It takes what could be called the Chinese equivalent of chutzpah to make a movie with three of the world's most beautiful and talented women -- Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi -- and to be more interested in the male character.
But that's Wong Kar-Wai's lush, sensual, hypnotic, annoying "2046," a sequel of sorts to the director's widely admired hit "In the Mood for Love."
No doubt Wong is still in the mood for love. He's probably never not in the mood for love. But "mood" is an apt descriptor for his technique, which is poetic rather than linear, evocative rather than dramatic and feels self-indulgent, even narcissistic.
His point-of-view character is a Hong Kong writer named Chow Mo Wan, same as it was in "Mood," as played once again by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. It seems to be four years after the events of "Mood," that classic of unconsummated yearning. Chow, his heart hardened by his failure to woo his desired in that experience, has turned into a libertine who seems to have given up on the rigors of daily journalism to pen a series of erotic sci-fi novels that have made him something of a hotshot socially in the town; he has become a serious womanizer on a limited budget and endless charm. Maybe it's the wispy moustache that makes him such a babe magnet, but you have to say the guy does all right.
A lot of the film seems to turn on the uniquely Chinese issue of numbers, which will be largely meaningless to western viewers. Chow wants to be in Room 2046 of his rooming house -- the time is the late '60s and Hong Kong hasn't yet been absorbed by Red China -- but has to settle for Room 2047 while the other is redecorated. Once it's available, he decides not to move, and then falls in love with a succession of young women who do sign up for 2046. One of them is the call girl Bai Ling (Zhang). This is really Zhang's movie far more than Gong's or Cheung's.
And that's what makes it so wondrous: It's so nice to see this fiery young actress in a more or less modern-day role (her turn in the ridiculous Jackie Chan comedy "Rush Hour 2" doesn't count). She's got spunk; I love spunk. She's not just beautiful, she's so athrob with life that the movie almost makes you feel her physical presence. Moreover, she's the only person in the film whom Wong seems to care about, and her identity is so strong that it seems to hold the story together most of the time; it really should have been only about her.
The relationship between Bai Ling and Chow Mo is based not on love, but on the pretense that love doesn't matter. He pretends to be beyond love. For her part, love is a profession, a career; but companionship, somebody to talk with, joke with and drink with, that's more important. (That also has a lot more to do with love, only she doesn't get it until too late.) Still, the harder she tries to be blase about him, the deeper into the hole she falls, while the more he pretends to be indifferent to her, the more he believes he's indifferent.
Under those circumstances, it can't end well, and it doesn't, but for the longest, craziest and most passionate time, "2046" is at its best in tracking the odd dynamism of this relationship; it makes each of them seem superbly alive, and when it's over, it's heartbreaking
The other relationships are more fragmentary, less coherent. In some way "2046" is a reverie on loss, as the moody Chow thinks of the women who've come and gone. Besides the Cheung character, there's a prostitute who was murdered, an innkeeper's daughter who loved a Japanese man, and a gambling lady (Gong) in a single black glove who helped him recover his losses.
And at the same time, the writer is writing that book, "2046," and Wong cuts away to scenes from it as well. Thus it becomes true that writers' fantasies of the future resemble writers' realities of the present; each of the sci-fi sequences contains an echo of his current circumstances and reflects the state of art of his love life. Still, these sequences, which seem to be computer-generated and involve a lot of handsome people in ridiculous hairstyles, seem unnecessary.
2046 (129 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for sexual imagery.