When I took on the task of writing this month’s Deep Analysis, I had only one film on my mind. Partly because of the asinine trip I made to grab some Criterion Blu-Rays from Barnes & Noble’s annual half-off sale and partly to an attempt to turn Flixist into a dedicated Chinese film site, 2046 was the only thing I wanted to watch. Late last year, a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-Wai’s films were released by Janus Films and we covered most of the films available. While I personally included extra coverage of The Grandmaster, I did wonder why 2046 wasn’t among the selection.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have an answer to that, but it’s irrelevant now. I have the excellent Blu-Ray compilation and I want to justify my nearly three-hour drive in acquiring it, so it’s time to talk about the melancholic coda to In the Mood for Love that is 2046. Get ready for sadness, despair, hope, inspiration, and then a return to misery as we trek through this sci-fi adjacent trip inside of a writer’s heartbreak and the attempts he makes at coping with it.
Billed as something of a conclusion to a loose trilogy comprising of Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, 2046 begins with a shot of some early-00s CGI that initially tricks the viewer into thinking this will be a sci-fi film. One of the themes running through the movie is certainly how technology has changed the way we interact, but it’s not explicitly a film musing about the dangers of computers or anything melodramatic like that. No, 2046 is almost saying that our modern world is something we take for granted.
A Japanese man (played by Takuya Kimura, a famous J-Pop star that would later star in Sega’s Judgment) opines about lost love and connections while mentioning how no one has ever returned from a mysterious era known as 2046. Initially unclear to the viewer, he is referring to the year and how passengers on this futuristic train are able to traverse time-space itself. In an attempt to find their perfect love, it seems people buy tickets for a mysterious railway that transports them to the year 2046. In that year, you’re supposedly able to recapture lost love as nothing ever changes there.
Flash to reality and we catch up with Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung reprising his role from In the Mood for Love). Having failed to connect with the woman he believed to be his soulmate, Chow takes on a new persona as a ladies’ man. After spending years in Singapore almost in penance, he has returned to Hong Kong and is “enjoying” many nights of gambling, smoking, and love-making with anyone and everyone.
On Christmas Eve, Chow happens to run into Lulu (Carina Lau reprising her role from Days of Being Wild), a cabaret dancer he met during his time in Singapore. While she has no recollection of him, Chow is able to accurately recount the events of that night, so she joins him for drinks. He takes her home later and accidentally leaves with her key. Realizing his mistake, he checks the key to find that it belongs to room 2046, the same number as the room he and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) shared when writing their martial arts novel many years ago. He returns days later only to find that not only is Lulu no longer in 2046 but she was stabbed in the night by her jealous boyfriend.
Looking to find a place to stay, Chow is initially resistant to renting out 2047 as it holds no significance to him. After some talking with the landlord, he agrees to stay in the room while 2046 is cleaned up only to become attached to the new room as he waits. As luck would have it, 2046 ends up being home to various women that will soon become major parts of Chow’s life.
Right from this first arc, we learn that 2046 isn’t going to be a kind film. Nostalgia plays a big part in every person’s life. As we grow older, we often look backward with rose-tinted glasses. It’s become something of a meme at this point, but the “old man yells at cloud” trope is absolutely true. Change is scary and when we are afraid of what is coming ahead, we often retreat to the times when we were happiest. Within the world of this film, however, those happy times have now given way to sad futures.
Lulu already had her heartbroken during the events of Days of Being Wild, so she is on a similar exodus to Chow. Sadly, it seems she couldn’t outrun her demons as they almost literally come to kill her. If you were waiting the four years between these two movies to get closure on Lulu’s life, you’re not going to find it.
It’s foreshadowing the despair that Chow will eventually fall into. Still, just when both Chow and Lulu thought they might have found some solace, it gets torn away. It seems that in 2046, you have only one shot at finding your true love and will never get it again. As Chow eventually states, “Timing is the key for love. Too late or too early, it will not work.”
With Lulu gone, the landlord fixes over 2046 and gives it to his daughter, a woman named Wang Jing-Wen (Faye Wong). Having fallen in love with a Japanese man (the same one that narrated the beginning of the film), Chow overhears her practicing her Japanese one day and starts to take an interest in her life. Due to the cultural divide that exists in the 60s, her father forbids Wang from continuing to see her boyfriend.
Heartbroken, Wang eventually writes to her lover to call things off. She initially confronts her, but she cannot commit due to fear of her father’s wrath. With him out of the picture, Wang eventually starts to break down and is sent to an institution to get help. The landlord then rents the room to his youngest daughter, Wang Jie-Wen, who is presumably underaged. Extremely flirtatious, she takes an interest in Chow, but their story never really goes anywhere.
While observing this, Chow starts to concoct an idea bout a science fiction novel. This is where the beginning of the film comes into play, as that intro scene forms the basis of Chow’s new work. Not quite sure what the overall theme should be, Chow starts to craft characters that are based on the interactions he has had interactions with. Titled 2046, it deals with passengers seeking refuge from their heartbreak by boarding a time-traveling train to an era that never changes.
Before he can really use writing as therapy, another woman moves into 2046 that tempts Chow. A flashy and well-dressed club girl named Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), her appearance is that of a much more aggressive Su Li-Zhen. Chow stays out of her business for a while, but can’t help but overhear a massive argument she has with a man one night. Desperately looking to end her clubbing life, Bai is searching for a husband and forces her suitor to leave his current girlfriend for her. Since he refuses, Chow obviously checks in on what has happened.
The film never outright states this, but one can assume that Bai is a high-class prostitute. With Chow frequently utilizing call girls to dull his pain, it was inevitable that he and Bai would cross paths. Roughly a year after she moves in, the two meet up on Christmas Eve after Bai loses another boyfriend and start to form a platonic relationship based on drinking. The non-physical part doesn’t last long, however, and the two have something of a carnal attraction that quickly escalates. It’s probably the most graphic of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, but it expertly captures their primal lust.
Chow isn’t quite ready to give up his current lifestyle, so Bai cuts him a deal. Referring back to their earlier conversation, Chow can “borrow” time from her for a paltry sum of $10HK. Little does Chow realize, but Bai is enamored with him and only grows to love him more as they continue their escapades. Before long, she demands him to change and Chow declines. Offering her a counteroffer of the same fee, Bai storms out of Chow’s room and starts to bring various men over as a form of revenge. It doesn’t work and she eventually leaves 2046, letting the cycle repeat itself.
While I’ve always found it humorous that Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi seem to portray lovers in every film together, the way 2046 builds their relationship is shockingly realistic. I’ve not personally known sex workers that fall for clients, but Chow’s usage of escorts to hide his pain is something I can relate to.
When you’ve lost a person that meant so much to you, it becomes much easier to go from lover to lover without care. It constantly makes you feel miserable, but then it also temporarily makes you forget what you’ve lost. In a way, Chow’s desire to forget Su Li-Zhen is just like the character in his novel. He hasn’t yet progressed to the point where he wants to escape 2046, but rather is obsessed with going back in time.
Before he can truly reflect on his failure with Bai, Jing-Wen moves back into the room across the hall. Having been released from the institution, she is hardly the glowing girl she once was. Still troubled by her break-up with her Japanese boyfriend, her father gets on her case one day when a letter from Japan comes to the front desk. In an effort to mend her broken heart, Chow offers to have the letters delivered to his room so that Wang can continue speaking with her boyfriend.
Due to his intervention, Wang not only gets another chance to mend what she lost, but she also starts to become closer to Chow. Being a fan of literature (specifically, Kung Fu serials), she takes a keen interest in Chow’s line of work and even proposes ideas for his novel. She’s a bit put off by the sexual tone of his work, but the two start throwing ideas off of one another, and Wang even ghostwrites some chapters for him.
In a clear parallel to In the Mood for Love, the film shows Chow and Wang writing their own Kung Fu novel one night while Chow is sick in bed. While taking care of him, Wang is completely unaware that Chow has started to develop feelings for her. As he reminisces about the past, Chow states that this period of his life is the happiest he has been since Su Li-Zhen years ago. He doesn’t want to let this opportunity get away from him, but Wang is ultimately too enamored with her Japanese lover to let anything serious happen.
After some time has passed, Wang approaches Chow with a question. Do some things in life never change? Not necessarily having a clear answer, Chow proposes an alternative. He will write a sequel to his novel jokingly titled 2047. This story will follow the journey of a Japanese man that has successfully left 2046 but happens to fall in love on the way home. Over time, Chow realizes that instead of writing this sequel as a way for Wang to cope, it’s actually a reflection of the desire in his heart.
Visualizing this is a cut to the world of 2047 where we meet Tak (Takuya Kimura), a Japanese man that is heartbroken. Having lost the love of his life in 2046, he simply wants to escape his pain and return to his regular time. Oddly enough, one of the gynoids onboard resembles his ex-lover (Faye Wong) and he begins to fall for her. Because of her lack of humanity, she never quite returns the favor. Tak tries and tries for days on end to get her attention, but is ultimately unsuccessful.
When speaking with the conductor of the train, Tak learns that the gynoids start to develop delayed reactions as they age. With this information, he returns to his lover and asks her to leave with him. Tak is convinced that his prodding will eventually come at the right time, but it never does. He continues this for what seems like weeks before coming to a realization: the gynoid doesn’t have delayed reactions, but simply is in love with someone else. Having been locked on the train without the strength to leave, this revelation gives him the courage to step off and begin his life anew. Chow, as well, uses the completion of 2047 as a means to restart his own life.
The following Christmas, Chow takes Wang out to dinner to help clear her mind. With her still pining over her lover, Chow gives her the best present he can conjure: a long-distance call to Japan. He takes Wang to his office and lets her use the phone, which happens to rekindle the spark that the two young lovers once had. Soon after, Wang moves to Japan and is on her way to a happier tomorrow.
While Chow is saddened by this turn of events, he hasn’t given up hope. Interestingly, a few days later, Chow runs into Lulu again. Having not perished at the hands of her jealous lover all those years earlier, Lulu is again embroiled in misery as she is fighting with another woman over a man’s affection. Chow doesn’t get involved this time, realizing that Lulu is a creature of habit and is unlikely to get help. In his mind, she is content with her sadness, which is something he doesn’t want for himself.
As has been clear over the course of this fictional arc, chronology doesn’t mean anything to 2046. That and all of the developments in Chow’s story are starting to have an impact on his actual life. Just as Tak was able to use his misfortune to reflect on and redirect his life, Chow is seemingly ready to mend his broken heart. 2047 has worked as a form of writing therapy for him.
This is made all the more evident when Bai Ling comes back into Chow’s life. After receiving a call from her, the two go out to dinner and seemingly make amends. Bai asks Chow to give her a reference so that she may become a call girl in Singapore. He is happy to lend some aid, but Bai’s next comment triggers another memory in him. The previous Christmas, Bai had stopped by the hotel to see Chow, but he was in Singapore looking up another lost lover.
In the final expanded arc of the film, we cut to Chow’s time in Singapore years earlier where he met a woman named Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li). This was actually teased at the very beginning of the film. How fate was cruel enough to place two women of the same name into his life is almost as poetic as it is sad. Chow had been frittering away his savings on gambling to forget the first Su Li-Zhen when the second took an interest in him. Being an avid gambler, she agrees to help Chow win his savings back and this starts their relationship.
Time and again, Chow asks about Su’s past and she challenges him to a game of high draw. Consistently losing, he never learns more about this Su Li-Zhen other than her gambling skills. After winning back all of his funds, Chow takes the plunge he couldn’t with the original Su Li-Zhen and asks her out. In a final challenge, the two draw cards and Chow loses. Before departing, he kisses her and tells her, “Take care. Maybe one day you’ll escape your past.” Little does he know that those words are meant for him.
Chow’s desperation to recapture his past is what ruined his chances with the second Su Li-Zhen. His completion of 2047 is what made him realize this. Instead of forging a new path forward, he wanted things to go back to the way they were. While this Su Li-Zhen wasn’t the same one, at least her name bore a resemblance to the lover in his heart. He could have lied to himself for the rest of his days, but Su simply didn’t love him.
Flashing back to the present, we catch up with Chow and Bai sometime after their dinner. The night before boarding her plane to Singapore, Bai invites him out to dinner one last time. She explains how a recent client of hers paid an extraordinary amount of money, so she wants to pay him back. Initially resisting that request, Bai eventually hands Chow a stack of money and walks away to make a call. Upon closer inspection, the stack consists entirely of all the $10HK bills that Chow gave her during their lustful affair.
In the final scene of the movie, Chow walks Bai back to her apartment to bid her farewell. Not really looking to end things here, Bai insists that Chow stay the night with her. She questions him, “Why can’t it be like it was before?” Wishing for him to lend her his time once again, Chow explains that is something he simply will not do. He then departs from her life while she cries at the door, losing out on love much the same way Chow did with Su Li-Zhen.
While a short monologue from Chow puts things into perspective, it seems that after everything he went through, he simply wasn’t able to find his happy ending. As a coda to In the Mood for Love, 2046 boldly states that love is a once-in-a-lifetime sensation. After squandering his only chance and stringing others along, Chow isn’t willing to make that mistake again. For Bai’s sake, it would be better if he left and she moved on rather than leave her with the hope of rekindling their romance.
That is certainly a depressing message to send after how heartbreaking In the Mood for Love was. In a weird way, I feel that is the point. By offering this almost nihilistic take on love, director Wong Kar-Wai is telling viewers to not waste their time thinking “what if?” In the years since meeting Su Li-Zhen, Chow Mo-Wan couldn’t get that question out of his mind. Instead of accepting his mistake, he wanted to capture that sensation again and live in his blissful past.
Love simply doesn’t work that way. Whether out of fear, ignorance, or disinterest, we all make mistakes when it comes to games of the heart. Those mistakes are what guide us to our perfect match. Much as Yoda said in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” By the end of his novel, Chow understands that. He just needs to make one last sacrifice before he can finally be finished with this chapter of his life.
While covering a lot of the same themes as his past works, 2046′s unconventional timeline and self-reflective trappings offer a unique take on Wong’s tried-and-true formula. It may not be the same masterpiece that In the Mood for Love is, but perhaps that was the idea. Apart from traveling to the past and remaking the movie, there is no possible way that film’s impact can be recaptured. Any sequel was always going to be lesser, but lesser doesn’t have to mean bad.
In some way, that makes 2046 the sequel that In the Mood for Love deserves. In showing how even the classiest of people can lose control of their lives, it gives viewers an easy way to relate to Chow’s struggles. It also shows that we’re not alone in our fumbling of romance. Everyone is a victim of nostalgia, but it is possible to break free from its grasp. Some do it faster than others, but we are all capable of the same feat.
Curiously, watching this movie has given me the same realization as Chow. I’ve always beat myself up for mistakes I made in the past. I lost a great friend because of my desire for more than spent more than a decade indulging in alcohol and pleasures of the flesh. I may never recapture that same moment, but I don’t need to. I still have something to offer to the world even if I do it alone.
Far from the fairy tale ending that you would expect, 2046 proves that there is redemption at the end of the tunnel. It may take time, but we will all eventually find our happiness.