Monday, March 4, 2024

Criterion Crunch Time: ‘2046’

The Criterion Channel is particularly focused on, maybe even more so than other boutique labels and streaming services, the oeuvre of specific directors. Whatever your thoughts on high minded film topics like the auteur theory, it is undeniably enjoyable to work your way through a director’s work. This is why they offer sets from the likes of Agnes Varda, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. This not only offers the opportunity to view their most famous works, but in many cases, affords an ability to release many films that were not available domestically previously. Another of Criterion’s favorite directors is Wong Kar-Wai. With that in mind, one of the many high quality films leaving the Criterion Channel this month is 2046.

I decided to watch this sight unseen because the work of Wong Kar-Wai is a bit of a blind spot for me. The only film I had previously watched was In The Mood For Love which, frankly, is one of the best films ever made. No pressure. Before I sat down to watch, however, I noticed that 2046 is actually a part of a trilogy, preceded by In The Mood For Love and Days of Being Wild. Being a glutton for punishment, of course, I watched all three in quick succession. However, this is certainly a loose trilogy, meaning watching them in order (or at all) is not completely necessary, though it does add to the experience.

2046, like much of his other work, is a non-linear story. It focuses on Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) in the aftermath of his failed relationship with Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) detailed in In The Mood For Love. Despite the fact that it follows the same character, this role would be a challenge for any actor. After his self-imposed rejection, he has become a playboy to cover his pain and loss. Leung, with his stunning good looks and suave charm, fulfills this role perfectly. He is so convincing, in fact, that there are moments where you wonder if this is truly the same man. 

But the script, also written by Wong Kar-Wai, gives us numerous clues into the connected worlds. Included in this are the story about a legless bird and the ways in which people used to keep secrets, both remnants from the previous two films. But the most important connection is in the title itself. 2046 is not only the title of the film but also the hotel room in which Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen meet clandestinely. It is also the room that he wishes to rent in this film, as well as the name of the story he is writing. Cleverly, in this fictional story, it is a place that people travel to and never leave. His protagonist does leave because he lost his love, possibly because she loved another, a clear connection to In The Mood For Love.

Matching, and at times exceeding Leung’s performance, is his sometimes scene partner, Zhang Ziyi. Portraying his neighbor, in room 2046, Bai Ling. Zhang goes toe-to-toe with Leung and never falters. Bai Ling seems to be written as a foil for his memory of Su Li-zhen. The first relationship is maddeningly intimate but never delves into animalistic desire. His interactions with Bai Ling are nearly the opposite. It begins quite combative but quickly moves into the physical realm. Their mutual desire and energy is immediately palpable, as to almost be uncomfortable until it is consummated. However, the intimacy in this relationship is unidirectional. Bai Ling cares for him, and in a particularly painful moment, she asks him to treat her as a primary partner. Chow Mo-wan coldly refuses with a smirk and Zhang’s face reveals how much she truly cares for him. Her performance in this moment will make many audiences wish they were following her instead of Chow Mo-wan. If there is a negative in 2046, it is the fact that she is missing for nearly half the film.

But in fairness, it is appropriate for the arc of the characters in the trilogy. In many ways, this trilogy is about the search for love and how easily we can miss our opportunities. Chow Mo-wan truly believes, like Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) in Days of Being Wild, that there is one partner for him. He is constantly looking for Su Li-zhen. Bai Ling is her opposite, and another female character, Black Spider (Gong Li), is merely a pale imitation. The realization that he is being unfair to these women, as well as himself, is truly a painful one. He has become the legless bird that can never land. His one chance at landing was with Su Li-zhen, and they were the victims of awful timing. He seems destined to climb a mountain and whisper his secrets to a tree, and to do so alone. Damaged beyond repair, he is willing to lend anything. Anything but what matters, his heart, and he and Bai Ling are worse for this inability to move past his loss. 

Next month, we look at two more movies leaving the Criterion Channel.

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