Nothing goes quite right for Chow Mo Wan when love goes wrong in Singapore, circa 1964. Two years later, he's a writer living in Hong Kong, where he bumps into a woman he knew back when (although she doesn't remember). A few days later, when he returns to her hotel room, she's gone -- stabbed by a jealous lover, and now nowhere to be found.
So Chow (Tony Leung) tries to move into her old room, 2046, which is being desanguinated. He takes 2047 instead, where he writes a science-fiction story called "2046," about a lovesick man who lives in a future world with a train that takes people back in time to the eponymous year, where nothing ever changes or goes wrong.
Readers like the story (it's erotic within permissible boundaries), but Chow, who's become aloof, embittered and a bit of a playboy, claims that it doesn't mean a thing. The title is just a room number, the story is all made up. No, nothing personal here, no hidden meaning. Just a story. What is real is his dirty little affair with Bai (Ziyi Zhang), the "artist" in the room next door whom he treats like a prostitute, which she is.
2046, the latest from Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, is beautifully filmed, highly contrived, and about as poignant as a doctoral exegesis. Stories of love often occupy Wong's cinema; his In the Mood for Love may be his masterpiece so far. But in 2046, which takes its title from a room number in In the Mood, thus making it something of a sequel, love is a topic for him, like string theory. His film is a lush work of artifact, a lugubrious pseudo-noir, with faint echoes of classic art films such as Last Year at Marienbad and La Jetté.
Portions of Wong's 2046 dramatize Chow's "2046," and both are often visually choreographed to opera, which the hotel owners play in his room, loudly, to mask his arguments with his elder daughter, who's dating a Japanese man. This music, of course, is a metaphor for the mellow drama that unfolds in 2046, although not a very subtle one. Nor do we need to hear that some of Chow's friends have told him that he seems more at ease in his fictional world than in reality.
All of this leaves us with little to do but bathe in crisp moody lighting and the elegiac piano concertos, string symphonies and mellow pop of the soundtrack. Some handsome acting occasionally manages to break through. But Wong's faux sophistication is ultimately wearying to watch, even if you can admire his tenacity in making intricate films like this. In Mandarin, and a little Japanese, with subtitles.