2046 A brilliantly photographed hallucination that’s impossible to understand.

dir. Wong
Opens Fri Sept 2
Cinema 21

I can't fault 2046 for what it decidedly chooses not to be (i.e., "comprehensible"). Because even though it opts to go in some frustrating and vague directions, Wong Kar-Wai's latest film is—as has been pointed out by pretty much every critic on the planet—brilliant. Yet among all its impenetrable genius, I can't shake the feeling that 2046 could have been much more, if it wasn't so content to be what it is: gorgeous and superficial.

Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is a writer who writes science-fiction stories about a place (or maybe it's a time—your call) called 2046—which also happens to be the number of a room in Chow's Singapore boarding house. Writer/director Wong largely deals with Chow's romantic dalliances—with women who include Faye Wong, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, and a radiant Ziyi Zhang—but also ducks into Chow's literary, fictional world. That's the basic plot, but watching 2046, those things are a lot less concrete—like a brilliantly photographed hallucination, Wong's story is both amazing to look at and difficult (if not impossible) to entirely understand.

Perhaps because of the story's nebulousness (Wong focuses on the ephemeral beauty of his stars and his stylized sets rather than his story's emotional core), there's never any connection to the film's characters, save a few resonant moments with Ziyi Zhang (it also doesn't help that Chow's pretty much an asshole). So 2046 is actually more of a tone poem than a narrative. True, there's a constant sense of unrequited love and irrevocable loss, and an unshakable sensation of cinematic genius working just out of reach. But those admirable things (along with the stunning cinematography of Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun Leung, and Yiu-Fai Lai) are insignificant by the film's conclusion—when one realizes that they're no closer to understanding or sympathizing with the characters than they were two hours earlier. Unlike Wong's previous films, his directorial decisions in 2046 end up being artistically laudable, yet intellectually and emotionally frustrating. With 2046, Wong Kar-Wai has succeeded in creating a beautiful, stunning fever dream of a film—too bad it fades and disappears as soon as one exits the theater.