Screens What's past is past 

Wong Kar-Wai makes a beautiful movie about the impossibility of cinematic romance

Of all the myths the movies love to believe, surely one of the most universal is that lost love can be recaptured. Stories need conflict, after all, and a tale of two people who meet, fall in love, and stay together is not much of a plot. So the movies instead tell us that the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and lives happily ever after. The template is not simply wrong but damaging - how many of us have wasted precious years trying to resuscitate relationships that were doomed from the start?

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Tony Leung, center, Wong Kar-Wei's favorite leading man, returns in 2046, the director's follow-up to In the Mood for Love, in which Leung's protagonist wallows in his broken heart with cad-like, self-destructive behavior.

With 2046, Wong Kar-Wai sets out to smash this illusion on multiple levels. That his debunking effort is as seductive as the myths it attacks is just one of the ways 2046 surpasses any reasonable expectations.

Like a character hoping to reclaim a lost lover, movie sequels face a daunting challenge; they chase after the ephemeral qualities that made audiences fall for their predecessors, qualities that usually can't be replicated without being cheapened. So Kar-Wai is wise to make this sequel to 2000's intoxicating In the Mood for Love a sort of renunciation: Throughout the film, we watch characters (and characters invented by those characters) who try in vain to return to the past.

As for the story's protagonist, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), Kar-Wai has him move on from the deep longing that made In the Mood linger in the mind. His heart was broken by Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) in the first film, and it remains broken here. He has become a smaller man, taking on a sleazy career as a hack journalist and becoming a Lothario who gets plenty of sex but no love.

Chow still aches, to be sure, but his loss has been sublimated into his fiction. At the beginning of the movie we glimpse a world he has invented, a far future in which the world is completely covered by a train system, and those wanting to "recapture lost memories" board a train bound for a place called 2046. (That's the number of the hotel room Chow and Chan once rented for their meetings.) We are told that the people who go to 2046 are never seen again, and that those who try to leave face a long, uncertain voyage.

This opening section is a challenge for the viewer, strung together by a narrator whose relationship to the on-screen action isn't immediately apparent. (Wong Kar-Wai is infamous for making his movies up as he goes along, shooting vast numbers of scenes that are never used, and it's likely that there's enough of this opening science-fiction material to construct some other, entirely different movie.) But we soon enter Mr. Chow's present-tense (that is, the 1960s) life, and the action becomes a good deal easier to follow.

2046

Dir. and writ. Wong Kar-Wai; feat. Tony Leung, Li Gong, Takuya Kimura, Faye Wong, Zhang Ziyi, Carina Lau, Wang Sum, Maggie Cheung (R)

Chow has moved into a hotel, where a stream of women pass through his life. The landlord's two daughters, Chow's next-door neighbor, denizens of local nightclubs, and a mysterious woman who always wears one black glove, play roles of various importance. Often, Chow doesn't know what they mean to him until they aren't around anymore - and we observe that a man who is sleepwalking through life in the wake of one failed True Love is entirely likely to miss a second or third when it falls in his lap.

Wong Kar-Wai's working methods finally got the best of his long-time cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and the two parted ways at some point during this production. The director hired multiple replacements, and as a result this film has a much different feel from its predecessor. Gauzy like a Sheila Metzner fashion-photo spread, it is gorgeous but keeps the action at a distance, much like its protagonist.

Leung makes the most of the fact that this film's plot offers his character a much-expanded range of emotion. His romantic suffering in the first film was exquisite; here, he gets to be a cad, a concerned stranger, and a detective of the heart - all of which is an addition to, not a replacement for, his Mood mode. Searching for something in the past may be hopeless or foolhardy; by acknowledging that we reinvent our histories for ourselves every time we remember them (and in the process ensure that reality can't compete with memory), Wong Kar-Wai and his favorite leading man have lived up to their reputations.

By John DeFore


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