Our life journey is a complicated mess of encounters, dreams, future plans, memories. There are points on this journey when we need to look back and reflect on the past in order to be able to move into the future. But can we or should we be really free from our past? Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004) presents the strange mix of past and future, as well as the mix of reality and fiction, and even fiction within fiction. As the last part of the informal trilogy with Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love (2001), 2046 represents also a strange network of storylines echoing events, characters, or places from the previous films.
The number 2046 has a meaning in real-life context. It is the last year of Hong Kong’s autonomy within China. In other words, it is the future point in time when the past will formally cease to exist. It is also the point before which the current status of Hong Kong is ‘conserved’. To my understanding, it creates a peculiar time for Hong Kong which finds itself in a situation that combines past and future.
In the context of the film, 2046 has multiple meanings. It is a year in the novel that the protagonist of the film, Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), writes.
In the year 2046, a vast rail network spans the globe. A mysterious train leaves for 2046 every once in a while. Every passenger going to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because nothing ever changes in 2046.
This means that you have to go to the future in order to return to the past. That’s what Chow does—he writes a novel about the future in order to make sense of the past while being on his own way to 2046—trying to recapture the memories of his lost love. Could things have been different? Or, as one of the women he encounters on this way, Bai Ling, says: ‘Why can’t it be like before?’
In addition to time, 2046 is also a place. It’s the number of the hotel room from In the Mood for Love, the second film of the trilogy, where Chow used to meet Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung)—that same lost love. It’s never clear whether they had an affair or they were just meeting to write the martial arts novel. It doesn’t become clear in 2046 either because Chow describes their relationship ambiguously. In fact, it’s not even clear if 2046 is really a sequel to In the Mood for Love, or if it’s just a story with the characters of same names played by the same actors. It could be both.
2046 is also a hotel room connected with the women Chow meets in this film—Lulu, Bai Ling, Miss Wang. Chow himself moves into room 2047.
Thus, the number linked to the place becomes the number linked to time—the year 2046. And the train that takes people to 2046 unites both—place and time.
Another time-space symbol is train compartments 1224 and 1225 which stand for Christmas Eve and Christmas, respectively. It’s the time when people are especially inclined to feel loneliness and need the warmth of other people.
Just like the rail network of Chow’s futuristic novel, the storyline of the film also represents a network with quite a few points of connection. Relationships of different people, different couples who encounter each other on their life journeys. It’s a common theme for many of Wong Kar-wai’s films. The network of unrequited love—people in love with people who are in love with someone else. The time that is given to this love, loss of love, memories of love, recovering from it, maybe finding new love, or more often, it’s a possible way towards possible love. Nothing ever is certain in these films and relationships.
‘Love is all a matter of timing,’ says Chow. But we can say it about anything, not only love. On the other hand is there anything that’s unchanged? Is love among those things?
Love also goes hand in hand with secrets. Time and secrets are the two things that intertwine in 2046 creating this strange fabric of a non-linear narrative.
Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain, find a tree and carve a hole in it, and whisper the secret in the hole. Then cover it over with mud. That way, nobody else would ever discover it.
Chow tells this same story in In the Mood for Love. In 2046, it is told several times by Tak (Takuya Kimura), a Japanese passenger on the train in Chow’s novel. His secret must be about a woman he once loved, and like Chow, didn’t offer her to leave with him. In the Mood for Love ends with Chow whispering the secret, probably related to his love for Su Li-zhen, into the hole in the wall of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.
If we accept that Chow is the same character as in In the Mood for Love, I would say that the secret has a personification in 2046. Chow meets a woman in Singapore known by the nickname Black Spider (Gong Li). She always wears a mysterious black glove on her left hand. She helps Chow to win his money back in casino to return to Hong Kong. Her name appears to be Su Li-zhen, identical to Chow’s lost love. And curiously, she is from Cambodia. Chow tells this Su Li-zhen what he didn’t tell the first Su Li-zhen—to leave with him. Only realizing later that those words were meant for that first Su Li-zhen. And the second Su Li-zhen understands it.
All the women Chow meets on his journey represent some aspects of his memories of lost love. The relationships with these women either compensate or repeat something from that relationship.
The first woman he meets is Lulu (Carina Lau). Chow had known her from Singapore and remembered the story of her boyfriend who had been killed (the story from Days of Being Wild). Lulu carries the memories of her own lost love. Just like Chow. She’s the one who lived in room 2046 which became the first connection to room 2046 from the past. Later, Lulu was stabbed by her jealous boyfriend and became a character in Chow’s novels.
Then there is Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a beautiful nightclub girl whom Chow invites to dinner on Christmas out of loneliness at first, but soon their relationship becomes sexual. There is nothing more Chow can offer her. They split up after Bai Ling falls in love with Chow—yet another unrequited love.
Miss Wang (Faye Wong) is the third woman Chow gets to know from room 2046. She is the daughter of the hotel owner. She is in love with a Japanese man but refuses to leave with him because of her father who is against their relationship. With Miss Wang, the story of the martial arts novel repeats. Now Miss Wang is a friend with whom Chow is writing the novel. Chow falls in love with her but this time it’s his love that is unrequited. Eventually, he helps Miss Wang to reunite with her true love. She moves to Japan and later marries her boyfriend.
It is Miss Wang for whom Chow writes the novel 2047. Initially, his purpose is to explain what could possibly feel her Japanese lover and whether love can stay unchanged. But ends up writing about himself, his lost love, secrets, and his acceptance of the fact that the woman whom he loved might not have loved him.
In the novel, Miss Wang is a gynoid with delayed reactions. Gynoid attendants on the train 2046 are made to satisfy any desire of the passengers. On the other hand, passengers are advised not to fall in love with them because gynoids are simply unable to return their feeling. Women in Chow’s journey seem to have a similar function: just to be there, on the train of memory, for whatever time Chow may need to get off it.
After reading Chow’s novel Miss Wang asks him if he could change the ending to make it happier. Chow tries but it seems that he is unable to change it. The things that are already part of the memory, just like those that belong to the year 2046, never change. Especially if they are sealed with secrets.