There are no ordinary shots in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and no ordinary sounds–which is remarkable, given that you’ve seen and heard everything before. Latin-beat pop hits of the 1960s alternate on the soundtrack with Callas’s favorite Bellini arias, while familiar old-movie types–the pencil-mustached dandy with the pocket handkerchief, the sheath-dressed beauty with upswept eyelashes and foot-high hair–eye each other on murky staircases, or float in the aquarium lighting of the hotel room where they make love, or sometimes just stand and pose against a wall, whose surface (you may depend on it) will be interestingly distressed and richly colored. Each moment seems not so much experienced as recollected, either from previous Wong Kar Wai films (In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild) or from a still-earlier cinematic glow, which Wong filters for you as if through a prism.
Even the big novelty of 2046–Wong’s use, for the first time, of computer- generated sci-fi imagery–has a reminiscent air, since these fragments of a film-within-the-film represent the imaginings of a 1960s pulp writer. Their shopworn futurism makes a touchingly thin and plasticky disguise for the protagonist’s yearnings, which he focuses not on the years to come but on a past that was beautiful but didn’t work out.
You’ve heard that one before. You’ve seen it, too. But from moment to moment, Wong makes it new.
Now in case you’re coming in late, I should explain that Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the nightclubbing writer who narrates 2046, has shown up at least twice before in Wong’s films. He, or someone like him, appeared suddenly and without explanation at the end of Days of Being Wild, Wong’s first great reverie about love and longing in 1960s Hong Kong. It seemed as if Wong were cutting short a story he wanted to continue; and sure enough, when almost a decade later he made In the Mood for Love, he showed how Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), a figure from Days of Being Wild, tumbled into a deep, doomed and very stylish romance with Chow.
Now, in 2046, we find Chow still mourning the loss of Su Lizhen and still running into the occasional Wild character (notably a nightclub showgirl known alternately as Mimi and Lulu, played by Carina Lau). For the most part, though, Chow concerns himself in this movie with three other impossible loves. From 1966 through 1969, he aches over the memory of a tough but benevolent gambler (Gong Li) who had sheltered him in Singapore; acts like a heel with a new lover (Ziyi Zhang), a feisty but fragile bar girl who lives next door to him at his cheap hotel; and forms a close, tender but chaste attachment with the hotelkeeper’s daughter (Faye Wong), who cannot give herself to Chow because she’s got her own impossible love to brood over. Still, this third woman makes a great writing partner, whose collaboration with Chow gives him his “happiest summer ever,” while providing Wong with the heart of 2046.
The heart, though, is what my summary hasn’t begun to touch. To come closer to it–to suggest how 2046 makes something exceptional out of Chow’s memories, which are so few and potentially so banal–I need to talk about two of the constants of Wong’s art, or for that matter of life in general: time and money.