Both yeahsayers and naysayers of cult hit “In the Mood for Love” share at least two good reasons to check out its long-in-the-works companion piece, “2046.” Mainland actress Zhang Ziyi proves she’s a star of major range and luminosity (especially on the heels of Zhang Yimou’s martial artser “House of Flying Daggers”), while Hong Kong leading man Tony Leung Chiu-wai carries the pic with the charm of a young Clark Gable. Suffused with much the same retro languor and visual style as “Mood” but considerably more substantial in content and genuine emotion, “2046” is still of niche appeal but could rack up fractionally more returns on its star power alone.
The 123-minute version unspooled in Cannes’ competition is likely to differ from what finally reaches Asian and European theaters this fall (a U.S. distrib deal has yet to be finalized). Some skeletal B&W CGI work depicting a futuristic city looks still to be colorized and the soundtrack finessed (though at screening caught there were no startling flaws).
Pic would benefit from about 10 minutes of trims in its final reels, and Wong, a notoriously indecisive fiddler, is sure to take a more considered look at the movie following its mixed-to-positive reception. For the record, “2046” set a new Cannes record for last-minute arrival in competition: After missing two daytime slots, six reels arrived only three hours before its black-tie evening screening, and the remainder only a half-hour prior.
If “Mood” was an over-elaborate hors d’oeuvre, with repeated variations around one couple’s affair in ’60s Hong Kong, “2046” is more like the main course, a visually seductive reverie on memory and regret refracted through a serial womanizer’s experiences with four different women during the same period. Arthouse fans of “Mood” will need no urging to see this second helping; doubters will be rewarded by a much more substantial and varied meal.
In a typical piece of neo-Godardian playfulness, title has a both a concrete and less concrete meaning — the number of the hotel room in which the couple in “Mood” conducted their extra-marital affair as well as the date of Hong Kong’s final integration into China (after 50 years of being a “special administrative region” following Brit rule).
To a richly scored romantic soundtrack, pic opens in the year 2046, when a vast train network is meant to span the world. “Every now and then a train leaves for 2046,” says the Japanese voice of Tak (TV drama star Takuya Kimura), “but no one ever comes back — except me.” Cut to Tak and his lover, silent femme-bot wjw 1967 (singer-actress Faye Wong), whom he’s trying to convince to return with him. She says nothing, so he exits alone.
Cut to Singapore, 1966. The lead from “Mood,” Chow Mo-wan (Leung, encoring), is trying to persuade his lover, Su Lizhen (Gong Li, almost unrecognizable in scarlet lipstick and beehive period hairdo), to leave with him on a boat to Hong Kong. She demurs, too, and Chow leaves alone.
By now the movie has shifted into a recognizably “Mood” mode — dark, burnished lensing of interiors (oranges, yellows and moldy greens prominent); choice musical accompaniment (from Bellini’s “Casta diva” aria, through Latino rhythms, to cocktail lounge songs like Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)”); most of the action shot in medium-closeup with a shallow depth of field. As Chow moves from being a struggling pulp writer to a professional gigolo, pic basically follows him through three further liaisons, all intro’ed on Dec. 24, between 1966 to 1969. The women all lodge in room 2046, with Chow residing in 2047.
First up is goodtime girl Lulu (Carina Lau, in little more than a cameo); that brief affair is cut short by her murder. Next comes the more spacey Wang Jingwen (Wong again), elder daughter of the hotel’s owner (Wang Sum). She’s in love with a Japanese guy whom her father disapproves of, and Chow writes a sci-fi novel (“2046”), inspired by her and her b.f., in which two lovers flee to the future.
Just when “2046” looks to turn into an overly convoluted rerun of “Mood,” story switches to the last of Chow’s amours, an all-business, upmarket hooker from mainland China called Bai Ling (Zhang). In a 25-minute section, with a slightly more conventional look that’s like a mini-feature of its own, Chow and Bai become drinking pals, bosom buddies and finally lovers, leaving her heartbroken, him bruised, but both pretending otherwise. It’s the subtlest, most emotionally engaging part of the movie, bringing substance to the whole conceit, with Leung and, especially, Zhang both aces.
Last 50 minutes is in the form of an elaborate development-cum-recapitulation, as Wang returns to the story, she and Chow are shown having an affair, and the latter’s novel is visually excerpted, with the opening sequence of the whole picture now starting to make sense. But as other characters are reintroduced (Bai, then Su), film slowly starts to repeat itself for diminishing returns, with even Cole’s “Christmas Song” losing its freshness. Structure of this whole section, and especially the final 15 minutes, needs a serious second look by the director.
Though the whole futuristic idea never really gels, it does, however, make final sense. Pic’s theme is very simple: the impossibility of returning to the past (“Why can’t it be like before?” says Bai) and employing wisdom in retrospect. That’s why nobody returns on the 2046 train.
Tech credits are fractionally less sumptuous than on “Mood,” though the re-creation by production designer William Chang of ’60s Asia and his costuming (men’s suits, women’s tight-fitting cheongsams) is actually more realistic than purely design conscious. One conceit may escape non-Chinese speakers but brings a strange linguistic perversity to the movie — Leung and Wong speak only Cantonese, while Zhang and Gong speak only Mandarin, two almost mutually unintelligible dialects which no one blinks an eyelid at.
For the record, Maggie Cheung, who played Chow’s lover in “Mood” and was originally to have reprised the role here, is billed as making a “special appearance,” one so fleeting that it totally escaped Cannes viewers. In fact, she’s only in the movie for a couple of seconds, as a woman rolling on a bed lensed from overhead. Gong’s character has the same name as Cheung’s in the previous movie, and at one point Chow, in a simple way round last-minute recasting, tells her: “I once knew a woman with the same name as yours.”