A sort-of-sequel to Wong's masterpiece In the Mood for Love, 2046's protagonist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) shares a name, profession and history with the character Leung played in the earlier film, but doesn't quite seem to be the same character (it took me a while to adjust, as I had an easier time relating to the first Chow Mo-wan). This time, Chow's a sci-fi writer and playboy recovering from a broken heart by bedding a number of women. Among the women that weave in and out of Chow's life are Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li), a professional gambler with the same name as Chow's lost love; Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a cabaret singer who lives in the room next to Chow's; and Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of Chow's landlord. These and other women drift in out of the episodic narrative, along with various pop allusions and references to Wong's other films, each woman costumed and lit with such precision that they appear perfectly preserved. It becomes clear that the film is not about any one of these relationships (though the women, particularly Zhang, are all excellent), but Chow's narcissism and the way he "rewrites" each encounter in retrospect. The first time I saw the film was frustrating, as I wondered if Wong realized this about his protagonist; the final scenes reveal that, yes, this was the point all along. In retrospect, I admire Wong's patience in letting the character get where he's going, and his expectation that his audience will be capable of the same; it also helps that Leung, a master of internal acting, is a perfect leading man for Wong.
2046 can be painfully hermetic, particulary in the scenes from Chow's sci-fi novel that shares its title with the film. 2046 is a mysterious place that, in a distant future, many attempt to escape to because it never changes - there's no loneliness or loss. It's a fascinating concept that expands the themes of the '60s-set story, but it's also dramatically inert. The future we see in these scenes does not reflect a '60s concept of the future so much as one we'd expect in 2004 - the future scenes are antiseptic, beautifully shot but inaccessible, and in the film's second half they threaten to overwhelm the main story. It's possible that this is intentional, a visualization of what it's like to live inside one's own head; since I'm occasionally told I need to get out of my head, I can appreciate that. But without the rapturous moments that Wong's earlier films built to - Faye Wong cleaning Tony Leung's apartment to "Dreams" in Chungking Express, or the extended holy moment that concludes In the Mood for Love - the film works wonderfully as an intellectual exercise, but never really found its way into my heart like those films did. Again, this may be exactly how Wong wanted me to feel.
There's a great deal, however, for a film lover to enjoy in 2046 - each shot is a beauty, the film's world taking on a wonderfully tangible quality. I believe in the world Wong creates here, but I can't live in it. It remains to be seen what place 2046 will take in Wong's filmography - after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights demonstrated that even his middling work looks beautiful, I wonder whether he'll keep treading water or if, as Chow seems to be at the film's end, he's ready to move on to new worlds. But whether 2046 proves to be Wong's final destination or just a station on the way, there's no denying that it's a radiant place to stay for a while.