As a young college student many years ago, I took a film class as a kind of lark and to fulfill some requirement or other. It was pretty much a waste of time. There was one camera to go around among twenty students, so we each got about a week with the thing and hardly anybody got anything done. The one good thing was that we got to see some avant-garde films. They were real eye-openers, in that film, to me, had pretty much always been a depiction of a linear story line with a beginning, middle, climax and end. The avant-garde films we watched rarely had any kind of a story line at all, but despite this the better ones were still able to elicit a satisfying emotional or intellectual response.
The first thing you have to remember when you watch 2046 is that there is not a conventional story line here. In fact, the haphazard nature of the film's scenes--past, present, future, imagined and "real"--don't even make sense in their own illogical framework. You have to know this going in because if you strain to make sense of the plot--as we have all been conditioned to do--you will miss the point. Indeed, I had to watch this a couple of times.
The film consists of a series of scenes primarily focusing on a Chinese writer named Chow. He is in Singapore, and leaves a beautiful woman behind who may or may not have loved him. He is in Hong Kong, and falls for another beautiful woman who is murdered in her hotel room. He tells the hotel-keeper that he wishes to move into this room--2046--because he is evidently trying to return to this place in his mind and his heart. Of course, he can't, literally or figuratively, so he is given the room next door. He begins an affair with a prostitute who moves into 2046 and who loves him with every fiber of her being. He uses her as a prostitute only. He falls in love with the hotel-keeper's daughter who herself is in love with a distant Japanese man her father despises. He writes a science-fiction piece--visualized in the film and entitled 2046--which is a story of the future and a train on which female androids serve one but with whom one must never fall in love, and on which he imagines himself to be Japanese.
Ehh, no, this is not a coherent storyline. The future is mixed with the past which is mixed with the present which is mixed with his story which is mixed up with his imagination. In the end, it occurs that it is entirely possible that all of these women are the same person; that they are simply some ideal of love he has concocted in his mind. Maybe not.
Visually, the film is a stunner. Every scene, every backdrop, every set-piece is carefully and meticulously orchestrated. Cigarette smoke drifting above a cluttered desk; a beautifully-clothed female form asleep on a bed; cards laid out on a green table in a dark restaurant: you could paint these scenes and hang them in an art museum. The framing device is also very artful. It is constrained and prevents us from seeing what we want to see. It is hard to comprehend. More importantly, the attention that is being paid to these details and the beauty with which they are rendered concentrates the viewer's attention: something incredibly important is going on. This feeling is reinforced by the musical score--opera and classical mostly--which drifts in and out plaintively.
The acting, from the smaller to the larger roles, is spectacular. So much is going on beyond that which is said, and beyond that which is implied. All of the actors and actresses are superb, but special mention must be paid to Ziyi Zheng, who plays the prostitute, and who burns a hole in the screen every time she appears on it. She is an un-erupted volcano of barely restrained emotion: thin, beautiful, lonely, sensual, and terribly, terribly sad.
In the end, and without perhaps realizing it, we understand that the film works as a statement on the human condition, and the clumsy, random way we try to seek happiness in it. We recognize true love after our chance for it is over, or after our previous actions have rendered it impossible. Or maybe because we failed to recognize it altogether. Or maybe because we are not Japanese, or younger, or older. Complete, unfettered happiness only exists in 2046, a room we cannot enter; a year that is in an unfathomably distant future.
That this film is an original and successful experiment with the medium, that it is so beautifully photographed and scored, that it is so perfectly acted, and that its grand themes are completely realized, make it one of the best films of the year, if not the decade.