's intangible poignancy, and the new film's spare and diffuse glimpses of Maggie Cheung, appearing and vanishing suddenly like a sense memory catching on as you pass and sending you lost into your own labyrinths.
2046 is all texture, a conquest of formal content over content-oppressed form, where the camera is in a perpetual state of inquiry, reframing the environment and its characters as a sort of methodological humility, and where visual and aural pathways boomerang down hallways, around corners, over rooftops. Mood is everything, trumped up by a score so rich with pop songs, bossa nova drama, and symphonic mournfulness it's almost a movie on its own. 2046 may be a Chinese box of style geysers and earnest meta-irony, but that should not suggest there aren't bleeding humans at the center of it: Gong, Zhang, and Wong (with her plate-sized eyes wandering astray) all deliver masterfully detailed portraits of women ensnared in romantic impossibility. Watch Zhang's obstinate call girl barely register the debasement of being paid by the man she loves, and then jump painfully beyond it, and you'll see a level of craft not trusted in this country. Leung, having endured the ordeal of the filmmaker's titanic and fickle modus operandi, has well earned his iconic stature as a Bogartian everyman made world-weary by fate and his own selfishness. Still, one of my favorite characters is unseen, invoked only in a line of narration, a violent boyfriend described as being "like a bird that could never land."
But 2046 bleeds mostly for itself; it's a pulsing sign system of repeated melodramatic totems, ravishingly pregnant moments, and the sadness that comes from history and time's arrow. But the trip is invigorating, bursting with the insistent vitality of first-time lovemaking. At first blush, the movie seems like one of those culminating über-works after which careers often fade to blackhas Wong made the definitive Wongian film? Yes, but let's stay, unlike Mr. Chow, in the present, where 2046 is just beginning to reveal itself.
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