It is 1964 Hong Kong. While social unrest simmers in the street, journalist Chow Mowan (Tony Leung) is writing a series of stories set in a future time where the whole world is interconnected by a single train system. People fight to get to 2046, a place where they can recover their lost memories. However, no one can tell whether this really exists, as no one has returned yet – except for one.
Mowan gets his characters and situations from real life. The man who returns is based on the Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura) of Jing Wen (Faye Wong), his landlord’s daughter. Jing Wen herself appears in the story as the android the man falls in love with. Another android is stabbed by a jealous passenger; similarly, a prostitute named Mimi (Carina Lau), whom Mowan knows from his time in Singapore, is found bloodied in her hotel room after a violent quarrel with her boyfriend. The hotel room is numbered 2046.
When Mimi moves out of the hotel, Mowan offers to take her place in room 2046. But the landlord refuses on account of redecorating the room which was left in disarray after the night of the bloody fight. Mowan then makes do with the room next door, room 2047.
This hotel is not at all the immaculately furnished place with a chandelier in the lobby. The corridors are claustrophobic-narrow, the walls painted an anemic shade of green and stained with rainwater all over. It is nothing what anyone would expect a dandy like Mowan would choose to live in. Besides the cheap rent that a struggling-starving writer cannot let pass, the number 2046 is significant to Mowan. It is the same number of the hotel room where he and a former love would have their secret meetings.
Chow Mowan continues his decadent life, bringing home prostitutes from the club and having sex that is loud enough to wake the people next door in the morning. He gets involved with a number of women, but the relationships never grew; most of them he keeps for the sex and nothing more. After having sex, he casually hands Bai Ling, the coquettish prostitute who has been living in room 2046, a bill, which, he says, is his payment for her torn dress. The gesture crushes Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) who was thinking all along that their relationship is more than prostitute-client. She carries on her relationship, keeping the money he pays her in a tin box, until Bai Ling, frustrated with Mowan, moves out of the hotel, walks out of Mowan’s life. They meet again later in the film, when she asks him to become her guarantor to the recruiter at a night club in Singapore.
The following summer, Mowan becomes involved with Jing Wen, who is then convalescing from a nervous breakdown after her father forced her to break up with his Japanese boyfriend. Unlike his relationship with Bai Ling, what Mowan had with Jing Wen was more of an intellectual companionship, Jing Wen eventually becoming his ghostwriter for martial arts stories. It is also him who pushes Jing Wen to resume her relationship with her boyfriend. They hit on a plan: the boyfriend would address his letters to Mowan; Mowan, in turn, would pass the letters to Jing Wen. Mowan also finds Jing Wen a job as a coat attendant at the club. In a touching scene, he brings her to his office on Christmas Day and lets her use the telephone to call long-distance her boyfriend. “I felt like Santa Claus,” Mowan says. The landlord eventually changes his tune about his daughter’s relationship, letting Jing Wen marry her boyfriend.
Mowan translates Jing Wen’s story as a love between a train passenger and an android attendant. This man turns out to be the only one to return from the mysterious place called 2046. While in transit, he falls in love with one of the android, but unlike its real-life model, the story does not end in a happy note. The man asks her to leave with him. The attendant does not answer, leaving the man broken-hearted.
The story becomes more about himself than about Jing Wen and her boyfriend, Mowan says. Earlier, shortly before he leaves Singapore for Hong Kong, he meets a mysterious woman at the gambling house, a professional gambler who keeps her left hand covered with a black glove. She helps him recoup his losses, playing for Mowan and taking commissions from every win made. He falls in love with her and, like the man on the train, asks her to leave with him. She rejects her offer, saying he doesn’t know anything about her. Before they part, Mowan tells her, when you’ve finally freed yourself from your past, look for me. The woman’s name, played by Gong Li, was Su Lizhen, which is also the name of the woman he first fell in love with, the lover whom he rendezvous with at the room 2046 – the story that was portrayed in another, earlier film by Wong Kar Wai, In the Mood for Love.
The film ends with a dejected Mowan in a taxi.
I am ambivalent about this film. On one hand, there are lots to love about it. The production design and cinematographer are able to evoke a tangy emotional atmosphere. The hotel, a Chinese Grey Garden, with Chow Mowan living in it – trapped in it – is his emotional turmoil made physical. Hotel rooms are often cluttered, cramped and dimly lit, but the production designer managed to make them look beautiful. The ubiquitous mirrors accentuates the self-examining nature of the protagonist. They also create an illusion of holes carved into walls, calling to mind their counterparts in the characters’ lives. Some scenes shot as reflections from glossy surfaces lend a surreal feel. The glaring electric lights, among Wong Kar Wai’s favorite visual motif, renders whole story world in perpetual nightime, the dark night of the soul – indeed, the palpably daytime scenes were few and far in between.
The episodes, each marked either by the presence of Mowan’s woman at the moment or the shift from 1960s Hong Kong to the futuristic world of 2046, slides into the next seamlessly. Titillating character quirks abound, such as Jing Wen talking to herself, practicing her Japanese and Su Lizhen’s gloved hand. The main settings – the hotel and the train, both places of transient stays – articulates the ephemerality of the relationships depicted in the film, which could also be said of relationships in contemporary times.
Tony Leung brings to life his character with aplomb, skillfully alternating between the easy-going seducer to the aimless, tormented lover of someone long-lost. On the other hand, each of the big-name supporting cast were given his/her own shining moments.
But contemporary audiences may find Wong Kar Wai’s treatment of failed relationships here a little too naïve. I find it unconvincing that a man of Chow Mowan’s age would stay stranded that long. We never hear him making plans either about a future family life or his writing career. Two-hours of self-pity could also get tiring. Moments of high emotions, such as his confrontation scenes with Su Lizhen and Bai Ling, melt down to cheese and are too cloying to watch; Wong Kar Wai could have used some restraint. The sorrowful tone has been established from the start so such emotional explosions come across as overkill.
All in all, 2046, with its sumptuous visuals, familiar subject, and popular actors, would delight both mainstream and arthouse moviegoers.