Although some of the characters and settings are the same, 2046 is less a sequel to than a variation on In the Mood for Love. Re-edited from a version shown at Cannes in 2004, the film continues director Wong Kar-wai's obsession with recapturing the past, specifically a 1960s Hong Kong of pop songs, tailored clothes, crowded restaurants and cramped hotel rooms.
The title refers to a room in the Orient Hotel, to the year when Hong Kong loses its quasi-independent status with China, and to the year where people travel by train to retrieve their memories. This last sci-fi angle provides a disappointing framework to the film, but it's a brief distraction. The bulk of the story concerns Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a journalist scratching out a desperate living by writing everything from porn to horse-racing tips.
Chow is first seen in Singapore, where a glamorous gambler (Gong Li) tricks him out of a romance with her. He leaves for Hong Kong, arriving during the student riots in 1966. Holed up in the Orient Hotel, he notes the tragic life of party girl Lulu (Carina Lau), and is drawn into a friendship with Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong). The daughter of the hotel manager, Wang has fallen into a forbidden affair with a Japanese businessman. Too experienced, and bitter, for the women he toys with, Chow shows an unexpected tenderness towards the stricken Wang.
At the half-hour mark, Ziyi Zhang shows up as Bai Ling, drop-dead gorgeous in a miniskirt and beehive hairdo. Her relationship with Chow, at first hostile, then teasing and intimate, and finally deeply dependent, is as moving and painful a love story as Wong has ever attempted. Zhang is simply phenomenal, effortlessly capturing her character's caprices and heartbreak. The end of their affair will throw both Chow and Bai into a tailspin, one that in Chow's case is played out more fully in In the Mood for Love. (His romance in that film with Maggie Cheung-seen in a few brief shots here-now assumes a much greater emotional depth.)
Wong is an organic filmmaker who shoots and reshoots until he gets what he wants, or runs out of time. He has been accused of a fetish for period detail, for form-fitting cheongsams, heavy makeup, high heels, and all the other earmarks of the past. But his real fetish is for time itself. He has tried to recapture this period in four films now, revisiting a world of thwarted desires and voyeurism until he gets it right. How many times he can play out the same Christmas Eve cocktails for two unhappy people seems as big a question in 2046 as what actually happens to his characters. Still, it's clear his skills and interests have no match in today's cinema.
Whatever his motives, Wong has assembled a remarkable team for this film. The cinematography, production design and editing combine for a mood of utter languor and decadence. Leung Chiu-wai continues his string of outstanding roles, while pop singer Wong achieves a gravity missing from her earlier work. But it's Zhang who is the real surprise here. Her breakout performance puts her on a level with the world's best actresses.