All memories are traces of tears.
If you were to dance to the end of love, what would it look like?
Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is the sequel to his celebrated 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love. In that classic, two neighbours in 1960s Hong Kong discover that their spouses are cuckolding them with each other. The man (Chow Mo-wan, played by Tony Leung) and woman (Su Li-Zhen, played by Maggie Cheung) confide in one another and form an unusual bond. Against their better judgment, they fall in love, their sorrow tethering their wasted souls to one another. In the end they part, never to reunite.
2046 picks up on the action a few yeaas later, in the late 1960s. The film takes on multiple stories within the space of just two hours, but they are all intertwined with one another on an emotional, if not necessarily logical narrative, level. Chow has become a successful science fiction writer, fulfilling the potential Li-Zhen saw in him during their time in the summer of 1962. Chow’s also become a bon vivant and career lothario, living in room #2047. In a coincidence, he and Li-zhen went to discuss their marital troubles (although they never consummated their love) in room #2046 in a different hotel. It's enough for him to take up residence there. The emotional damage has scarred him, as he acts out of character contrary to how he was in the previous film by bedding a series of women (played by an outstanding cast of Chinese stars such as Carina Lau, Gong Li, Faye Wong and Zhang Ziyi in her career performance) who occupy room #2046. The key is that each of these women reminds him of aspects of Li-zhen’s personality, but their totality never recreates or conjures the memory of the woman he loves. Nat King Cole invades the soundtrack, singing of happy memories but lacing them with a slight melancholy, for Chow cannot find joy despite going through the motions of lovemaking.
At another narrative level is the dramatization of Tak (Tayuka Kimura), a lonely Japanese man who travels in the figment of Chow’s imagination to a destination called 2046. It’s never made clear if it’s the year before Hong Kong returns to China, or if it’s a fictional destination, or perhaps a secular Asian version of a Judeo-Christian purgatory. They say in 2046 that those who venture there find their happiest memories, never to return. Only Tak attempts to, but why? Tak falls in love with a female android, but which does not leave with him. Why?
It’s clear that Tak’s narrative is an extension of Chow’s misery and mourning for Li-zhen (who only appears in one flashback in 2046). Chow inhabits the film, occupying psychic and physical space, never registering emotionally to those around him. In the aftermath of the loss of his great love, he engaged in love only on a superficial level, disengaging himself from the proceedings and disregarding the emotional needs of his lovers while never dropping the veneer of his charm (is he a sociopath in disguise?). Zhang’s character is a high-class escort whose persona may be closest to his, as she understands his love in transactional terms. They share the same detachment, but because neither will let the other see what’s behind the mask, the connection remains shallow and functional.
While critics understood the more emotionally accessible In the Mood for Love as a denial of passion and the heart’s deepest desire, 2046 left audiences and critics cold upon its opening at Cannes 2004. There’s a common perception that the sequel is a misbegotten venture. However, if we understand Chow’s journey in 2046 as an elongated mourning period, a cinematic treatment of Albinoni’s Adagio in G, then we can view the film as the long numbing and dulling of the senses in the aftermath of lost love. Chow isn’t sad or angry that he lost Li-zhen, but he’s caught somewhere in between in a long-term (if impermanent) emotional holding station, and Tak’s journey represents his exploration of what never was and will be. If room 2046 stood for all of the memories he remembers he holds most dear, but can no longer have, his approximated habituation of 2047 is the closest thing to it, but he could never return. It’s small comfort that he will one day cease mortality with memories, and not dreams.
(As a side note, it’s no accident that the years 2046 and 2047 also correspond with the events of Hong Kong, and pure coincidence that pro-democracy protests are taking place in Hong Kong as I write this, with the handover taking place exactly 33 years into the future. There’s an entire treatise waiting to be written on the themes of China-Hong Kong politics with this film, but that is best left as the subject of another essay.)
Although initially misunderstood as a jumbled, frantic work with a famously ill-fated shooting schedule that included a complete overhaul and re-draft of the script over three years, 2046 remains the great divisive work of Wong’s career. It is not meant to be a self-contained film, but as part of a greater work on lost love. Whereas its companion piece In the Mood for Love is a meditation on denial of physical passion and the nature of great love, 2046 is an examination of the grieving process. In the end, Chow may be ready to move on, but where shall he go?