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 a gynoid. Typical of Wong Kar-wai films, the arcs are presented in pieces and in non-chronological order.
The approximate order of the arcs is listed below.
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 (played by Takuya Kimura). As the story begins, Tak is on a long train ride returning from 2046.
As Chow Mo-wan's life is revisited, we learn that he is still struggling to get over the loss of his idealised 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 (Days of Being Wild) whom he remembers from Singapore, although she has no recollection of him. That night, Chow Mo-wan takes Lulu home as she is quite drunk, but accidentally keeps her room key. As he leaves, he notices that her room number is 2046, the same room number that he and Su Li-zhen had during their emotional 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. Chow later learns that Lulu was stabbed in the room the night before by a jealous boyfriend.
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, Chow regularly watches and gets involved with the people that move into 2046.
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 from his room. He learns that she has a Japanese boyfriend working in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the relationship is forbidden by her father. Eventually, Wang breaks up with her boyfriend, then suffers a breakdown and is institutionalised. 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 tries to seduce him but he refuses each time.
A short time later, Chow runs into some financial difficulties, and stops going out. To make some extra money, 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.
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 Hong Kong dollars (a trivial sum) 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 each night. Bai is crushed and breaks things off with Chow. 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.
After Bai Ling moves out, Wang Jing-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 assisting her father 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. Chow remarks that this period in his life is the happiest that he has been after Su Li-zhen. However, before he realises 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 Jing-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 realises that the story is ultimately about himself.
Chow's fictional world is revisited. However, this time it is narrated by Chow himself. Set in the far future, for passengers to reach or leave 2046 they must take a long journey on a vast train network. The main character, Tak (who is portrayed by Wang Jing-wen's Japanese boyfriend) is trying to leave 2046 because he lost the love of his life in that world. As the train travels through the extremely cold sections 1224–1225, Tak becomes intimate with one of the train's gynoid assistants (played by Faye Wong) and later falls in love with her. He then asks her numerous times to come with him. However, each time the gynoid does not answer. Tak has heard earlier that excessive operation causes the gynoid'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 gynoid will decide to leave with him. However, the gynoid still does not respond. Ultimately, Tak realises that it is not a delayed reaction that causes that gynoid 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.
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 the previous 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.
Some time later, Chow gets a call from Bai Ling and the two go out to dinner. This time, Bai looks much less glamorous 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).
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 gambler. 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.
Shortly 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 money, each $10 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.
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 "Why can't it be like it was 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 a taxi, staring emptily into space, as the camera slowly enters a whispering hole.Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Chow Mo-wan, the main character and narrator. A journalist and writer, he is the same character, played by the same actor, as in In the Mood for Love. He also appears in a silent cameo at the very end of Days of Being Wild.
Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen, the woman Chow Mo-wan loved most. She appears only in flashback. See In the Mood for Love.
Gong Li as Another Su Li-zhen. Presented as a "professional gambler" and nicknamed "Black Spider", she said that she was from Phnom Penh. Chow Mo-wan met her in Singapore.
Wang Sum as
Mr. Wang, the hotel owner. He had taken singing lessons in Harbin, China.
The captain of the train to (or from) 2046.
Faye Wong as
Wang Jing-wen, the first daughter of Mr. Wang, the hotel owner. She was in love with a Japanese man, a relationship that her father opposed strongly.
A Gynoid in the train to (or from) 2046.
Takuya Kimura as
A Japanese man, sent to Hong Kong for a while by his company. He is Wang Jing Wen's boyfriend.
Tak, a passenger of the train to (or from) 2046.
Dong Jie as Wang Jie-wen. The second daughter of Mr. Wang, the hotel owner.
Carina Lau as
Mimi/Lulu. See Days of Being Wild.
A gynoid in the train to (or from) 2046.
Chang Chen as
The drummer boyfriend of Mimi/Lulu.
A passenger of the train to (or from) 2046.
Zhang Ziyi as Bai Ling. A beautiful cabaret girl who lived in room 2046 in the Oriental Hotel, and a lover of Chow Mo-wan.
Siu Ping-lam as Ah Ping, a colleague and friend of Chow Mo-wan.
Bird McIntyre as Bird
Benz Kong as Brother Hoi
Berg Ng as Mo-wan's party friend
Akina Hong as a party girl
It took four years to complete the film. During that time, production was closed because of the SARS epidemic in March 2003.
It was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the United States, and was released on 5 August 2005.
2046 is the number of the hotel room in In the Mood for Love in which Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung's characters meet to write their kung fu novel serial. It is the number of a hotel room occupied by Lulu, and later by Bai Ling at the Oriental Hotel, while Tony Leung's room number is 2047.
The main character (Tony Leung) writes science fiction stories, in which 2046 is a popular year and place to which people travel through time. The stories are titled 2046 and later 2047 (a collaboration with Faye Wong's character).
The year 2046 has its own significance for Hong Kong. It is 49 years after the handover of Hong Kong by the British on 1 July 1997. At the time of handover, the Mainland government promised fifty years of self-regulation for the former British colony. The year 2046 references the moment before Hong Kong's special, self-regulated status ends.
The title may also be a reference to the Twilight Zone episode "The Lonely", about a man sentenced to solitary confinement on a distant asteroid beginning in the year 2046. The isolated inmate falls in love with a gynoid that was delivered to keep him company. This plot structure parallels some of the science fiction motifs in Wong's 2046.
In its North American release, 2046 received generally positive, sometimes glowing reviews from critics. It has an 84% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 106 reviews.
One of the most positive reviews came from Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, who called the film, "An unqualified triumph," and praised Zhang Ziyi's performance, states: "Ms. Zhang's shockingly intense performance burns a hole in the film that gives everything, including all the other relationships, a sense of terrific urgency." Dargis also describes the film:
"Routinely criticized for his weak narratives, Mr. Wong is one of the few filmmakers working in commercial cinema who refuse to be enslaved by traditional storytelling. He isn't the first and certainly not the only one to pry cinema from the grip of classical narrative, to take a pickax to the usual three-act architecture (or at least shake the foundation), while also dispatching with the art-deadening requirements (redemption, closure, ad nauseam) that have turned much of Big Hollywood into a creative dead zone. Like some avant-garde filmmakers and like his contemporary, Hou Hsiao-hsien of Taiwan, among precious few others these days, Mr. Wong makes movies, still a young art, that create meaning through visual images, not just words." 
In Premiere, Glenn Kenny gave the film four stars and ranked it as one of the ten best films of 2005:
"Insanely evocative '60s-style landscapes and settings share screen space with claustrophobic futuristic CGI metropolises; everyone smokes and drinks too much; musical themes repeat as characters get stuck in their own self-defeating modes of eternal return. A puzzle, a valentine, a sacred hymn to beauty, particularly that of Ziyi Zhang, almost preternaturally gorgeous and delivering an ineffable performance, and a cynical shrug of the shoulders at the damned impermanence of it all, 2046 is a movie to live in."
Said Ty Burr of The Boston Globe:
"Is it worth the challenge? Of course it is. Wong stands as the leading heir to the great directors of post-WWII Europe: His work combines the playfulness and disenchantment of Godard, the visual fantasias of Fellini, the chic existentialism of Antonioni, and Bergman's brooding uncertainties. In this film, he drills further into an obsession with memory, time, and longing than may even be good for him, and his world reflects and refracts our own more than may be comfortable for us. Love hurts in 2046, but it's the only way anybody knows they're alive."
Daniel Eagan of Film Journal International:
"it's clear his [Wong Kar-wai] skills and interests have no match in today's cinema. Whatever his motives, Wong has assembled a remarkable team for this film. The cinematography, production design and editing combine for a mood of utter languor and decadence. Leung Chiu-wai continues his string of outstanding roles, while pop singer Wong achieves a gravity missing from her earlier work...it's Zhang who is the real surprise here...her performance puts her on a level with the world's best actresses."
One of the less enthusiastic reviews came from Roger Ebert who, in the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film a midly-negative 2½ stars out of a possible four and a "marginal thumbs down" on the television show Ebert & Roeper.
"2046 arrived at the last minute at Cannes 2003, after missing its earlier screenings; the final reel reportedly arrived at the airport almost as the first was being shown. It was said to be unfinished, and indeed there were skeletal special effects that now appear in final form, but perhaps it was never really finished in his mind. Perhaps he would have appreciated the luxury that Woody Allen had with Crimes and Misdemeanors; he looked at the first cut of the film, threw out the first act, called the actors back and reshot, focusing on what turned out to be the central story. Watching 2046, I wonder what it could possibly mean to anyone not familiar with Wong's work and style. Unlike In the Mood for Love, it is not a self-contained film, although it's certainly a lovely meander."
The official journal of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Comment's 2005 end-of-the-year film critics' poll, placed the film as the second best film of that year, with 668 points. 2046 was called the best film of 2005 by Michael Atkinson (The Village Voice), Daryl Chin (Journal of Performance and Art), Josef Brown (Vue Weekly), Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly), Will Sloan (The Martingrove Beacon), and Justine Elias (The Guardian), and was ranked among the top ten best films of the year by Manohla Dargis (The New York Times), Richard Corliss (Time Magazine), Same Adams (Philadelphia City Paper), Leslie Camhi (The Village Voice), Jason Anderson (eye Weekly), Gary Dretzka (Movie City News), Godfrey Cheshire (The Independent Weekly), Ty Burr (The Boston Globe), Liza Bear (indieWIRE), Edward Crouse (The Village Voice), Jeffrey M. Anderson (The San Francisco Examiner), John DeFore (Austin American Statesman), Brian Brooks (indieWIRE), Chris Barsanti (Filmcritic.com), F.X. Feeney (L.A. Weekly), David Ehrnstein (New Times), J. Hoberman (The Village Voice), Robert Horton (Everett Herald), Bilge Ebiri (Nerve), Eugene Hernandez (indieWIRE)
2046 opened in North America on 5 August 2005, where it grossed US$113,074 on four screens ($28,268 average). In Wong Kar-wai's home country of Hong Kong, 2046 earned a total of US$778,138. It went on to gross a total of $1,444,588 in North America, playing at 61 venues at its widest release. Its total worldwide box office gross is US$19,271,312.
In April 2004, the film was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
In November 2004, it won awards for Best Art Direction and Best Original Film Score at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan. The same year, it also won the European Film Award for Best Non-European Film, the Best Foreign Language Film award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, and was voted Best Foreign Language Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, while taking second place at the Boston Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in the same category.
In March 2005, it was nominated in numerous categories at the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning Best Actor (Tony Leung), Best Actress (Zhang Ziyi), Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle), Best Costume Design and Make-Up, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Film Score (Shigeru Umebayashi).
Original music:Shigeru Umebayashi – "2046 Main Theme" (scenes 5, 15 and closing credits), "2046 Main Theme (Rumba Version)" (scene 25), "Interlude I" (scenes 29, 38), "Polonaise" (scenes 37, 43), "Lost", "Long Journey" (Scenes 40–41), "Interlude II" (Scene 30), "2046 Main Theme" (With Percussion, Train Remix)
Adopted music:Peer Raben – "Dark Chariot" (Scenes 7–9, 12–13) from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle (1982) and "Sisyphos At Work" (Scene 4) from Fassbinder's film The Third Generation (1979)
Xavier Cugat – "Siboney" (scenes 6 (instrumental), 17, 19, 24), "Perfidia" (scenes 10, 39)
Dean Martin – "Sway" (scene 18)
Georges Delerue – "Julien et Barbara" from François Truffaut's Vivement Dimanche! (1983) (scenes 21–23, 42)
Connie Francis – "Siboney"
Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani – "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma, performed by Angela Gheorghiu and the London Symphony Orchestra, directed by Evelino Pidò – recorded in 2000 (scenes 11, 14, 28, 36) and Bellini's Il pirata (scenes 16, 26)
Zbigniew Preisner – "Decision" from Thou shalt not kill, part 5 of Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue
Secret Garden – "Adagio" with David Agnew (cor anglais) (scenes 3, 27, 31, 34)
Nat King Cole and the Nat King Cole Trio – "The Christmas Song" (1946 version with strings) (scenes 20, 35)