2046 was probably Wong Kar Wai's highest anticipated film. After he hit it big with In The Mood For Love everyone with the least bit of interest in Asian cinema was waiting for its (informal) sequel. Upon release reactions were somewhat mixed, but personally I felt as if Kar Wai exceeded his himself and delivered a film that would be very hard, if not impossible to match. 2046 is Kar Wai and Doyle at their very best, and then some.
Together with The Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love, 2046 forms Wong Kar Wai's (My Blueberry Nights) informal love trilogy (which can even be further extended if you count his entry in the Eros anthology film). The films are constructed so they can be seen separately from each other, but as they're all great films there's really no reason to watch 2046 first. Should you be forced to watch 2046 before the others though, know that safe a couple of minor details the films stands very well on its own.
2046 follows a couple of years after the events of In The Mood For Love. Chow is back on his own, living in a small hotel and writing novels. As he encounters people in the hotel and surrounding bars, he incorporates them into his sci-fi tale about a man returning from the year 2046. The sci-fi story serves as a layer on top of the actual story, extrapolating Chow's feelings, though the story itself is pretty detached from reality.
2046 is once again a story about romance, though the film goes way beyond the standard romantic visions of young and blossoming love. Chow is back to his old routine, meeting and seducing women, unable to really settle down with any of them. His lost love (In The Mood For Love) is constantly holding him back and refraining him from finding a woman to grow old with. Don't expect any real resolutions in 2046 though, it may be the final entry in the trilogy but that does not mean Chow's story truly ends with this film.
Above anything, 2046 is a visual experience. The collaboration between Kar Wai and Doyle is legendary and the both of them lift 2046 to unseen heights. Still there is a small part of me that still weeps for some unfulfilled potential that lingers between scenes. While the 60s segment are beautiful, warm and atmospheric, they are still completely eclipsed by the futuristic scenes in 2046. These segments are truly awe-inspiring, an explosion of color, dreamy camera work and perfectly planned shots. Whenever the film switches back to the past, there is always a little twinge of disappointment. Maybe it's unfair criticism for a film that's this visually accomplished, but nonetheless it's a feeling that won't escape me even after multiple viewings.
The soundtrack is another powerful asset to the film's atmosphere. At first I struggled a little with Kar Wai's choice in music, but over time I've come to appreciate the returning musical cues. The soundtrack lend the different sequences a very unique and individual atmosphere that go well together while still accentuating the contrast between the different relationships in Chow's life. It's not the kind of music I prefer to listen to, but within the confines of the film it works wonders.
As for acting performances, Kar Wai rounded up some of the best and brightest talents of Hong Kong cinema. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is arguably the best male actor Hong Kong has ever known, Faye Wong, Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li make notable appearances as Leung's female interests (and not forgetting a short cameo of Maggie Cheung). As you'd expect from a cast like this, the acting is top notch.
Even though all actors do a great job portraying their characters, the romance isn't as soaring and passionate as you might expect from a film like this. Part of this is due to the nature of the characters, as this clearly isn't a film about true love, but there's also the more controlled and restrained attitude often seen in Asian romances (Hou's Three Times has similar issues for many Western people). It's not so much that the characters lack chemistry, it's about the way they hide it from each other. 2046 is not a simple tale of two people falling in love, overcoming some hardships and living happily ever after, but a more down to earth and realistic approach to romance.
If the romance and the drama doesn't get to you, the atmosphere probably will. The film features some of the most impressively visualized scenes I've ever witnessed in any film, helped by a wonderfully unique soundtrack. The acting is strong, the poetry is rich and the character are lovable, despite their obvious defects. The film runs a little long, but never becomes stale or boring. I'm very much looking forward to Kar Wai's new film, though I fear 2046 will be very hard to top.