The Thrill Is Gone

Wong Kar-wai's 2046is a movie about a prolific Lothario, his inventory of femmesboth doucesand fatales, and the random intersection of past, present and future. Wong's movies explode with the mad stylistic fervor of Otto Preminger in his prime, and his latest comes advertised as a sequel of sorts to IntheMoodforLove(2000), his 1960s-era chronicle of a writer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and a secretary (Maggie Cheung) who discover their respective spouses are having an affair and quickly fall in love themselves, amid a patina of luxuriant red and green decors, slow-motion raindrops cascading over streetlights and Nat King Cole singing endlessly in Spanish on the soundtrack. That movie was, to my mind, close to perfect—a rapturous study in eros made nearly unbearable by the characters' self- and society-imposed resistance to actually touching one another, and featuring two movie stars who radiate a kind of high-wattage, Hollywood glamour almost unknown in Hollywood anymore.

Moodclosed on the end of that affair, with Leung's character, Mr. Chow, heading off to Cambodia to empty his head (and perchance his heart) of Mrs. Chan's haunting presence. 2046picks the story back up several months later, in the fall of 1966, as Chow returns to Hong Kong and to the hotel that was once home to his illicit rendezvous. At first, he hopes to rent the very same room (2046), though he ends up settling for the one next door (2047). But it's 2046 that will become the fabled destination in one of Mr. Chow's science-fiction short stories—a place where one can travel in search of lost memories. It also happens to be the year in which control of Hong Kong will fully revert back to mainland China.

It all sounds dense and intriguing in Wong's patented, meta-Proustian manner and, of course, the movie has so much style to burn that those seated close to the screen may wish for asbestos jackets. Yet as 2046alternates between Chow's flings with beautiful women (Gong Li as a shadowy, black-gloved gambler; Zhang Ziyi as a precocious young prostitute) and scenes from his 2046 story (in which a Japanese man finds himself falling for an android stewardess), the result is a film chilly and externalized in all the ways that Moodwas bottled up and woozily dreamlike. To some extent, that seems intentional. The Chow character, so mild-mannered, gentle and self-effacing in the first film, has here transformed into a philandering rogue who makes no greater attachment to the women who share his bed than he does to the morning newspaper. He seems to have lost, or at least suppressed, the capacity to give of himself, forever scarred by the irretrievability of his one true love. But we knew that already in the final scenes of Mood,and so watching Chow work his way through a new series of inevitably doomed relationships becomes a test case for the law of diminishing returns—a Nat King Cole record stuck in a scratched groove, a madeleine cookie gone horribly stale.


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