Mr. Chow takes up with a series of different women: a gambler named Su Lizhen…

… Bai Ling, a call-girl …

… and the hotel manager’s daughter, Wang Jingwen.

“2046,” Mr Chow’s science-fiction story, includes a futuristic version of the hole in the wall from In the Mood for Love, a repository for romantic secrets.

Time travel: as in Happy Together, a train whisks the characters in Chow’s story towards another place, where they hope to find stability and happiness.

Tak’s android companion, feeling space and time pass aboard the train.

The android offers to act as a whispering-hole for Tak.

The Oriental Hotel, the nexus of many of the film’s transitory relationships, contrasts with the changeless nature of 2046 (which remains unseen).

The fictional character Tak, a Japanese man on a return journey to 2046, is inspired by…

… Wang Jingwen’s Japanese suitor …

…while the android “with delayed reactions” is inspired by …

… Wang Jingwen. Here, she telephones her Japanese lover on Christmas Eve as Mr. Chow looks on.

The futuristic city contains a prominent advertisement for LG Electronics.

Split identity: from Mr. Chow’s half-shaven moustache …

… to the preponderance of mirror images …

… and partitioned visual compositions.

journeys in space-time

2046, perhaps more than any other Wong Kar-wai film, turns inward, referring constantly to other films in the director’s oeuvre. In particular, it functions as a sequel of sorts to Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, recycling the backdrop of 1960s Hong Kong, as well as certain characters, and the motifs of time, loss and memory. In 2046, Mr. Chow, still recovering from his failed relationship with Mrs. Chan, returns from Singapore to Hong Kong and undertakes a series of relationships: with a gambler in Singapore named Su Lizhen (this also happens to be Mrs. Chan’s maiden name), with a call-girl named Bai Ling (who lives in the hotel room next door to Mr. Chow), and with the hotel manager’s daughter, Wang Jingwen. Although Mr. Chow is evidently the same character as in In the Mood for Love, his sexual promiscuity and jaded outlook make him almost the inverse of the earlier film’s chaste gentleman. With the aid of Jingwen, Mr. Chow turns his hand to writing science fiction stories. Just as In the Mood for Love’s spatial journeys also functioned as journeys in time, Mr. Chow’s fictions envisage time travel conducted via a futuristic global rail network.[38][open notes in new window]

One story, entitled “2046,” involves a man returning via this rail network from a place called 2046, where people go in search of lost memories, and from which no-one has ever returned. In Japanese, this man (named in the credits as “Tak”) says that he went in search of his loved one, but failed to find her. He also comments that 2046 is a place where nothing ever changes, establishing it as another iconic site outside of contemporary Hong Kong (the equivalent of California, the Iguaçu Falls and Angkor Wat in the other films). 2046, Tak muses, is a modern version of an old-fashioned method for keeping secrets, which involved whispering them into a hole carved in a tree-trunk. In this way, 2046 is connected to Mr. Chow’s secret bond with Mrs. Chan, which he confesses to a hole in the ruins at Angkor Wat. Emphasizing this point, 2046 opens and closes with images of a dark hole that is evidently part of the décor in 2046. The entirety of the narrative, then, is a chain of secrets excavated from this hole.

2046 continues In the Mood for Love’s examination of regional identity, while extending its articulation of modernity into the future as well as the past. The film’s title refers to the fiftieth year of the period following the 1997 handover, during which China has promised not to alter Hong Kong’s economic and political system. Just as the 1997 handover and the mid-60s turmoil of Hong Kong generate anxiety in the earlier films, 2046 gestures towards another zone of temporal uncertainty in the future.[39] Indeed, although the contemporary moment is not represented in 2046, 1997 is the fulcrum upon which rest the film’s forays into nostalgia and science fiction. In the post-1997 context, the uncertainty regarding the handover is extended into a longer-term uncertainty regarding the subsequent half-century.

For Tak, the pilgrimage to 2046 is aimed at retrieving memory, and is therefore a quest for identity. Similarly, the year 2046 raises questions of identity for the people of Hong Kong. What will be remembered, the film seems to ask, of Hong Kong as a distinct entity? Insofar as Tak’s voyage plots a trajectory of identification, his journey by train seems rather predetermined when compared with the international flights of Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. The tracks have already been laid, it seems, for the changes that will affect Hong Kong in the future.

In terms of cultural references, 2046 largely works within the textual field established by In the Mood for Love, with a few differences. Stephen Teo notes that the intertitles in the film are drawn from another Liu Yichang novel, The Drunkard, and that Mr. Chow bears some similarities to that novel’s protagonist:

“a world-weary, alcoholic writer scraping a living from writing martial-arts and pornographic pulp fiction.”[40]

Teo also suggests parallels with the jaded characters in the fiction of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai.[41] Some initial inspiration for the film is attributable to nineteenth-century Western operas. Peter Brunette notes that Wong’s intention was to have a three-part structure for the film, based upon Madame Butterfly, Carmen and Tannhaüser, respectively.[42] Apparently Wong felt that opera’s customary themes of “promise and betrayal” would reflect the film’s concern with China’s promise to the people of Hong Kong of “fifty years unchanged.”[43] Although the operatic influence is not readily apparent in the finished narrative, the soundtrack does incorporate some Bellini arias. As Teo notes, the selection of music is particularly broad, as it also spans Japanese and European compositions (from Umebayashi, Raben, Delerue and Preisner) and 1960s lounge music (Nat Kong Cole, Dean Martin and Connie Francis).[44] The most conspicuous difference from the earlier films, then, is the incorporation of science fiction imagery, namely futuristic cityscapes, time travel and androids. However, other than a tenuous connection to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), with its focus upon androids who can feel human emotions, 2046 makes use of generalized sci-fi tropes.

As with In the Mood for Love, the spatial journeys of the characters all occur within the Asian region. Mainland China’s relationship with Hong Kong forms a backdrop for these regional connections, as Stephen Teo points out:

"On an allegorical level, the film denotes Hong Kong’s affair with China through Chow’s affairs with Mainland women: Zhang Ziyi [Bai Ling], Faye Wong [Jingwen], Gong Li [Su Lizhen] and Dong Jie [Jingwen’s younger sister, who flirts with Chow].”[45]

Of course, the failure of all of these relationships suggests a pessimistic view of the prospects for Hong Kong’s reunion with the mainland.

In terms of other Asian territories, 2046 follows a temporal logic inherited from In the Mood for Love. Mr. Chow is seen in Singapore on two occasions. He returns from Singapore at the beginning of the narrative, and goes back later to see if he can locate the gambler Su Lizhen (she has returned to Phnom Penh, he is informed). Singapore is therefore heavily associated with the past (it is connected not only to the aftermath of the relationship with Mrs. Chan, but also, via flashbacks, to the romance with the second Su Lizhen). The missed romantic opportunities of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan (the first Su Lizhen) are therefore multiplied here. This is reinforced when Bai Ling decides to move to Singapore after her relationship with Mr. Chow fails. Japan, by contrast, is linked to the future, via Tak’s journey to 2046.

The character of Tak, it transpires, is based upon a Japanese businessman staying at the hotel where Mr. Chow lives. This young man has a romantic attachment to Wang Jingwen, despite the fact that Mr. Wang opposes the union, and they do not speak the same language. Indeed, the first time that we meet Jingwen, she is alone in her room, practising Japanese phrases. Later, her attempts to give the Japanese man street directions meet with comic bewilderment. The linguistic incommensurability of Jingwen and her suitor is parallelled by the fact that all of the stars in 2046 speak their mother tongue (variously, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese).[46] Later in the film, Mr. Chow acts an intermediary, passing on the Japanese man’s letters to Jingwen.

Jingwen and Chow establish a platonic relationship, in which she helps him write. During this time, Chow endeavours to write a story for her about what her boyfriend is really thinking. Entitled “2047,” this story involves Chow imagining himself “as a Japanese man,” who falls in love with “an android with delayed reactions.” In 2046’s film-within-a-film, we see this story acted out, with Takuya Kimura (the Japanese businessman) and Faye Wong (Jingwen) playing the roles of Tak and the android, respectively.

This, then, is an imaginative transcultural trajectory, in which Chow projects his own feelings of desire and loss into the character of Tak. Surprisingly, however, the relationship between Jingwen and her Japanese suitor turns out happily after all, when Mr. Wang consents to the union. This is the only relationship in the film to resolve itself happily (although this occurs off-screen), and its success highlights the limits of Mr. Chow’s imaginative reach.

Later, Mr. Chow thinks about Wang Jingwen wistfully, wondering if a closer relationship could have blossomed between them. “Love,” he muses in voiceover, “is all a matter of timing.” Here, the imagined “android with delayed reactions” is a cipher for Jingwen’s platonic indifference to Mr. Chow. Insofar as Mr. Chow’s reflection upon timing relates to the broader question of transcultural identification, it highlights again the connection between modernity and identity in Wong’s films. 1960s Hong Kong, as a budding centre of international capitalism, might be seen to have an investment in the narrative of modernity exemplified by Japanese postwar progress (Tak’s futuristic bullet train). In the current climate, however, the much-publicized ascendancy of other Asian economies, particulary that of mainland China, turns the 1960s model of development and progress on its head. Conspicuously, the futuristic cityscape that accompanies the film’s closing credits is dominated by the logo of Korean electronics company LG. The future position of Hong Kong in relation to other Asian economies is characterized by uncertainty, despite a sense of inevitability regarding the persistence of global capitalism.

In 2046, Chow’s real and imaginary spatial trajectories are parallelled by temporal trajectories. The film itself begins with two return journeys, one spatial (Chow returning from Singapore to Hong Kong) and one temporal (Tak coming back from 2046). The intertwining of space and time continues throughout the film. In “2047,” Tak remarks upon the coldness of “Zone 1224-1225,” a coded reference to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, 2047 is the number of Chow’s hotel room (2046, which reminded him of the room he shared with Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love, was taken; it is later occupied by Bai Ling and Jingwen). The failed love affairs that traverse these various space-times set up a constant relationship between proximity and dislocation.

Chow’s speculative trajectories into other cultural spaces (his search for Su Lizhen in Singapore, and his rendering of the Tak/Jingwen relationship) consistently come up short. Equally, his attempt to imagine the future as a projection of his melancholic present fails to make its connection: Tak is left on the train back from 2046, a place from which no-one has ever returned. “2046” and “2047” highlight the (nostalgic) past’s failure to connect with the (science-fictional) future.

These attenuated trajectories find formal expression in what can be described as the film’s aesthetic of non-identity. Just as Mr. Chow appears not to resemble the earlier version of himself from In the Mood for Love, Su Lizhen (the gambler, played by Gong Li) bears little in common with the earlier Su Lizhen (Mrs. Chan, but also the young woman in Days of Being Wild, both played by Maggie Cheung). There is also the character of Lulu/Mimi, who also appears in Days of Being Wild, but professes no acquaintance with Mr. Chow, who claims to know her from Singapore. The film plays upon this theme in very self-conscious ways. For example, after Bai Ling fails to meet Chow at a dinner party, his friends evidently submit him to a prank which involves shaving off half of his moustache. “You made me lose my moustache,” he jokingly accuses her. At this point, Mr. Chow’s face is a split image: one half clean-shaven, as in In the Mood for Love, and one half bearing a rakish moustache. Mr. Chow himself seems split between these two types: the mourning lover and the callous womanizer.

Throughout the film, the constant presence of mirrors highlights this play with identity. Furthermore, shots are consistently composed with characters pushed to one side of the frame while the other side is taken up with large, flat areas (curtains and walls, for example) in the foreground. This bisection of the frame is taken to such extremes that at times it appears that the filmic image is split; it is not, so to speak, identical with itself. Conversations are often blocked in such a way that one interlocutor is fully obscured. The result is that characters often share the frame with large blank spaces, or with themselves (in mirror images). This aesthetic of non-identity perfectly captures the imaginative trajectories of the characters, who project desire across walls, national boundaries and even decades, but are confronted instead with solitude and melancholy reflection.

Conclusion: trajectories of identification

The four films I have discussed all negotiate identity, to varying degrees, through encounters with foreign cultures. In each case, transnational travel parallels the virtual vectors of transcultural identification, so that the characters and the films themselves follow trajectories of identification, trajectories that are continually being diverted, rerouted, and interrupted. These trajectories can be plotted along two main thematic axes: one defined by hybridity, the other by nostalgia and, in the case of 2046, futurism.

The former axis sees identity as made up of diverse cultural inputs, while the latter expresses the commonality of modernity. The former emphasizes space (the multifarious encounters produced by travel), while the latter emphasizes time (the linear movement of progress). Wong Kar-wai’s films are all constructed around these two defining axes, although the emphasis is constantly shifting. Often, the two tendencies exist in the same moment. For instance, “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express acts as a staging point for Faye’s cultural hybridity, but also as a trigger for 1960s nostalgia. Consequently, there is a tension in the films between spatial fluidity and liminality on the one hand, and temporal determinacy (the affirmation of the modern moment) on the other.

In the Mood for Love and 2046 show the way that these two vectors of identification (the hybrid and the nostalgic-futuristic) constantly interrupt each other, turning identification back on itself. This process presents a problem both for those readings of the films which emphasize postcolonial “resistance” (see Abbas), as well as those that emphasize Western cultural hegemony (see Marchetti’s analysis of Chungking Express). Nostalgia and futurism, with their investment in narratives of modernity, weaken the case for the films as evidence of postcolonial resistance. On the other hand, hegemonic readings are intercepted and overturned by the array of heterogeneous cultural references, and the frequent framing of those references as a limit to identification.

Despite the fact that Hong Kong’s territorial identity appears to resist articulation, there is a sense of place in these works, however elusive. Hong Kong is still at the centre of the quest for identity, but it is constantly displaced, conceptualized in terms of its distance (spatial, temporal, cultural, historical) from other places. Regarding these three films together, one observes a shifting field of identification. As I have suggested, this field moves progressively towards the regional in Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046. Yet in the latter two films, regional identification, as with cultural and temporal modes of identification in the other films, is ultimately questioned.

The closest Wong Kar-wai gets to articulating a stable Hong Kong identity is, finally, to suggest the universality of instability. This model of unity through disjuncture is deeply ambivalent, suggesting commonality through the very impossibility of commonality. It is an articulation of identity that produces a certain optimism even as it crushes the possibility for unified identification. This paradox informs both the romantic relationships that drive the films, and the discourse of territorial identity that permeates them. In this way, it contributes in no small measure to the particular blend of melancholia and frenetic joie de vivre that characterizes Wong’s work.

To Notes

To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.