“2046” - Wong Kar Wai (2004)

“Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. . . . If I'd lived in another time or place, my story might have had a very different ending.”
– Chow Mo-wan in 2046
The films of writer-director Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) always seem to be laden with a romantic expressionism that is not just a background mood but the very substance of what is being told.  It is as if the viewer is presented not so much with a story, but with a visually orchestrated “tone poem” [1].  This was particularly true of the string of films Wong made from 1990 to 2004, which culminated with his magisterial 2046.

Throughout his career, Wong has employed an off-the-cuff production style whereby he has begun shooting his films without a script in hand and has more or less made things up as he has gone along.  This has invariably led to massive cost and shooting-schedule overruns, as Wong has continued to reshoot, cut out, and re-edit major aspects of his works in progress.  And these improvisational production habits seem to have expanded over the years.  Wong’s preceding film, In the Mood for Love (2000) took 15 months to shoot, and 2046 was five years in the making [2,3,4].  Although those two films were originally conceived as two separate and unconnected works, their overlapping and evolving production led to 2046 being a direct sequel to In the Mood for Love.

The story of 2046, like the earlier Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love, is set in Hong Kong during the 1960s, which was a turbulent period of rapid growth for the city that perhaps may be an historically mythic image for today’s Hong Kongers in the same way as the “Roaring Twenties” has been for Americans.  The title “2046" has several references, the futuristic one of which led some people to assume (partly encouraged by some misleading pre-release publicity) that 2046 would essentially be a sci-fi film.  There is indeed a sci-fi narrative fantasy thread in the film, but the film is very much situated in the 60s.

Since those three Wong films occupy successive periods of the 60s and have some common personages in their stories, they are sometimes referred to as a trilogy.  However, the linkage with Days of Being Wild is rather weak, and familiarity with that story is not necessary for appreciating 2046.  On the other hand, I would say you really need to have seen In the Mood for Love first in order to fully appreciate what is going on in 2046. (Note that Wong once commented that it would be best to see 2046 first [2], but I disagree.)  One might argue this close dependence on another film for narrative background is a flaw (one of several) in 2046, but the film has enough virtues to overcome such weaknesses.

The story of “In the Mood for Love” is set in the mid-1960s and concerns the growing but tantalizing affection between a man and woman, Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen,  who are already married to separate spouses.  They discover that their two spouses are having an affair with each other, which brings Chow and Su together in sympathy but places moral inhibitions in the way of their own mutual ardor. The entire film is a moody rendition of romantic longing and missed opportunities to express deep feelings.  Eventually Chow and Su abandon their tacit hopes of getting together and go their own ways unfulfilled.

The story of 2046 picks things up where they were left off in the preceding film, with Chow Mo-wan (played again by Tony Chiu Wai Leung) now back in Hong Kong in 1966 after working some time in Singapore. He still moons over Su Li-zhen, but he now seems to be a changed man.  For one thing, there is no mention of his unfaithful wife, so he is evidently disconnected from her.  And whereas in In the Mood for Love Chow was a sensitive and upright individual, in 2046 he is seen to be a more callous, role-playing ladies’ man.  Over the course of 2046, the viewer sees his relationships with several woman with whom he becomes involved. Each of these relationships give Wong Kar Wai the opportunity to explore different sides of time and memory. Part of this cinematic narration involves sequences that are out of time order, suggesting that they are memories that spontaneously emerge in Chow’s mind as he proceeds with life.

There are some stylistic commonalities between the two films of course.
  • There is again the moody music of Shigeru Umebayashi, who also composed the music for House of Flying Daggers (2004).  He fills the air with smooth, melancholy rumbas and other dances.
  • The cinematography again bears the signature of Christopher Doyle (due to the film’s lengthy production period, Doyle once again had to depart at some point, and so the cinematography was also performed by Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-fai).
  • The production design and editing was again supervised by William Chang.
But there were also some significant differences in the way the two stories were told.
  • The focalization in In the Mood for Love” was balanced between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen, but here in 2046, the focalization is almost exclusively from Chow’s perspective.  Nevertheless, as with other Wong films, though the focalization is from the male perspective, the focus is squarely on the visages of the women yearning and aching for love that is out of reach.
  • There is much more dialogue and voiceover in 2046.
  • Amorous fulfillment and physical eroticism, which were basically absent in In the Mood for Love, are prominently featured in 2046.
  • And as already mentioned, Chow Mo-wan is less innocent and more selfish in 2046.  But to a certain extent we can understand him a bit more here than, for example, we could understand Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, because we know more about Chow’s past.

The number 2046 in this story has several references and meanings, all of which relate to time and memory.
  • 2046 was the apartment room number in In the Mood for Love, where Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen sequestered themselves in order to help Chow write his wuxia (Chinese martial arts) serial novel.  Those were the happiest times for Chow, and 2046 represents a state-of-mind that he would like to return to.
  • 2046 is also the hotel room number in 2046 that Chow finds when he returns to Hong Kong in 1966.  It turns out to be successively occupied by several different women of interest in this story.
  • 2046 is the final year of the 50-year agreement (“One Country, Two Systems”) that the Chinese government made with the UK on 1July 1997 to allow Hong Kong to retain its self-governing status for fifty more years.  For many Hong Kongers that suggests that the year 2046 has no perceived future for them.  Thus 2046 symbolizes timelessness.
  • The sci-fi portion of the film seems to have been directly inspired by a 1959 Twilight Zone episode, “The Lonely” [6]. In it a man in the year 2046 has been condemned to be imprisoned alone on an asteroid for fifty years.  A sympathetic supply-spaceship captain gives the lonely prisoner a feminine android robot to keep him company, and the recipient prisoner gradually falls in love with “her”.
When Chow-wan engages in writing a sci-fi story in the film, he calls it “2046" to suggest a mystical time and place one can go to retrieve lost memories.  Later when he tries to write a more optimistic story about undying love, he calls it “2047".  Although both stories are set in the future, they are, of course, all about Chow’s present state of mind.

The principal women characters with whom Chow has relationships are performed in this film by an all-star lineup of astonishingly beautiful and emotive actresses: Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Carina Lau. They each embody different perspectives on lost love:
  • Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who was Chow’s out-of-reach love in In the Mood for Love, only appears in a few brief flashback shots in this film, but she still haunts his memories.
  • “Black Spider” (Gong Li) is a mysterious professional woman gambler that Chow met in Singapore after the end of his relationship with Su Li-zhen.  Chow is attracted to her because she reminds him of his lost love, and he is later surprised to learn that Black Spider’s real name happens also to be Su Li-zhen (but she is a different woman).  Black Spider is romantically attracted to Chow, too, but she seems to have her own painful romantic memories that she is trying to flee, and to a certain extent she mirrors Chow.  That fact seems to dissuade her from advancing their relationship.  Chow recalls how he invited her to come with him back to Hong Kong, to which she said she would agree  only if he could beat her in an unwinnable (because she is a skilled cardsharp) card draw.
  • Lulu (Carina Lau), who now uses her stage name, Mimi, was a major figure in Days of Being Wild.  In that film she was in love with the narcissistic and doomed Yuddy, and here in 2046 she is shown trying to bury her memories by dissolving herself in a string of jealousy-laden affairs. For this desperate woman there are now no memories, only the present. When she meets Chow after having known him (perhaps intimately) earlier, she cannot even remember him. She is the first occupant of room 2046, which is next door to Chow’s.  Her relationship with Chow is only briefly covered in the film, and I wonder if more material concerning the two of them was the victim of Wong’s late-in-the-day editing cuts.
  • Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong) is the beautiful daughter of Chow’s landlord and is the second (and later the fourth) occupant of room 2046.  She is passionately in love with a young Japanese man (Takuya Kimura), whose marriage proposal to her is blocked by her father’s angry memories of the Japanese War.  Chow develops a platonic relationship with Jing-wen, and during her later occupancy of room 2046, the two of them collaborate on Chow’s sci-fi novel writing.  This innocent authorial teamwork together echoes Chow’s earlier collaboration with Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love, and similar to that occasion, a growing affection for Jing-wen creeps up on Chow.  And as was also the case in that earlier film, Chow is hesitant to express his true feelings for the woman;  eventually he even facilitates the re-engagement and marriage of Wang Jing-wen with her Japanese lover.
  • Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) is a beautiful nightclub hostess who is the third occupant of room 2046.  The name ‘Bai Ling’, incidentally but probably not accidentally, happens to match that of another famous and voluptuous Hong Kong movie actress who has had a tempestuous personal life.  Here in 2046 our Bai Ling is a lascivious coquette who attracts men with her kittenish and seductive ways. Like the Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love, she wears body-hugging cheongsam outfits that show of her slender and curvaceous figure. Chow Mo-wan cannot help noticing this, and soon he is making all his moves on the woman.  They start off as “drinking buddies”, but their mutual sexual attraction has only one destination: the bed.  Because Bai Ling works as a taxi dancer and has a number of male customers, her relationship with Chow has the appearance of a game, and he carelessly insults her by paying her for her “services”.  But despite appearances, Bai Ling is not truly toying with Chow in this relationship and is not so self-seeking.  Soon she falls deeply in love with Chow and struggles to elevate their relationship above its artificial role-playing. Their relationship occupies a major portion of the film, and it is highlighted by their several extremely erotic sexual encounters.  Eventually the frustrated Bai Ling demands to be Chow’s exclusive woman, and when he flippantly refuses, she terminates their relationship out of frustration.
The nonlinear storytelling of 2046 covers all of these relationships, as well as dramatizations of Chow’s sci-fi tale, which feature a futuristic version of Wang Jing-wen’s Japanese boyfriend, Tak (but actually representing Chow’s persona), traveling on a train to and from the mysterious destination of 2046, where lost memories can be regained and dwelled upon.  While traveling on the train, Tak encounters a beautiful android (Faye Wong again) with whom he falls in love, just like the earlier-mentioned Twilight Zone episode.  Tak invites the android to leave with him, but for various hypothesized reasons (mechanical wear and tear, emotional indifference, . . .), she only passively receives but never responds affirmatively to his caresses and proposal.  Tak sadly retells to her Chow’s story from In the Mood for Love about how one buries a secret forever:
“Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain.  They’d find a tree and carve a hole in it and whisper the secret into the hole.  Then cover it with mud.  That way, noone else would ever discover it.”
But his android only makes a game of the sad story’s carved hole by imitating it with her fingers.  Tak also invites another android (Carina Lau) to leave with him, but again he gets only acquiescence and no positive uptake.  Again the problem is memories.  In Tak's case the problem is that the androids he encounters don't seem to have much in the way of memories.

If we think about things on a more general level, we can say that all human relationships entail memories, which provide the very basis for future hopes and dreams. Indeed our primordial understanding of time, itself, is based on the way we construct narratives out of remembered incidents and expectations [7,8].  However, the problem with revisiting a treasured memory is that the past wonderful experience necessarily included expectations and dreams which later either materialized in some definite way or did not. Either way, they no longer retain the magical nature of the accompanying dreams.  Even so, we tend to dwell on our fond memories because of the beautiful dreams that they still invoke.  As film critic Stephen Teo has remarked [3],
“Desire is better felt than satisfied.  It lasts longer. . .”
So our pasts, i.e. all of our memories, are actually narratives that we have constructed.  When we want to physically return to a memory, we cannot really go back there, because its at-the-time accompanying future component has now vanished.  In this way a remembered time is like the year 2046 for Hong Kongers: it has no real future, no dreams that may come true. In 2046 Chow Mo-wan is struggling to come to grips with this realization.

Wong Kar Wai and his production team go over these feelings with sublime elegance in 2046. Because we are dealing with evaporating memories – rather than sitting on the knife-edge of anticipation as in In the Mood for Love – this film is much faster paced. Note also that 2046 was Wong’s first to be shot in cinemascope, and he employed many interesting framings and figure compositions with that format.  For example there are numerous wide-screen closeups with the figure off to one side and facing the short side of the frame.  This runs counter to the convention of balancing the frame “weight” by having an off-centered figure facing into the frame’s open space.  But these closeup frames in 2046 were artfully composed so that the imagery behind the closeup figure’s head was  shadowy and in soft-focus and so did not distract the viewer’s attention.  The overall effect was to enhance, without distraction, the feeling of cramped confinement, which is always a feature of Wong’s crowded but lonely urban environments.  Further contributing to these effects and feelings were
  • the artful short depth-of-focus shots taken in comparatively deep visual fields such that only a part of the subject matter of interest is in focus;
  • the occasional closeups focusing on moving feet or hands of a principal woman, which mysteriously blends well with the moody dance-theme music that pervades the background throughout the film;
  • the numerous well-composed shots with mirrors such that the subject figures are seen from multiple perspectives.
All of these effects and more pull the viewer into Chow Mo-wan’s dreamlike reveries of past memories, most of which recall and evoke past feelings of loneliness and some of which resonate in the mind long after the film finishes.  There are moments of passion, too.  For example just before Chow and Black Spider part for the final time (at her behest, not his), they engage in a passionate 35-second kiss that embodies all his fervor for wanting to be with her.  And there are the intensely erotic scenes with Bai Ling that convey her romantic zeal for Chow.

Like many people with no family, Chow was particularly lonely on Christmas Eve, and the film focuses on his memories of successive Christmas Eves throughout the late 1960s, when he was particularly in need of feminine company.  His 1967 Christmas Eve was spent with Bai Ling.  His 1968 Christmas Eve was with Wang Jing-win.  And he spent his 1969 Christmas Eve in Singapore looking for Black Spider, who, he was only told, had either died or had returned to her original home in Phnom Penh.

For Chow, these women of interest are occasionally conflated in his memories, and he sometimes mixes them up.  Indeed all five of the key women wear their hair in roughly similar ways, as stylish “updos”.  On this topic I can recall being instructed in film school that if your film project scenario is to have a man involved with two women, you should make sure that one of the women is a blonde and the other a brunette.  This would ensure visual distinctiveness.  Here Wong Kar Wai does just the opposite, but it is more realistic.  Men are often attracted to women who unconsciously evoke past memories in their minds, and so there may be physical similarities to the women they seek.  So it apparently was with Chow.

But despite some fashion similarities, Chow’s women in 2046 are very different with respect to their own memories.  Some of those memories are closed off by past events and are only obstructive for future engagement. Lulu wants to forget her memories and wallow in present-moment sensuality.  Black Spider cannot escape her own sad memories.  Wang Jing-wen’s memories of her Japanese boyfriend were for a time thought to have been closed off, too.  But Chow selflessly helped her resurrect those dreams, even though they didn’t involve him.

However, It is Bai Ling’s memories that offer the truly fertile ground of an open future for Chow.  She remembers the joy the two of them had experienced together and wants to continue the engagement.  “Why can’t it be like it was before?”, she begs him.  

There it is, staring him in the face – a romantic future with someone who lovingly offers him her body and soul.  Indeed it is this unnecessarily shortened relationship that is the key to the film and elevates it to greatness.  Without Zhang Ziyi’s soulful depiction of Bai Ling’s passionate ardor, the film would not have ascended into this sublime sphere of Wong Kar Wai artistry.  This is the most moving and effective screen performance I have seen from her.
But Chow cannot extricate himself from both his own self-centered memories and his now customary Casanova-style role-playing. So he coldly lets her go.  At the end a hitherto unheard external voiceover comments:
“It was if he had boarded a very long train, heading for a drowsy future through the unfathomable night.”

  1. Acquarello, “08-28-04: Editions Dis Voir: Wong Kar Wai by Jean-Marc Lalanne, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, and Jimmy Ngai”, Journal Notes, Strictly Film School, (28 August 2004).
  2. Chale Nafus, “2046", Austin Film Society, (n.d.).
  3. Stephen Teo, “2046: A Matter of Time, A Labour of Love”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2005). 
  4. Nathan Lee, “Elusive Objects of Desire”, Film Comment, (July/August 2005). 
  5. Ian Johnston, “Unhappy Together: Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046", The Bright lights Film Journal, (31 January  2005).  
  6. "The Lonely”, The Twilight Zone, (13 November 1959), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)    
  7. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (1962), Harper & Row.

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