Reviewed by: Chris

Artistry and cascading beauty, allegory - all are staples of the films of Wong Kar Wai (My Blueberry Nights, In The Mood For Love). Some people will be fascinated by this film, wondering what the heck is going on, and will spend the next two hours figuring it out. Others will simply let it wash over them, allowing the pieces to fit themselves together somehow at a ‘deeper’ level.

If you don't fancy the idea of a sci-fi movie that is hard to decipher, has subtitles, is firmly 'art-house', is more than two hours long, and isn't really sci-fi when you work it out, please don't go and see 2046. On the other hand, if you like seriously iconic cinema that tries to do something different and values the attempt over the ultimate success; and you can enjoy being swept away without quite knowing why, and can take the time to ponder what is often a non-linear story to try to make sense of it, then share with me my favourite from the works of this Chinese master.

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Imagine the year 2046, a world criss-crossed by a network of fast railways (cue nice Bladerunner-style futurescape). We see this world while Chow Mo Wan explains it to us in a voice-over. With a slight jar, we are suddenly back with Wan in the 1960s as he decides to take a trip from Singapore to Hong Kong to improve his work prospects. He's a writer. Wan often works for newspapers, but can just as happily turn his hand to martial arts stories or reviews of buxom ladies in gentlemen's bars.

We discover you can take a train to ‘2046’ to recapture your memories, because when you get there nothing ever changes. It's a place for secrets. Once there, no one ever leaves (except, we are told, our intrepid interlocutor). Getting there is easy - getting out is harder and takes some people longer than others. “All memories are traces of tears.” Our understanding of what 2046 is takes on more and more poignancy before we get there inside our own heads.

The story (in the Far East of the 1960s) leads us through several interwoven tales of heartache. These are expressed in grainy pastels that form scenes of exquisite beauty, like poetry. The music (some played wistfully on a gramophone) ranges from opera, to Wan's more westernised tastes (such as Dean Martin singing Sway), or the hypnotically descending half-tones of the main score. Moments are frozen into memory in a way that overrides context. A woman raises a cigarette slowly and meditatively to her mouth. A close up reveals a tear bursting with restrained emotion from a face that wanted to remain impassive. A young girl sits atop a run-down hotel looking into a middle distance and swinging her legs, radiating youthful adventure, love that has never known hurt.

We are led into the symbolic meaning of 2046 as if by poetry. If it were spelt out, the harshness of words might rob it of meaning. Wan considers the love he nearly found in Singapore, wondering if he will find it again, as he dallies ("as something of a ladies' man") with intriguing women in his new abode.

"What are your real feelings for me? Are they like the rainbow after the rain? - or did that rainbow fade long ago?" The tone reminds me of Leonard Cohen's Dance Me To The End Of Love or the reality jump of the Eagles' mythical Hotel California - where you could check out any time you liked but you could never leave. As in that song, Wan often tries to find the emotional "passage back to the place I was before". He is already making the journey to 2046...

2046 is not even in the future, it is in the past: it is a place of unrequited love inside us to which there is a yearning to return, to recapture, to make a happy ending, a glowing future of things. We realise that 2046 is a story that Wan is writing from his room (2047) in Singapore. In the room next door is a woman who reminds him of his lost love - the room number may even have inspired the title of his story. But probably he had already started it, and then found (a bit obsessively perhaps) added meaning from the coincidence.

Continuing the narrative whilst focusing our attention on something intangible is no easy task. Wong Kar Wai manages it admirably. Taking us into his confidence as it were, Wan imagines his main character, the perfect suitor frustrated by circumstance, on the train leaving 2046. He tries to leave the secret he has by giving it to an android cabin attendant. But his secret is a question. And what he wants most (as does anyone who visits 2046) is to find someone to get away together with, to finally leave that place.

Ultimately it does not matter whether the reason for a failed love affair is circumstance, or the beloved not returning love, or the beloved being in love with someone else - it is a fiction to believe in a love that is unrequited. "Love is all a matter of timing - it is no good meeting the right person at the wrong time." Wan has befriended a young woman who then helps ghost write some of his day-to-day work. Later, he asks her opinion of his novel (2046) and she says it would be nice if it had a happy ending. He struggles to change the ending, but is unable to accomplish it. There is no changing what is. 2046 doesn't exist except as a fable, a beautiful tale of the past set in a would-be future. Experience it, and search for the ending.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2008
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A trip to a place where the past remains unchanged - but is it all in the mind?
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Director: Wong Kar Wai

Writer: Wong Kar Wai

Starring: Tony Leung, Wai Chiu, Gong Li, Faye Wong, Kimura Takuya, Zhang Ziyi, Lau Carina, Chang Chen, Dong Jie, Maggie Cheung

Year: 2004

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: China, France, Germany, Hong Kong


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