By Christy Lemire
The writer-director has proven his singular vision and obsessive eye for detail, and continues to do so with the follow-up to his gorgeous "In the Mood for Love" from 2000.
All his trademark aesthetic touches are there: the richly textured furnishings, the sumptuously appointed dresses, the flawlessly made-up women passing through narrow hallways or catching their porcelain reflections in the mirror. There's flirtatious bossa nova music and familiar Nat King Cole Christmas carols. And the rain — always the rain, falling in slow motion and illuminated by a lamp on some dark street where lovers are on the verge of doing something they probably shouldn't.
Wong's rendering of 1960s Hong Kong — dreamily romantic, like an impressionist painting come to life — is so mesmerizing, it's almost enough to distract from the fact that beneath the surface, there's little substance to the characters or situations in which they find themselves. A woman slowly and gracefully lifts a cigarette to her lips, the smoke curling artfully from her fingertips, and it's practically ballet. But really, if you stop to think about it, it's just a woman spacing out while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.
Yet Wong presumably would like us to find meaning in everything his characters do, as his impressive cast of Asian all-stars — including Tony Leung, Gong Li, Faye Wong, an all-too-brief appearance by Maggie Cheung and a captivating Zhang Ziyi — appears in the past and future in fragmented depictions of futile, ill-timed love.
Wong's frequent leading man, Leung, reprises his role from "In the Mood for Love" as Mr. Chow, formerly an idealistic newspaper editor who now writes soapy fiction just to scrape by. The film follows him (through the lush cinematography of Kwan Pun Leung, Lai Yiu Fai and longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle) during his involvement with various women he meets while living at a hotel — the rotating inhabitants of room 2046.
(For those of you keeping score at home, 2046 was also the number of the room where the extracurricular activities took place in "In the Mood for Love.")
There's the vampy, doomed Lulu (Carina Lau). Then comes Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the saucer-eyed daughter of the hotel's owner (Wang Sum), who's distracted by her romance with a Japanese boy, of whom her father doesn't approve.
Of all the women with whom Chow dallies, Zhang emerges the most powerfully as Bai Ling, the subject of his most lasting relationship. She's all grown up, heart-stoppingly beautiful, with a startling command of the screen. Here she fulfills the promise of her more youthful performances in films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Miss Bai, in an extraordinary array of delicate dresses, is the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, who makes the mistake of falling for Chow — but does an impressive job of hiding her feelings for the longest time.
When she finally does explode with tears and unexpected territoriality — "I don't mind you having other women but I won't be treated the same as them" — she does so with the impudence of a child and the jealousy of a grown woman.
Chow cares but only vaguely. Wong makes no apologies for this man and feels no need to thrust redemption upon him, which is refreshing in its retro honesty. This is a serial womanizer — that's all he is and ever will be — and Leung plays him in a cynical, world-weary fashion normally seen in reluctant heroes of film noir.
True to that genre, Chow uses his real-life experiences as inspiration for his writing. The people who populate room 2046 show up in "2046," his futuristic novel about a high-speed train that goes nowhere, carrying a few passengers and android servants who display emotions but don't really feel them.
It's all very high-concept (and the costuming and production design is as striking in its harsh simplicity as it was in the complexity of the 1960s segments). Regardless of the time period, Wong's characters are constantly missing each other. They can pine and pursue, and maybe connect physically, but never know the satisfaction of true love.
The audience ends up feeling less than satisfied, as well. Wong weakens "2046" with too many endings — he probably should have trimmed about 10-15 minutes. Instead, the numerous conclusions provide a jarring finish to a film that had been wondrously hypnotic.
After all, one can only be in the mood for love for so long.
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