2046 demands to be seen if only because no film (at least, no film *I’ve* ever seen) captures the beauty of its actresses so artfully, with such spectacular style and light. I mean that Wong Kar Wai’s long-awaited follow-up to In the Mood for Love captures the subtle grace of several fine actresses in a take-your-breath-away, “aren’t-women-confoundingly-fantastic” kind of way.

Few films have ever concentrated so closely on colors and textures. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Hero, Last Life in the Universe) builds this film out of shots in which most of the screen is obscured by screens, walls, or curtains, so that we focus on a face or a figure framed in a narrow space, and the effect of detail contrasted with solid color or swathes of shadow is fascinating.

I will offer a precaution about a few sex scenes (filmed without explicit nudity–the film is not in any way pornographic.) 2046 is for viewers who aren’t led astray by art that is about sexual relationships. Like Mike Nichols’ Closer, the film’s characters are far from role models. They’re deeply confused about the difference between love and lust, and they’re using each other to make up for the fact that they don’t have what it takes to develop the Real Thing. Consider it a cautionary tale about settling for self-centered romance instead of cultivating true love.

Ziyi Zhang is a revelation in this film. I liked her before, especially in The Road Home, but here she nudges her way into Juliette Binoche/Audrey Hepburn territory. It’s hard to believe she’s real.

Tony Leung gives a suave, understated performance, and I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

The otherworldly Faye Wong (Chungking Express) gets to play both a writer AND a Blade-Runner-style pleasure-android, and few actresses could play an android so convincingly. Gorgeous, in a way, and yet unnervingly plastic. She also gets to wear the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen in a film.

Did I mention that the always-dazzling Gong Li deserves praise too? After weeping over her husband’s gambling habits in To Live, now she gets to gamble herself.

It’s a film that is open to a thousand interpretations.

To me, at first viewing, it’s about our longing for heaven, for a state of unchanging love and contentment, that elusive experience with the divine that happens in romantic love only in fleeting moments. It’s about how, in this life, most of us experience the frustration of relationships that are exciting but not perfect, that seem to be puzzles missing a piece. Mr. Chow is involved with several women over the course of the film, seducing them, being seduced, manipulating them, being manipulated, occasionally bedding them, breaking up with them, being abandoned. (After the show, my friend Martin Stillion compared it to Dangerous Liaisons, and he’s right on–it’s like Dangerous Liaisons meets Blade Runner in the aesthetic of In the Mood For Love.) Each time Mr. Chow flirts with, falls for, or mourns the loss of a woman, we become increasingly aware that, at the core of these messed up relationships, he’s longing for the “one that got away.” (Wong Kar Wai fans can probably guess who that is, and yes, she does appear, but only briefly.) At the same time, he’s writing a sci-fi novel about a time and a place that is said to be unchangeably wonderful…

2046 represents an unchangeable place, an ideal, a destination (is it a year? an address? a room number? a state of being? nirvana? heaven? Or all of the above) that is difficult to reach, and that you might not be able to escape from. People who reach it never return… and thus no one’s sure if, indeed, it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

In spite of his longing for transcendance, Chow seems cursed to never reach what he desires, because he can’t get over himself. For all of his affairs, he holds on to the right to manipulate, leave, break promises, and do whatever the heck he wants. He’s an arrogant @#$%@$!, but that’s not to say we can’t learn from observing his mistakes.

I was enthralled. It does start to wear out its welcome with redundancies near the end (some say 20 minutes too long, I say maybe 10) but that didn’t bother me as much as some of the others in the crowd. I’m so caught up in Wong Kar Wai’s mastery of style and form, and Doyle’s cinematography, that the story is a secondary aspect of the film for me. I come away feeling as if I’ve been served an extravagant meal, and enjoyed it so much that I ate a few platefuls too many.

You’re going to hear a lot about Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li when Memoirs of a Geisha arrives in a couple of months. They may even earn Oscar nominations for it. I have a hunch that in 20 years, 2046 will be considered a far more significant achievement for both actresses than Geisha. It’ll be interesting to see if the Academy even acknowledges Wong Kar Wai. (Geisha is, after all, being directed by an American.)

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