Not only is a parallel created between similar sequences, it is paralleled across films. The setup of the sequence in which Chow says good-bye to Black Widow is very similar to a scene from In the Mood For Love when Chow and the original Su Li Zhen are role playing in an alleyway.
The audience, taking Chow’s point of view, not only experiences a recall of a previous memory twice, but relates the Black Widow with the original Su Li Zhen as Chow does, inevitably inviting comparison between the two women. The Zhang Ziyi character, Bai Ling, is also paralleled to the Black Widow, and hence, Su Li Zhen when Chow initially meets her.
As they head out to dinner, Wong cuts again to the slow-mo, medium tracking shot of Su Li Zhen’s waist, then cuts to a medium long shot of Bai Ling walking in the same direction, not breaking the continuity and thus creating the connection between Bai Ling and Su Li Zhen. By constantly connecting these new women with the original Su Li Zhen the audience, like Chow, is always comparing these women and perpetually focused on the past, nostalgic for a happiness that disappeared long ago.
One of the ways in which Chow deals with his regret and longing is through his fiction writing, creating a fantastic future world in which trains head toward 2046. In this future, people strive to go to 2046 in order to “recapture lost memories” because nothing ever changes there. We know immediately then that this world is a dream fantasy in which he can relive his past with the original Su Li Zhen, a conceit to allow extravagant indulgences in his memories. Wong presents this world visually, taking us into the mind and imagination of Chow and giving us a glimpse of his mournful longing.
The fantasy sequence also produces a complex chain of associations. One of the women that Chow meets is Jing Wen, played by Faye Wong, who has a Japanese boyfriend that her father disapproves of. Eventually her boyfriend moves back to Japan and their relationship is left in doubt. During this time, Chow befriends Jing Wen and eventually becomes attracted to her.
After a year, Jing Wen becomes increasingly distraught about the uncertainty of her relationship with her Japanese boyfriend. To help her along, Chow writes 2047 for Jing Wen to show her what he observes of her uncertain relationship with her Japanese boyfriend. But this serves more as an inner reflection of his own situation. Chow attempts to write from the Japanese boyfriend’s perspective, showing that he does miss and love Jing Wen, and thus wants to return to 2046 to be with her memory because he does not know where she has gone.
But slowly this segment begins to parallel Chow’s own situation of not knowing where Su Li Zhen has disappeared to – the Japanese boyfriend becomes representative of Chow. As this happens, we are reminded once more of Chow’s growing attraction to Jing Wen, as the girl that the Japanese boyfriend pines for in 2047 is played again by Faye Wong. Towards the end, the Japanese boyfriend in 2047 begins to wonder why the girl does not respond to him and he reasons that it’s either because she’s fatigued or she doesn’t love him.
Here, Wong cuts so that we are taken back to the real world, with Chow having Christmas dinner with Jing Wen. He has a realization, and Wong subsequently cuts back to 2047, jumping back into Chow’s imagination as he revises his fantasy with his realization that the girl is not responsive because she’s in love with somebody else – at this point 2047 is solely about him and not the Japanese boyfriend. It is here that Chow knows nothing can ever happen between him and Jing Wen and that there is the distinct possibility that he will never again find Su Li Zhen. It is here that he utters forlornly, “Love is a matter of timing…”
Another association stretched throughout the film is established in a repeated setup. At various times, we see Chow in the backseat of a taxi. Again, the shot is in slow motion, prolonging the emotional effect in our minds as Chow voices over some wistful realization. It’s also in black and white, further heightening the effect of a flashback.
This setup occurs exactly three times in this film. The first time is when he is with Bai Ling, his head resting on her shoulder as he drowses off into a drunken sleep. Immediately, we recognize this setup from In the Mood for Love, when Chow is doing the same with the original Su Li Zhen. The second time this setup occurs confirms this connection with the past by actually having the original Su Li Zhen in the cab with Chow. The final occurrence has Chow in the cab by himself, at the very end.
By having these three similar sequences occur throughout the film, we are not only invited to compare Bai Ling with Su Li Zhen, but also made to see how much Chow has changed each time these memories occur. In the first, we see Chow trying to substitute Bai Ling for Su Li Zhen. He realizes eventually that this does not work, and as the second setup is shown, we remember with him his time with Su Li Zhen as he reminisces regretfully, “I had a happy ending in my grasp, but let it slip away”.
Finally, in the third iteration of this setup, we see him all alone in the end, with Bai Ling’s echo in his head: “Why can’t it be like before?” Not only do we think of how unfortunate Bai Ling’s timing was, but we think sadly of Chow’s timing as well and of his missed connection with his love.
Each of these setups is a poignant reminder of how good things used to be for Chow. And at this final moment, he voices over, “everyone who wants to go to 2046 wants to recapture lost memories because in 2046 nothing ever changes. But nobody really knows if that’s true or not because no one has ever come back.”
And as we leave Chow in that final scene, we realize that he will not make it back from 2046. He will forever be inhabiting his eternal past, living yearnfully among memories and unable to move on.
By viewing this film, we have been taken through Chow’s memories and fantasies, and through the various episodes and the connections made, we come to understand him – his missed opportunity, his regret, and his sadness. And we realize, in the end, that the film itself was the train to 2046 all along. We simply rode with him for two-plus hours, and then got off as he continued on.