The film is the third chapter of a shared story that began with?Days of Being Wild?and continued with?In the Mood for Love.
There are four main story arcs to the film. Three are about the relations of Chow with women that he meets after losing Su Li-Zhen. The first concerns Chow and Wang Jing Wen, the second is about Chow and Bai Ling, and the third is about Chow and a different woman who is also named Su Li-Zhen. The fourth takes place in Chow's mysterious world of 2046 and concerns a Japanese passenger falling in love with an android. Typical of Wong Kar-wai films, the arcs are presented in pieces and in non-chronological order. Also typical of Wong Kar-wai films, many scenes in the film involve characters conversing back and forth in different languages (Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin). It is assumed that each character, while only speaking one primary language, is more-or-less fluent in the other languages.
The approximate order of the arcs is listed below.
2047 Arc Part I
This section is the only part narrated by Chow's fictional character and not Chow himself. Set in the far future, a huge rail network connects the planet. The world is a vast dystopia, and lonely souls all try to reach a mysterious place called 2046 in order to recapture lost loves. In the world of 2046 nothing ever changes, so there is never loss or sadness. No one has ever returned from 2046 except the protagonist, a lonely Japanese man named Tak. As the story begins, Tak is on a long train ride returning from 2046. He keeps to himself on the train, and is literally counting the seconds that go by.
"All Memories Are Traces of Tears"
As Chow Mo-Wan's life is revisited, we learn that he is still struggling to get over the loss of his idealized love, Su Li-Zhen. He returns to Hong Kong after being in Singapore for a number of years to try to forget his anguish. To cover up his pain, he becomes a suave ladies man. Chow attends many lavish parties and beds many women.
On Christmas Eve, Chow meets Lulu from the first film who he remembers from Singapore, although she has no recollection of him. Chow tells her that the last time they met, she told Chow that he reminded her of the Filipino playboy, Yuddy. Upon hearing about Yuddy, Lulu immediately gets emotional, and Chow apologizes for bringing up such sad memories over the holidays. He continues to observe Lulu for the rest of the evening, and remarks in a monologue that Lulu is still basically living in the past. She never recovered from the loss of the Filipino playboy. Though she now dates many men, with each new man she meets, she attempts to find elements of that original playboy in them.
That night, Chow Mo-wan takes Lulu home, as she is quite drunk, and accidentally keeps her key. As he leaves, he notices that her room number is 2046, the same room number that he and Su Li Zhen had when they conducted their private affair. Upon returning a few days later to return the room key, the landlord informs Chow that the room is not available due to renovations. The landlord offers him the adjacent room 2047. We are shown the inside of room 2046 with blood stains everywhere.
Chow agrees to rent room 2047 in the meantime. After the renovation of room 2046 is complete, the landlord asks Chow if he wants to move in. However, by this time he has gotten used to room 2047 and decides to stay there. The rooms 2046 and 2047 are connected by a common hallway, and symbolic of his desire to return to the past, Chow regularly watches and gets involved with the people that move into 2046.
Wang Jing Wen and Wang Jie Wen Arc Part I
The first person that moves next door into 2046 is the landlord's daughter, Wang Jing Wen (played by?Faye Wong). Chow spends a good deal of time just observing her in the room. Chow notices that Wang is practicing Japanese. He learns that she has a Japanese boyfriend working in Hong Kong. Chow is intrigued by this woman, but does not approach her at this point since she is already in a relationship. Unfortunately, the relationship is forbidden by the landlord. Eventually, Wang breaks up with her boyfriend, then suffers a breakdown and is institutionalized. Afterwards, the next tenant that moves into 2046 is the younger daughter of the landlord, Wang Jie Wen. She is young, attractive, and flirtatious. She frequently knocks on Chow's door to see if he wants to seduce her. However, he refuses each time.
A short time later, Chow runs into some financial difficulties, and stops going out. To make some extra cash, he starts to write a science fiction series called "2046". The story is set in the distant future, about a group of heart sick individuals looking for love. The only place to find it is at a mysterious location called 2046. Virtually all of the characters in "2046" are based on people that Chow has met, such as Su Li-Zhen, Lulu, or Wang Jing Wen. Whether 2046 is a place, a room, or a state of mind is never explicitly defined. Chow makes the story somewhat bizarre and erotic, and readers seem to take notice.
Bai Ling Arc Part I
The third person to move into room 2046 is the coquettish Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi). She wears similar?qipao?dresses as the original Su Li-Zhen but radiates a much more aggressive sensuality than her. While it is never explicitly stated in the film, it is implied that she is a nightclub girl who occasionally doubles as a high-class prostitute. However, she is intent on finding a long term relationship. In one instance, when Chow overhears her arguing with a man, Bai tells the man that to continue seeing her, he must end his relationship with the other woman. Chow again spends a lot of time observing her across the thin wall separating rooms 2046 and 2047.
On the next Christmas Eve, Bai runs into Chow just after she is dumped by her boyfriend before they are to go to Singapore. Chow suggests that they go for dinner, to which she grudgingly accepts. During dinner, Chow tells Bai about his experiences in Singapore. She is intrigued, and after dinner she agrees to try to form a platonic friendship with him by borrowing time from each other. Their brief friendship does not last however, as they soon develop carnal lust for each other. Not surprisingly, Chow wants to keep the relationship strictly physical; he continues to pick up other prostitutes. To compromise, Bai soon develops a compensation system where he pays her 10?HKD?each time he stays over. However, over time Bai finds that she has feelings for Chow, and she asks him to discontinue seeing other women. Chow refuses and gives a counter offer, the option to be his customer for 10 HKD each night. Bai is crushed and breaks things off with Chow. Perhaps as a way of revenge, Bai then descends into seeing men exclusively for money, frequently changing partners. A short while later, she moves out of Room 2046.
Wang Jing Wen Part II
After Bai Ling moves out, Wang Jin Wen moves back into 2046 after returning from the mental hospital. She is a shell of a former self, and still very depressed over the loss of her Japanese boyfriend. Her ex writes numerous letters in an attempt to reconcile with her, but she refuses due to her father.
Wang passes the time by helping out her dad at the hotel. She also starts to spend more and more time with Chow helping him with his writing and editing. At this point, he is regularly publishing chapters of "2046". These scenes are very similar to those in 'In the Mood for Love' when Su Li-Zhen used to help Chow with his writing in their hotel room. Ironically, while Wang is depressed, Chow remarks that this period in his life is the happiest that he has been after Su Li-Zhen. However, before he realizes it, he develops feelings for Wang Jing Wen. He makes some minor attempts to start a romance with her, but nothing develops since she is still very much in love with the Japanese man.
One day Wang Jin Wen asks Chow rhetorically if some things in life never change. He answers her by writing a story called "2047". In this story, a Japanese man leaves the world of "2046", but falls in love on the journey home. While he initially tried to base the story on Wang Jing Wen's ex-boyfriend, he realizes that the story is ultimately about himself.
2047 Arc Part II
Chow's fictional world is revisited. However, this time it is narrated by Chow himself. Set in the far future, for passengers to reach/depart 2046 they must take a long journey on a vast train network. The main character on the train, Tak (who is portrayed by Wang Jin Wen's Japanese boyfriend) is trying to leave 2046 because he lost the love of his life in that world. The train is extremely cold and lonely, especially in the sections 1224-1225 (whose bitter cold represent the need for love that Chow and Bai experience on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). To aid in the journey, throughout the train there are female androids who attend to a passenger's every need. It is recommended that each passenger find an android to be with during the long trip for warmth and companionship.
Tak becomes intimate with one of the androids (played by Faye Wong) in sections 1224-1225 and later falls in love with her. He then asks her numerous times to come with him. However, each time the android does not answer. Tak has heard earlier that excessive operation causes the android's response time to slow down and decides to wait on the train to see if this is the case. He sits quietly on the train, and counts the seconds that go by, hoping the android will decide to leave with him. However, the android still does not respond. Ultimately, Tak realizes that it is not a delayed reaction that causes that android not to respond, but that she is in love with someone else and that their relationship is simply not meant to be. With this knowledge, he finally has the strength to leave the train and 2046. Completing the story marks a turning point in Chow's recovery.
Wang Jing Wen Part III
Next Christmas, Chow invites Wang Jing Wen out to dinner. After finding out that she still misses her ex in Japan, he takes her to his office so that she can call him to wish him well. Looking sadly through the window panes as Wang Jing Wen is overjoyed talking to her ex, Chow remarks that in fact Section 1224-1225 from the story are simply the dates for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when everyone is especially lonely and needs additional love. He goes on to say that while he had feelings for her, and most likely could have taken advantage of the situation (as he did last year with Bai Ling) he was happy that in this situation he did the "right thing". The call re-ignites the romance. Soon afterward, Wang Jing Wen moves to Japan and gets engaged.
A short while later, while still feeling depressed over the loss of Wang Jing Wen, Chow runs into Lulu again as she has a violent confrontation with another woman that is sleeping with her current playboy boyfriend. This incident is identical to one that occurred in the original?Days of Being Wild?when she confronted the original Su Li-Zhen for sleeping with Yuddy. Chow remarks that Lulu, is likely to forever remain living in the past. However, he then remarks that this is not really a sad thing, as she seems perfectly content to be miserable. The incident strengthens Chow's resolve to get over Su Li-Zhen.
Bai Ling Arc Part II
Some time later, Chow gets a call from Bai Ling and the two go out to dinner. This time, Bai looks much less glamourous and more "run-down". She informs Chow that she plans to leave for Singapore, and asks him to provide a reference and plane fare. She also asks where he was last Christmas, as she stopped by at that time, and was hoping to see him. In fact, she remarks that she really misses him. It turns out, during last Christmas, Chow had gone back to Singapore in an attempt to find a former lover, another woman named Su Li-Zhen (played by?Gong Li).
Su Li-Zhen Arc
Chronologically, this arc occurs first in the film. Chow met the second Su Li-Zhen some years back when he first arrived in Singapore. At that time, he was still grieving over losing the original Su Li-Zhen and spending much of his free time in the local casinos.
After losing much of his savings, he encounters the second Su Li-Zhen, a mysterious woman gambler in black. They become lovers, and he soon wants to know everything about her. But she insists that he beat her in a "high-card" draw before she will reveal anything about her past, which he never is able to do. Eventually, she agrees to help him win back his money so that he can return to Hong Kong. When she does so, he prepares to leave, and asks her to go with him. Again, she challenges him to a high-card draw, which he again loses. Knowing little about her, Chow speculates that she, like himself, has a troubled past.
Initially heartbroken about this, he remarks that after he completes the story '2047' he finally understands why the second Su Li-Zhen did not go with him, as he would again have tried to recapture the past by looking for elements of the original Su Li-Zhen. When Chow went back to Singapore to visit her the second time, he does not find her. He makes some inquiries as to her whereabouts and speculates that she either returned to Cambodia or was killed.
Bai Ling Arc Part III
Shorty after the events of 'Bai Ling Arc Part II' and the night before she boards a plane for Singapore, Chow again meets Bai Ling for dinner. Bai remarks that, between their two meetings, one of her clients has given her a lot of money and she wants to pay Chow back immediately. He refuses to take the money. Bai insists on paying for dinner, and Chow is stunned when she hands him a stack of HKD bills, each 10 dollar bill representing one night they had spent together. Bai tells Chow to pay for dinner with this stack of bills, while unbeknownst to him, she sadly watches behind the restaurant's green window veils. It is a poignant moment as this scene can be interpreted multiple ways. One possibility is that this is Bai's way of coping with their eventual separation, while another is her desire to see his reaction and decipher whether he has real feelings for her.
After dinner, Chow walks her back to her apartment. Grasping his hands at the apartment door, she begs him to lend his time to her once more and spend the night. She then asks him the fundamental question of the film, "Why can't it be like before?" He refuses to stay over, even out of pity, coldly stating that?that?is simply something he would never lend. He exits by jerking his hands away from her and remarks in voiceover that this was the last time he ever saw her. He leaves in an empty taxi, staring emptily into space, as the camera slowly enters a whispering hole-perhaps the same one used by the Wang Jing Wen android and Tak in the beginning of the film.