Movie review: '2046'

3½ stars (out of four)

Wong Kar Wai, the hot, stylish Hong Kong writer-director of "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love," has made another sexually charged fever-dream of a movie: "2046." Perhaps the most confusing—but also the most arousing—of this critically lauded auteur's eroticized, ultra-romantic movies, it's a film for art- and foreign-movie devotees. But it's also a movie for audiences who simply want to get turned on.

Wong's main subjects here, as before, are sex, memory and malaise in Hong Kong culture. His story follows a Hong Kong Casanova—Tony Leung Chiu Wai as the young writer Chow Mo-wan of "In the Mood for Love"—and the gallery of women he adores and loses. The film becomes a gorgeously shot melange of beautiful nude lovers, tormented liaisons and thwarted desire, set in richly photographed, sensuous frames and an atmosphere thick with sensuality, bitterness and pop-song romanticism.

Watching "2046" is a turn-on. But it's also a movie dense (sometimes too dense) with psychology and ideas and with a view of modern Asia that compels and unsettles us by turns.

"2046" is a semi-sequel to Wong's big critical hit "Mood" (2000), in which Leung and Maggie Cheung played star-crossed adulterous lovers in 1962 Hong Kong. In "2046," Leung's character returns, and so, very briefly, does Cheung as the frustrated wife Su Li Zhen. But soon Su exits, her place taken in the film by another character named Su Li Zhen, played by Li Gong, who replaced Cheung during the film's long shoot. (Throughout her career, by the way, Gong's name has usually been rendered in the Chinese style, as "Gong Li." And Wong Kar Wai's name has been reversed as well; by western standards, he should be "Kar Wai Wong." Gong is now correcting her name, but Wong himself demands we keep his in reverse order.)

Wong also pushes the story further ahead to 1966-'69 while giving glimpses throughout of a science-fictional futuristic world set in 2046, one actually transpiring in Chow's pulp-novelist mind. The number 2046 has resonance on two levels, beyond being the sci-fi story's setting. It's the proposed year of Hong Kong's final merging into China and it's also the number of the Hong Kong hotel room, right across from Chow's, which lodges a succession of his loves.

"In the Mood for Love" was a relatively simple story, told with great feeling and intensity. "2046" is so complex, it's often hard to keep the characters, subplots or the time straight.

In Chow's mythical future, for example—which looks like Kubrick's "2001" filtered through Japanese anime—we're seeing the way this hack writer and ladies' man makes pop myths of his own emotions and life history. Meanwhile, Chow's real present and past includes encounters with a series of stunning ladies played by some reigning luminaries of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema: Gong (star of many of the older Zhang Yimou films), Ziyi Zhang (of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Cheung ("Irma Vep") and Faye Wong (the "California Dreaming" girl of "Chungking Express"). If at first this seems a bit like sensual fantasy for aging males, director Wong eventually deepens the drama by bringing out the true sorrow and pointlessness of Chow's erotic life.

Gong's Su Li Zhen, a sexy Singapore gambler, is the first stop in the sexual odyssey. Then, in Hong Kong, where Chow is now a journalist and serial novelist immersed in drink and hedonism, he encounters, in turn, the blowzy prostitute Lulu (Carina Lau), who is murdered in room 2046 by a boyfriend, and the serenely pretty Wang Jing Wen (Wong), the eldest daughter of Chow's unctuous landlord Mr. Wang (Wang Sum).

More violently, he plunges into a sexual spree with another, more upscale prostitute, Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), before driving her away and suffering through more unrequited passion for Wang. The last part of the film is full of wistful regret and poignant reunions, Wong's specialty.

Wong is able to make "2046" both touching and sexy because his filmmaking is so in sync with the physical bliss of lovemaking and so attuned to the beauty of his stars, female and male. His camera loves them all: the swoony trio of Li, Zhang and Wong and protagonist Leung, who, with his rakish mustache and Alain Delon-style bemused grin, suggests a flirt with a core of bruised sensitivity. His isolation seems inevitable.

The actresses, in contrast, seem passionately alive. Li has a quiet pensiveness, Wong a slightly selfish intelligence. But Zhang delivers "2046's" most powerful performance. Her Bai (not to be confused with the real-life actress Bai Ling ) is a blasé, high-priced hooker who falls in love with philandering Chow, tells him she doesn't mind his outside affairs and then has her heart broken anyway—and Zhang plays the part with a jewel-like mix of hardness and radiance. When she loses herself to passion, it overwhelms us too.

Director Wong wrings poetry out of both sex and despair—especially despair. He understands erotic moods and styles from the '60s on, and he's especially adept at showing the secret sadness of promiscuity. But this time he's upped the ante. Instead of a small, stylish mood piece centering on two repressed lovers, he evokes the melancholy of the unrepressed, the pain of loveless seduction.

"2046" isn't as masterful as "Mood." But at its best, it drenches the screen with sensuous poetry and touches a core of sadness. In the movie, the number 2046 suggests something both public/political (the integration of Hong Kong and China) and private/sexual (lovemaking in room 2046). But, for Wong Kar Wai, it's the private story that breaks the heart.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'2046'

Directed and written by Wong Kar Wai; photographed by Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun Leung, Lai Yiu Fai; edited by William Chang Suk Ping; production designed by Ping; music by Peer Raben, Shigeru Umebayashi; produced by Wong Kar Wai. In Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: R (for sexual content).

Chow Mo-wan - Tony Leung Chiu Wai

Su Li Zhen - Li Gong

Bai Ling - Ziyi Zhang

Wang Jingwen - Faye Wong

Lulu/Mimi - Carina Lau Ka Ling

Su Li Zhen 1960 - Maggie Cheung

Tak - Kimura Takuya

Mr. Wang/Train captain - Wang Sum

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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