David Pearce’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I once fell in love with someone"
It's difficult to decide on what to call Wong Kar-wai's romantic trilogy. While the previous two instalments were barely related in story, 2046 almost depends on the audience having already seen In the Mood for Love and Days of Being Wild. Call me a cynic but I also think this is a fitting analogy for describing the success of this film. While the previous two films were beloved due to their originality and new ideas, 2046 seems to solely survive off the ideas it borrows from the previous two films, where as any new concept that's debuted in this film falls disappointingly flat.
The film's opening few minutes were a little bit difficult to follow and only really collimate in anything significant later in the film. This adds a sense of cohesiveness between the opening and the conclusion that's often missing in Kar-wai's films, but first time going in it's easy to become lost in all the information that's being shovelled in the opening. When stories do begin to develop it feels as though we're being told a story by the protagonist rather than watching it develop in the film. During the Lulu story and Wang Jing Wen Japanese boyfriend story, both of which have relative significance later in the film, I don't necessarily feel involved in any growing plot as much as I feel the character of Chow Mo-wan is just telling me what's happened. Of course this becomes an issue later on when I realise I'm actually supposed to care about these characters that were seemingly only mentioned in passing. This is a reoccurring problem with a lot of the plots that develop in the film because of the disjointed nature of the intertwining stories and the constant narration. It's not as though I didn't find the stories interesting, but it's difficult to feel invested when nothing really involves the protagonist and he doesn't really care about what's happening. In my opinion the film actually began with one of the latest characters to be introduced, Bai Ling. The romantic plot that developed between her and Chow, while somewhat short lived, it was the most genuine of the film and began to rekindle what I previously enjoyed about In the Mood for Love. Unfortunately this story was told almost in segments, constantly being cut-off by Wang Jing Wen or the 2047 arc or the second Su Li-Zhen very late into the film. I quite enjoyed the Su Li-Zhen story, though I felt it had a very odd placement in the film and almost re-introduced Chow with some of the best characterisation seen in the film, in the final 30 minutes. The 2047 sections were too on the nose with the reflection they gave to the other stories, often just retelling exactly what we just saw. 2046 was certainly less disjointed than something like Chungking Express, but the film tried balancing everything that was seen in the previous two films as well as introduced all these new characters and science fiction elements, and the result is a story that's massively too bogged down by everything but a strong romantic plot.
When I write that 2046 is surviving solely on the merits of the previous instalments, I'm not implying that the story is particularly weak, but I'm saying that I don't think Wong Kar-wai was either bothered to or confident enough to include anything that's wildly out of the norm. We get the same tradition of whispering into a tree, the same 'bird that can't land' analogy, the same slowed down footage set to romantic music, we see two characters bonding while writing, a romantic plot that somehow involves the Japanese language, some vague rewording of the same "feelings can creep up on you" line. I don't think Kar-wai is doing this to pander to his audience but to make a film that's safe after his most critically acclaimed In the Mood for Love. While I will admit it was one of my greatest complaints of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, I at least felt the visuals in those films were adventurous, were as in this film it was almost formulaic. I also feel this is the case with the performances, not one actor giving a particularly outstanding performance but all of them competent. This is with the exception of Ziyi Zhang, who may be the only reason I enjoyed the Bai Ling scenes so much. Her character's falling outs and bitterness with Chow was easily the most compelling part of the entire film, largely due to Zhang's incredibly subtle expressions and her chemistry with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.
Of course calling a film reminiscent of In the Mood for Love is hardly a negative, but to a certain extent I think of 2046 as a poor imitation. It desperately wants to have the same emotional weight and cool mood as that film, but in trying too hard Kar-wai has moved away from what made that film so excellent. 2046 is aided by a handful of decent performances and the characteristically beautiful cinematography of Christopher Doyle, but unfortunately feels like a tasteless stew of everything that's already come from Kar-wai presented in one big unoriginal mess.