BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
2046 doesn't live in a vacuum.
You shouldn't watch it unless you've seen both DAYS OF BEING WILD and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, a voluptuous trilogy on the depths of romantic agony, loss and resignation. Each film plays a spiritual precursor to the next, shuffling and re-shuffling the deck into this intricate, fully-morose tale of love's disaffection (DAYS), missed opportunities (MOOD), and tumultuous aftershocks (2046). If DAYS sets up an invisible mother to explain Yuddy's misogyny, and MOOD sets up an invisible, off-screen couple to explore why Chow and Su never realize their desires, then 2046 continues the ghost story of invisible devastation, where Chow is now haunted by the absence of Su, pushing him to a dark, solipsistic void where love goes mystically extinct.
2046 is like if WKW made a sci-fi version of L'AVVENTURA. It's a story that uses the disappearance and lingering memory of Su to rapturously haunt her untried lover, Chow, like a ghost from the past. It recalls the way Antonioni refashioned Anna's absence into a form of shameful, disposable presence. Both films speak to the disposability of moral norms and culture codes, and are quite vested in the erotic charge of ghosts hanging over any new relationship, thus making them impossible to satisfy the old.
I said "sci-fi," but WKW really only uses this heady framework as a means for exploring the deeper cataclysms inherent in the genre. "Science-fiction films are not about science," wrote Susan Sontag. "They are about disaster."
2046 follows the pattern of disaster made possible by MOOD's unconsummated relationship, which triggers a resurgence of DAYS’ lady-killer cynicism. The Chow of 2046 returns to the dark, pessimism of Yuddy from DAYS, someone "unable to commit to another woman because the woman he yearned for would not commit to him," says my friend Andrew. Chow isn't so much heartless as he is hopelessly stuck in the past. Having lost his idealized love for Su, he retreats into an empty shell of his former self through a conveyer belt of women, none of which can fill the aching hole in his heart. He's revealed as a real person, not as MOOD's ideal of moral restraint, and to this effect the Chow of 2046 becomes a tragic spire of the human condition. There's something highborn, albeit coy, about watching the Chow of MOOD behave as a gentlemen. If room 2046 reveals anything about human behavior, it's that even men of honor are not immune to the cynical clutch of a broken heart.
2046 may feel like WKW is merely revisiting old, misogynistic demons, but the story is actually his most complex iteration in the Love Trilogy that cuts far deeper into romantic misery than any of its predecessors. Bigger, more expansive, and self-reflexive to the bone, 2046 is a literal and figurative dive into a vast dystopia of lost souls looking to escape their past memories, at the same time anxiously cling to them. That metaphysical hole in Angkor Wat, the same one Chow whispers secrets into at the end of MOOD, is reimagined as a futuristic world made up of androids, high rises, surreal colors, time-travel trains, and infinite loneliness. People go to 2046 "to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes." And change is what all of WKW's characters have always feared. "Once you say you want things to stay the same forever, that means you don't believe that things could be better. It's lack of confidence. It's fear of losing. That's the complex." he says.
2046 is not only a place and time Chow enters to reclaim his memories of Su, it also becomes an expression of artistic purge through which he writes a novel to cope with the aftermath of his real-world relationships. Chow is like Izzi in THE FOUNTAIN, an artist who turns to fiction to displace the hard truths of reality, in addition process the embers of his smothered love. Art has always granted us this gift, the ability to endure, transform and analyze heavy emotions that our little brains and hearts are too small to weather on their own. Chow's novel, also titled 2046, becomes this gift —a turning point in his recovery. Androids, for instance, find their way into his story as a means of teaching him about his own failed affairs and missed connections. His art reveals to him that perhaps some relationships are not meant to be, or maybe they happen at the wrong time, or maybe someone's "delayed reaction" is simply a sign that they're in love with someone else. Chow's own personal "delayed reactions," that is, how time has hardened his emotions into coagulated womanizing, have rendered him an android to some pretty juicy relationships with Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Faye Wong. And all this because he never let go of Su, he never left room 2046, he's still whispering prayers in Cambodia. Still stuck in metaphysical limbo.
On a side note, who the fuck would ever pass on Zhang Ziyi?
When you think about it, 2046 is the perfect follow up to MOOD. I mean, all that pent-up sexual frustration had to go somewhere, right? There's an argument to be made that desire felt is greater, more exciting than desire satisfied, and MOOD certainly takes the cake for perfecting the art of erotic withhold. There's also an interesting argument in following the path of where repressed desire leads, and 2046 is the truth bomb of how the absence or denial of *soulful* sex expresses itself. What makes the conceit of Chow's "delayed reaction" so heartbreaking is how he channels his frustration into a series of robotic, all-physical, all-business relationships, none of which give him the soul of the woman that Su was. The whole film is an attempt to recapture Su's soul, but, like DAYS, Chow's decisions end up creating a vicious circle of flitting partners who love beyond the mark, can't connect, and get trapped in a mirage of doppelgängers and claustrophobic interiors.
"Why can't it be like it was before?" asks Miss Bai Ling to Chow, who shared her body with him believing their dance was something more. Living in room 2046 has made Chow unable or unwilling to return her love, like a delayed cyborg reaction that only emotionally explodes for Bai when change becomes apparent. She's fixed on Chow, Chow is fixed on Su, and Su is the ghost who haunts the very essence of what makes this sci-fi world a reality for those who linger in it. Which is to say, the world of 2046 appears so geometrically imprisoning because of the ingredients that make up Chow and Su's relationship, namely, her fleeting memory, his broken heart, and the muffled coyness they shared in MOOD. All of these ingredients are so important to process, because they culminate into what has to be the most triumphant, no, most rapturous release of all WKW's career. In a moment of uncanny irony, Chow and faux-Su (a lookalike Su in this strange new world) share a kiss of shockingly long proportions, and while we know it isn't the real Su, it feels in every way like the kind of sexual detonation we craved for in MOOD. It's a simulacrum bathed in sublime human emotion. It's WKW giving Chow his long-due release, even as he winks at the artificiality of it all.
2046 is an immensely intricate, supremely torturous, deeply entrancing experience that I haven't even begun to talk about. Its layers are legion, its visuals are next level, and I can't tell you how moved I was. Just when I thought WKW couldn't up his game, or outdo what he's previously done, he raises the bar again and caused me to feel and think deeper. I don't see any of his films trouncing this one, which for me right now 2046 reigns at the tippy, tippy top.
A masterwork on all fronts.