The art house ain't what it used to be. Movies that play at the so-called alternative cinemas might have subtitles or low budgets, but they routinely turn out to be as conventional as Hollywood hits. Rather than book films that push cinema's artistic boundaries, such movie houses rely on quirky indie flicks about relationships, family-friendly nature documentaries and foreign action pictures with the depth of comic books. They may be artful and entertaining, but that doesn't make them aesthetically bold or challenging.
Like Godard or Resnais, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai stands out as a proud purveyor of old-school art films. Kar-Wai's mastery of mood has earned him an ardent following even as he tosses out the screenwriter's handbook. Compared to his breakthrough works such as Chungking Express, Kar-Wai's latest film, 2046, proves even more elusive and enigmatic, yet the film seduces audiences rather than repels them. You don't follow 2046's story so much as bathe in its voluptuousness.
2046 serves as a sort-of sequel to Kar-Wai's 2000 film In the Mood for Love, in which Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbors, each married to other people, perpetually on the verge of acting on their longing for one another. Uneventful but hypnotic, In the Mood for Love sustains a pitch-perfect note of arrested longing.
You don't need to see In the Mood for Love to watch 2046, but the earlier, "easier" film provides a foundation for 2046's more fanciful turns. Leung plays Mr. Chow (presumably the same character), who nurses his broken heart by dedicating himself to meaningless sex, tabloid journalism and kinky fiction. He checks into the seedy Hotel Orient and becomes an enthralled voyeur of the beautiful women in Room 2046.
In the Mood for Love offered romance without consummation, so 2046 responds by exploring intimacy without attachment. Chow becomes fascinated with his landlord's daughter, Jing Wen (Faye Wong), who is caught in a star-crossed relationship with a Japanese man, yet she's intrigued by the writer. Chow also flashes back to an earlier relationship with Su Li Zhen (Raise the Red Lantern's Gong Li), a black-clad gambler who helps him out of a financial jam, then falls for him.
Mostly the film focuses on his relationship with Bai Ling (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi), a stylish young call girl who becomes "drinking pals" with Chow. After they first sleep together, Chow offers her money to head off any emotional attachments between them, even though he deeply wounds the smitten Bai Ling. Zhang's acting is a marvel of transparent feelings in a film devoted to the mysteries of the human heart.
Kar-Wai fills 2046 with self-conscious, post-modern touches. Chow remarks explicitly that Gong Li's character shares the same name as In the Mood for Love's Maggie Cheung, and that the gambler could be a substitute for the one who got away. But what are we to make of the fact that "Bai Ling" is also the name of a real-life Chinese sex symbol (recently seen on HBO's "Entourage")? Chow comments that real people turn up in his fiction, and clearly Kar-Wai is up to something similar, but it's not easy to decode his intentions.
Like symphonic themes, lavish images reoccur, such as curving banisters, eyelashes that swoop like butterfly wings and Chow's Clark Gable-era pencil mustache. Torch songs and operatic arias echo down the Hotel Orient's cramped stairwells and lovelorn women stand on the roof, gazing into the distance like the figureheads of sailing ships. Kar-Wai creates moments of such lushness that they provide their own justification, although at more than two hours, we start to wonder if the director or his antihero is lost in his own illusions.
Despite its fetish for jazz-era fashions and melodies, 2046 draws unexpected parallels to the movie Blade Runner. Chow pens a science fiction story about a bullet train passenger who falls for a lovely android cabin attendant (Faye Wong) with limited emotions. Despite the amusingly ugly costumes that resemble a marriage of Mad Max and Barbarella, the sci-fi tale echoes the main plot, with Chow being a kindred spirit to the unknowable android with "delayed emotional reactions."
Even as Kar-Wai threatens to spin his obsessions into inescapable labyrinths, we find our bearings through the consistency of the characters, especially Chow and Bai Ling. We don't entirely sympathize with Chow, whose "honesty" with women seems like an excuse for cruelty. Leung's performance hints at his loneliness, as if he can't get around the wall he's built around himself. A moment of writer's block becomes a sign of his emotional failure. When Jing Wen asks him to write a happy ending for the android story, Chow poises with pen above paper, and hours go by. Chow's so in love with his own morose isolation that he can't imagine anything else.
Kar-Wai's films serve as defiant throwbacks to the more highbrow era of the art house. Even at their most opaque, films like 2046 convey the excitement of cinema being taken part and put back together. Perhaps they don't even belong in modern movie theaters. Kar-Wai's work can be so intoxicating, it feels more appropriate for opium dens, playing on endless loops in candlelit rooms with huge, plush pillows on the floor. You can lose yourself in 2046.