In the Mood for Love is exactly the kind of movie that shouldn’t get a sequel. It is too distinctive stylistically to hope to match and its open-ended romance would surely be spoiled with further examination or revisitation—there is simply nothing a conventional sequel could add to In the Mood for Love that would strengthen the beautiful and wistful cinematic experience in any way. Would cinema master Wong Kong-wai dare even consider the thought? Enter 2046, which is thankfully a sequel in only the thinnest possible way but an interesting companion to the beloved modern classic.
If you paid close attention to In the Mood for Love, you would have noticed the title of 2046 is a reference to a hotel room number that plays a pivotal role—the number is transported to 2046 in a number of ways, from more room numbers to a sci-fi vision of the future. Though the film continues the stories of characters from In the Mood for Love and Days of Being Wild [which I've unfortunately not seen], it is wildly more expansive in terms of genre and tone, creating a narrative and changing its characters that are much more difficult to grasp. Though Wong is obviously asking us to consider these films together, even if not entirely seriously, it isn’t fair to judge them on a similar scale.
2046 is told in four different parts following Chow Mo-wan [Tony Leung] and the various women [played primarily by the great Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Faye Wong] who move in next door to his hotel apartment. Throughout the film, we see that Chow’s experience with women has completely changed from the end of In the Mood for Love. He is now much more forward, perhaps compensating for the mistakes he made during his inability to consummate the romance with Su. He's also grown a pretty sweet mustache, though that is less important to the narrative.
The first encounter comes shortly after Chow returns to Hong Kong from Singapore following the conclusion of In the Mood for Love. He rents a room in a hotel [number 2047, due to short-term renovations to room 2046] and observes the lives of his landlord’s two daughters next door. He also begins working on a sci-fi novel about the mysterious world of 2046, where people go to escape their past memories—at times during the Chow storylines, the story’s romance between a Japanese man and an android plays out in 2046’s most visually dynamic and narratively confounding section.
The film’s other two sections provide the most emotional depth. The first is Bai Ling [Zhang Ziyi], a “nightclub girl” whose relationship with Chow quickly turns from friendship to purely sexual to something deeper. Even though their relationship becomes much more explicit than that of In the Mood for Love, this is tonally the closest match. With the lovers broken apart by the end of their story, there is a bittersweet sadness that something was lost. This is matched by a brief encounter with another woman named Su Li-Zhen [Gong Li], a gambler who Chow meets during his time in Singapore and an obvious reference to his past love. The resolution of Chow and Su’s fateful meeting seems to be a direct response to his unfulfilled past love, as well—they, too, don’t work out, but they share a kiss, the film’s most triumphant moment that comes with a shocking jolt and holds as if for rapturous applause.
In some ways, this storytelling approach is much more like the shift at the end of In the Mood for Love, though more drawn out. Wong’s stylistic eye hasn’t decreased in any way, with 2046 full of striking and colorful visual and total attention to detail. But if you are judging 2046 solely against In the Mood for Love, it is too broad to be as dramatically impactful. There are moments of great beauty and emotional resonance, but it is [by design, in most ways] completely scattered and difficult to follow. The characters feel much less like specific people than vessels for the film’s complicated themes. 2046 is also a difficult film to grasp after just one viewing. It’s structure begs for revisits in order to put together all of its thematic pieces. Maybe that is just a poor personal excuse, but impacted my viewing of 2046 through the lens of its predecessor.
And yet, In the Mood for Love and 2046 work surprisingly well as companion pieces for their differences—ultimately, “companion piece” is a better way to classify 2046. Where one is a stoic romance, the other is more open to wild changes in tone and even a little humor; where one is a very specific story about a specific relationship, the other seems to defy specificality in every way. And yet these two films absolutely come from the same cinematic vision. We might not need a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and that might include what we have in 2046, but it is a bizarre experiment on its own terms.