In an early episode in 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) – the international correspondent and aspiring wuxia novelist of Wong’s preceding film, In the Mood for Love (and now a struggling journalist and pulp writer of erotic serials) encounters a former acquaintance from Singapore named Lulu (Carina Lau) at a seedy nightclub on Christmas Eve, 1964. Now preferring to be called Mimi, she seems indifferent to their reunion, unable to recall any of Mo-wan’s referential anecdotes until he notes that their brief moment of connection occurred over the memory of her former lover, a Chinese Filipino who had died young, and from whose death she has never emotionally recovered. It is a momentary reference to the ill-fated love affair between Mimi (also played by Lau) and Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) in Wong’s second feature, Days of Being Wild (in which Leung briefly – and inexplicably – appears in an unexplored vignette). Escorting the visibly shattered Lulu home, Mo-wan discovers that her apartment coincidentally bears the fateful number 2046 – the hotel room of Mo-wan and Su-Lizhen’s (Maggie Cheung) encounter in In the Mood for Love – an unresolved memory that inspires him to take up residence in the neighboring room at the hotel and begin working on a time travel science fiction novel set in the year 2046, a destination where lost memories are recaptured and relived in perpetuity, but from which there seems no escape (an idea that similarly resonates through Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime je t’aime). Deriving inspiration from an eclectic assortment of characters whose paths he has momentarily crossed, including his landlord Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), Wang’s eldest daughter Jing Wen (Faye Wong), Jing-Wen’s Japanese boyfriend Tak (Takuya Kimura), an attractive hostess named Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and an enigmatic professional gambler named Su-Lizhen (Li Gong), Mo-wan’s novel inevitably betrays his own sentimental inertia, articulating a haunted and bittersweet chronicle of missed opportunity and unrequited desire.
In the essay Images from the Inside, Jean-Marc Lalanne describes the films of Wong Kar-wai as akin to the elaborately conceived and painstaking detailed, but consequently unwieldy and disintegrating fragments of the cartographer’s map in a José Luis Borges novel: a simulacrum whose fidelity approached the real so exactly that it now covered the original subject in its entirely. Within this allegorical framework, 2046 perhaps comes closest to Wong’s overarching raison d’être for his evocatively fractured, yet voluptuous and lucid contemporary portraits of transitory connection, rootlessness, and unreconciled longing. From Lau’s reprised appearance as Mimi to repeated mnemonics of the number 2046, to the film’s elliptical structure that modulates sinuously through past, present, and (fictional) future, to the film’s thematic narrative progression through successive Christmas Eves (a holiday that evokes images of birth, hope, and renewal), Wong captures the delusion and innate tragedy in the perpetuation of emotional stasis, insularity, and existential transience that lead to meaningless ritual (note that the year 2046 also signifies the end of the Chinese government’s reassurance to leave Hong Kong’s political and economic administration unchanged for 50 years after the British handover in 1997). Moreover, through Mo-wan’s futuristic companion manuscript 2047, a story that he had penned about a Japanese traveler who sought to leave 2046 (a figurative utopian escape that seemed logically inconceivable and had never been undertaken) and his relationship with a malfunctioning android/train stewardess afflicted with delayed reaction (a character based on his assistant and occasional ghostwriter Jing Wen), Wong illustrates the desolation of failed synchronicity: the reluctant realization that romantic destiny is defined by the precise, coincidental intersection of both a physical and an emotional trajectory. It is interesting to note that the film’s surreal opening sequence (of the lone Japanese traveler) is later revealed, not to be an excerpt from the serial novel 2046, but from the draft of 2047: a point of view that acknowledges the folly of resigned nostalgia and seeks to escape its moribund, seductive euphoria and blissful oblivion. It is this defiance against complacency and delusive escapism that invariably define Wong’s indelible images of eternal romanticism as well: an ambitious and ennobled personal quest to resolve time, desire, connection, and destiny within the chaotic and unpredictable tide of inevitable human history.
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