Wong Kar Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love is a finely focused study of an adulterous love affair between Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li Zhen (Maggie Chung), a film that examines the subtleties of shifting feelings, related through the story of the affair told with emotionally charged imagery that indelibly registers the complexities of the interplay between the lovers.
In 2046 Wong once again uses Chow (again played by Leung) as his central character to expand his theme by looking at several affairs that the journalist has with a variety of different women. The character of Su Li appears again, but as a memory of a one time affair remembered with longing by Chow. He meets another woman with the same name (Gong Li), a glamorous and mysterious professional gambler who helps him recover his own gambling losses. But his memory of the first Su Li gets in the way of a connection with the second; it’s a variation on the theme that runs through the film–the love that might have been, the bittersweet longings of men and women passing in the night without bridging their separateness. "Love is all a matter of timing," Chow observes, and timing seems off more often than not.
Two of the affairs stand out. One is with a prostitute, Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), who falls in love with Chow. When he insists on paying her, she understands he wants to avoid an emotional connection. In time their roles are reversed, but Bai Ling remains trapped in the pain of unrequited love. The second connection is with the daughter of Chow’s landlord, Wang Jung Wen (Faye Wong), who is in love with a Japanese man, but whose father opposes their marriage. Wang is a writer and she helps Chow, ghost-writing some of his material. Chow falls for her, but her heart is in Japan; this time the unrequited love is Chow’s pain. He takes that pain into his fantasy world, a future (2046) from which nobody returns, a place where things don’t change, unlike the reality of real life where change is a constant and so easily undermines possibilities of love. (Time itself is a major character in the film.) In 2046, Wang is an android. They make love, but her emotions are so limited and delayed as to make a connection meaningless, though that doesn’t prevent even an android from experiencing the pain of loss.
Performances by the entire cast, all leading lights of the Chinese cinema, fulfill the vision of the director as if extensions of his own consciousness. A wide range of musical selections, from Puccini to pop, come up on the soundtrack like the leitmotifs of a Wagner opera, reflecting and commenting on the varying relationships. Wong keeps the camera close in, emphasizing the individuals and their feelings. Small rooms, shots with the screen half-blocked to show just one character, shadowy lighting, and saturated colors all add an appropriately claustrophobic feeling, a sense of being trapped in the fateful turns, the elusiveness and unpredictability of love. No one else making films today plumbs the depths of feeling and surveys the landscape of the heart with the sensitivity, delicacy, and profundity that Wong brings to 2046.