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Visually stunning Hong Kong film arrives on campus

Brian Doxtader | Friday, October 7, 2005

It’s typically a bad sign when the first word used to describe a film is “confusing.” Yet no other word sums up “2046,” Wong Kar-Wai’s latest film, as neatly or as succinctly.

While it scores points for atmosphere and mood – two elements typically well-done by Kar-Wai – the narrative is ultimately too jumbled and inaccessible for most audience members.

Like most Kar-Wai films, “2046” is deliberately paced. Yet, unlike most Kar-Wai films, the narrative and characters aren’t enough to keep the audience interested. The time-shifting plot begins in the future year of 2046 before traveling 80 years into the past to the year 1966. It follows Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chin-Wai), a writer who finds himself with three different women on Christmas Eve in three successive years. The first is Lulu (Carina Lau), followed by hotel heiress Wang Jingwen (Faye Wong) then high-class prostitute Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi). Ultimately, Wang and Chow are reunited, which leads to the film’s conclusion.

A film like “2046” isn’t about plot or narrative, and that’s precisely at the heart of its problems. Few films can thrive on atmosphere alone, and while Kar-Wai’s latest certainly has tone and style, it lacks the cohesiveness of his earlier works.

“In the Mood for Love” was equally atmospheric, but its characters were more involving, its ruminations on the nature of love more striking. Additionally, “2046” is unforgivingly serious, lacking the charm and personality of “Chungking Express.”

Three separate, distinct and talented cinematographers worked on “2046:” Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-Fai. As a result, it is filled with much visual grace and beauty, but pretty pictures do not a great film make. Without the support of a logical plot, the movie begins to collapse under its own weight.

The cast is a veritable “who’s who” of modern Hong Kong cinema. Kar-Wai staple Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is predictably reliable as the struggling author, while Faye Wong (“Chungking Express”) and Zhang Ziyi (“Hero,” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) are quite good as Chow Mo-wan’s love interests. The problem is that the plot lets these characters – and the actors – down. The acting is solid, but these characters are cut adrift in a sea of confusion and, ultimately, apathy. It becomes too difficult to become involved in the uneven narrative, and as a result, most viewers will simply stop trying.

Kar-Wai is one of Hong Kong’s most renowned directors, but “2046” isn’t in the same league as predecessors like “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love.” In those films, Kar-Wai had stories to tell and told them well, as he explored the details and tribulations of love. He nominally attempts to explore the same themes here, yet they don’t resonant as clearly. The elliptical editing and languid pacing are familiar devices in Kar-Wai’s films, but the inability to connect with the characters nullifies their effect.

The difference between his previous works and “2046” is in the approach: his earlier pictures were not necessarily art films, but they were artistic films, while “2046” is definitely situated as art with a capital “A.”

Kar-Wai might think this excuses his excesses, but discerning viewers know better. “2046” is undoubtedly a well-made film, nice to look at, easy to admire, but difficult to love – and when the film is supposed to be about love, shouldn’t that be of the utmost importance?