jack’s review published on Letterboxd:
In the Cinema of Wong Kar-wai, there is one looming precedent that effects each of his protagonists: time. The notion or idea of time doesn’t really seem to become prominent at first because you’re so swept up in the gorgeous camerawork or the playful direction or the wonderful usage of music that surrounds the plot of the film; this is the key, the mastery of Wong’s deception of audiences. Wong’s films are all tricks, masterfully crafted pieces of filmmaking that entrance us and bewitch us with their beauty. But like the most beautiful flowers, his films seamlessly attack us at our hearts and minds, leaving us a muddled puddle of emotion – it's both Wong’s fascination with time (the recurring motif in his work) and the progression of time that it takes for his films to really affect us.
But there’s only been one film in his filmography that seems to break Wong’s fascination with time: 2046. Before 2046 Wong’s films have seen the progression of time within the allotted runtime Wong makes his films; for example, Chungking Express sees two men trying to get over the recent departure of their significant others and through the runtime, it becomes clear that the two men will eventually heal from this painful journey. Or Happy Together and how we see one man try to find individuality after constantly entering a relationship with a man and breaking up with said man in that relationship when it’s revealed that he’s extremely toxic and manipulative – yet Lai (our lead) continues to go back to him.
Each of Wong’s films sees the development of time and how it affects the protagonist in the actual duration of the movie and yet, 2046 stands out as being different. The sequel (and third film in the Love tetralogy) to In the Mood for Love is a film that takes place years after said sequel and the events that take place in 2046 and how our lead Chow acts are pieces of a broken puzzle: in the span of a few unseen years, Chow has become a completely different person, hardened by the fact that he’s not ended up with Su Li-zhen, the true love of his life. 2046 allows itself to examine that time period that Wong doesn’t show us and showcase the aftermath of that period: it only adds to the mystery and tragedy surrounding Chow’s character, how we’re initially never truly sure why he’s so different; this is Wong examining the passing of time without actually showing it, just alluding to it.
In In the Mood for Love, Chow was a man who struggled to maintain his attraction to Su (and visa versa) when it’s discovered that their spouses are having an affair. Chow was also someone who was gentle towards life and people, who chose to put status and other people before his relationship with Su, which eats at him until he cannot control it anymore. Fast forward to 2046 and it’s years later and Chow has returned to Hong Kong after being in Singapore for a number of years in order to forget Si Li-zhen and attempt to mend his heartbreak. Chow has become a different man: a more cold and detached man who’s somewhat of a lady's man, sleeping with countless women and showcases his lack of care for them on an emotional level. Chow sleeps with beautiful women as an attempt to bury his feelings for Su Li-zhen down deep within his subconscious, to no avail. He also struggles with his emotions, which is seen through different interactions with women, women who’ve impacted him on an emotional level while writing a new story: a science-fiction novel about a place where people go to relive lost memories. The name? 2046, the name of the film, the name of the hotel room number where Chow and Su had their affair, and the room number of the room next to Chow’s 2047 room.
Wong does show the progression of time with 2046: the film expands several years of Chow’s journey to forget Su. Each year that Wong examines in Chow’s life is surrounded by Christmas Eve and the days leading up to it and each examination sees several different women impact him and his writing and his life: the two daughters of his landlord, an aggressively more emotional woman who wears clothing similar to Su Li-zhen, and a woman whom Chow meets prior to the events of the film who shares the same name to Su Li-zhen. Besides the last woman, each of them move into the 2046 room and each effect Chow in a way that makes him question his past and question his mentality; the younger daughter tries to seduce Chow, but he rejects her every time, the older daughter sees him unveiling his “good” side and helps her find her true love and in return, she impacts his writing style and development with his “2046” and “2047”science-fiction stories. Bai Ling, the aggressive neighbor, challenges Chow’s reluctant for commitment and his emotional attachment to women.
But Chow cannot escape the pain and the memory of Su Li-zhen (and meeting a woman with the same name as her doesn’t help). Each woman acts as a memory, a reminder of what could’ve been and a reminder of what actually happened; Chow lives his life in regret because he knows he’s never going to be truly happy ever again. Wong makes it apparent that each little detail that we notice about Su Li-zhen in 2046 is just that: a detail, a fading memory that Chow refuses to forget. The book he writes is a way for him to cope and heal, but it doesn’t work. And Wong’s minimal usage of Maggie Cheung’s Su as a flashback only adds to the pain: she’s not constant in his life anymore, just a mirage of the happiness that once was and what could’ve been.
Sometimes, we’re able to forget and as 2046 suggests, sometimes we’re not able to; Wong’s motifs and illusions to the past are daggers in Chow’s heart. He tries to mask it all as nothing, but the pain on his face and the pain in his heart speak volumes: he may never forget her and may never find happiness with another woman again, no matter how much he tries. In a filmography as emotionally resilient and beautiful, 2046 stands higher than the others: this is Wong Kar-wai's masterpiece, a brutal and beautiful film about trying to forget the past and the struggle that follows when you attempt that. There were so many emotions I felt during this, feelings I thought I couldn’t feel or memories I thought I couldn’t remember and each minute was like a knife stabbing me repeatedly. It affected me in ways I thought were impossible and the mastery of this film has only opened itself up barely and I feel I haven’t even explored the film’s themes and its beauty. But something I feel I can say about this masterpiece is how it’s the best film of the 2000’s and one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen; 2046 is a journey to remember, but realize that you jeopardize the ability to heal. Sometimes, you win. Sometimes, you don’t. And sometimes, memories are the most dangerous thing us humans have – even if they give us so much joy.