2046 (2004)

Well, I probably shouldn't be reviewing this.

First, a little background. Or in this case, lack thereof, because that's sort of the problem. I put this on having no clue what it was after seeing it on a list of science fiction films on Criterion. I'd seen virtually everything else on the list, but I'd never even heard of 2046, so I trusted it would be at least interesting and pressed play.

The short version is that it is interesting, it is not science fiction, but it was (surprisingly) a Christmas movie. Well, sort of a Christmas movie. I'll get to that. Also, it's not entirely not science fiction. I'll get to that, too. But first I want to highlight another aspect I wasn't ready for: it's the third movie in a trilogy. Sort of. I'm... not really going to get around to explaining that, because I'm still a little unclear on the details.

Okay, my understanding is the main character of this appears in an earlier movie, and a minor character from this is the main character in yet another. Also, I guess the main character has a cameo in movie #2 or something. And all three are thematically related. Probably.

Look, if you're not here for Christmas stuff, you should probably just go look up a review from someone who's an expert on Hong Kong cinema and read their take instead, because - again - I'm out of my depth here.

Oh, right. Did I mention this was a Hong Kong romantic drama? Because that seems like something I should probably have said before now. The movie was written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, who I can confirm can make a damn pretty movie and am taking Wikipedia's word for him being an immensely important filmmaker who's widely considered among the greatest directors of recent history.

I mean, that feels reasonable. What I just saw was goddamn impressive. His control of tone is incredible, everything is gorgeously shot (aside from some dated effects), and the movie feels like the kind of thing that deserves international praise, even if I found it kind of dense and difficult to follow.

To be fair, a lot of that was due to the fact I hadn't seen and for the majority of the movie wasn't aware of the existence of the two preceding films. The non-linear structure of 2046 (which I understand is common for the director) compounded this, incidentally, as I was expecting explanations for sequences that (presumably) were already explained in earlier films.

And I spent the first half thinking the futuristic train in the cyberpunk future we cut to from time to time was going to play some literal role in the story, rather than a tonal and thematic one. To be fair, some of the narration seems to imply that time travel or interdimensional travel is going to come up, but - again - that's thematic, not literal. The super-future-train is from a story the main character's writing to cope with lost love and an uncertain future.

But that's not the main story. The main story of the film concerns...

Actually, there are a bunch of main stories, told out of order and seemingly unrelated, concerning the aforementioned main character, Chow Mo-wan, as he finds himself in a series of relationships (not all sexual) with women he's either in love with or who are in love with him. Slowly, we peel back the layers of his subconscious and his past and learn that he's still trying to deal with losing the love of his life following something that happened... in one of those other movies, it turns out.

I should probably have watched those first. Oops.

Let's move on, because I'm tired of embarrassing myself. The movie is melancholy and reflective, with an intense focus on visuals. Again, this movie looks fantastic. It also looks like the Matrix, though I'm not going to speculate on whether there's a connection there or which direction that connection goes (the Wachowski sisters were inspired by Hong Kong cinema, after all). The script is evocative and at times poetic - it's easy to get lost in this.

But I promised Christmas, so let's address the one element I'm even remotely qualified to have an opinion on. The movie is about time, and Christmas - or more accurately Christmas Eve - plays a pivotal role in this context... though not necessarily the one I'd have expected. In western media, Christmas and New Year's typically represent a moment of reflection and change. Here, they more serve as symbols of the opposite.

The movie is built on a series of stories told by the narrator about several years of his life and several women he knew during that time. Christmas Eve becomes a recurring beat - year after year, the date resurfaces, with him spending it with someone different. We see at least four such Christmas Eves - no other date is given such significance. In context, this conveys the sense he's stuck, unable to move on. The cycle of the year becomes recursive, even though the relationships are unique, and he does grow over the course of the film. But while he evolves as a person and becomes more introspective and honest with himself, he's not able to actually escape the cycle he's in. December 24th feels almost like a repeating cue symbolizing his stagnation.

The holiday doesn't take up the bulk of the movie's runtime, but its recurring appearance, coupled with its thematic weight and unusual role, are significant enough to warrant discussion here, in my opinion. The holidays are marked with discussion, the presence of limited decorations, and plenty of classic American Christmas music. The movie leans on the melancholy sound of that music - though Americans have largely been conditioned not to notice, there's a sad, nostalgic tone intrinsic to these songs, and 2046 takes advantage of that.

I should note that the holiday also has romantic connotations in the movie. I don't know a great deal about Christmas traditions in Hong Kong, but I'm assuming from context this is a normal association with the holiday, as it is in Japan. If so, this would explain why Christmas was selected.

Ultimately, my ability to reflect on the quality of 2046 is limited by my ignorance of the earlier installments, so I'm not going to try and discuss its merits outside of reiterating that it's clearly extremely well executed on a technical level. I will caution this has a limited audience - it's a romantic drama that borders on suspense tonally. The movie is interested in longing, lust, and loss - if that doesn't sound like something you're after, you should think twice before checking this out. If that does sound right up your alley... well, you'll probably love this. But maybe track down the first two movies in the trilogy, because I'm betting it's easier to follow if you know who some of these people are.