Following the events of In the Mood for Love, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) has coped with his unrealised relationship with Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) by becoming a ladies' man. The film centers on his relationships with three different women: his landlord's daughter, Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), a nightclub girl, Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and a gambler coincidentally named Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li). Chow also writes a science fiction serial titled 2046, about a train traveling to a time/place called "2046" where passengers can recapture lost love.
The film was notorious for its four-year Troubled Production, going through many re-writes and versions, before finally settling to the finished product.
Contains examples of:
- Anachronic Order: The film jumps back and forth among different time frames.
- Arc Number: 2046 appears as the apartment number for Chow's love interests, and is the title of Chow's science-fiction serial.
- Arc Welding: Lulu (Carina Lau) is confirmed to be the same Lulu from Days of Being Wild, implicitly confirming that Maggie Cheung's and Tony Leung's respective characters from Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love are, in fact, the same person.
- Bait-and-Switch Comment: Chow after reading Wang Jing-wen's writing:Chow: I think you should never write another word.
Wang Jing-wen: Why not?
Chow: You're so good, you could put me out of work.
- Bittersweet Ending: Chow resolves to let go of the past and finally move on from his heartbreak of his unfulfilled romance with Su Li-Zhen. However, he breaks Bai Ling's heart in the process.
- The Cameo:
- Maggie Cheung appears very briefly as Su Li-Zhen in a flashback.
- Chang Chen appears as a drummer in a club, who's also Lulu's jealous boyfriend.
- Character Development: Chow went through some development between In the Mood for Love and the beginning of this one: he's numbed the pain of losing Su Li-Zhen by becoming a playboy. He spends the rest of the film trying to move on from Su Li-Zhen in a more healthy way.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Chow speculates that the gambler Su Li-Zhen has one, which is why she's so reluctant to tell him anything about her, except for her name.
- Dating What Daddy Hates: Wang Jing-wen's boyfriend is Japanese, which her father strongly disapproves of. Since their family suffered during the Japanese occupation, he has a Freudian Excuse.
- Defrosting Ice Queen:
- Bai Ling is initially cold and aloof towards Chow, but gradually warms up to him.
- Subverted in the "2046" serial. Tak hopes the android he's spending time with will undergo this, but it doesn't happen because he realises she's in love with someone else. This in turn forces Chow to realize that his relationship with Su Li-Zhen was doomed from the start and leads him to resolve to get over her.
- Lulu and Chow are both recovering from a failed relationship and engage in self-destructive behavior to fill their respective emotional voids. However, while Lulu is seemingly content to live the rest of her days from one bad relationship to another, Chow resolves to move on with his life.
- Both the gambler Su Li-Zhen and Chow cling so much to the past that they can't find happiness in the present. However, Su Li-Zhen is ultimately unable to let go, which may prove to be fatal to her, while Chow gets better.
- Happy Ending: Wang Jing-wen's story ends with her reunited with her boyfriend some help with Chow. They get engaged, and her father, who had initially forced them to break up, accepts their relationship.
- Hotter and Sexier: The previous two movies were relatively chaste in spite of their subject content. This film has no problems in showing sex scenes.
- Genre-Busting: The film is largely a romantic drama, but it also has a science-fiction segment in Chow's newspaper serial.
- Grand Finale: The film ties together the loose threads from Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love for a satisfying conclusion, and also boasts Wong Kar-wai's biggest cast thus far.
- Killed Offscreen: York is confirmed to have died some time after the end of Days of Being Wild. Also Su Li-Zhen, the gambler, maybe.
- Metafictional Title: 2046 is the name of the science fiction serial Chow is writing.
- The One That Got Away:
- Su Li-Zhen is this for Chow by the time the film stars.
- Over the course of the movie, both Wang Jing-wen and the gambler Su Li-Zhen become this as well.
- Chow himself is this to Bai Ling.
- Product Placement: LG has a lot of it throughout.
- Title by Year: Is the number of a hotel room and a Metafictional Title, well, also referencing an In-Universe story, written by Chow called 2046, which is Science Fiction and future-y, presumably numbered for the year.
- Sanity Slippage: A rather mild case. Wang Jing-wen starts talking to herself shortly after being forced to break up with her boyfriend.
- Sequel: To In the Mood for Love, unbeknownst to some.
- Sexbot: The androids in the train to "2046" are equipped for this need.
- Stealth Sequel: To Days of Being Wild due to Lulu's appearance, who was one of that movie's main characters.
- That Man Is Dead: Lulu has rebranded herself as Mimi.
- Unlimited Wardrobe: Similar to Su Li-Zhen, Bai Ling seemingly doesn't repeat qipaos.
- The Unreveal: We never find out anything about gambler Su Li-Zhen's past or motivations. We're not even sure if she's alive at the end of the film.
- Write What You Know: In-Universe. Chow acknowledges that his experiences informed his writing of "2046". When Wang Jing-wen asks him to write a happy ending he can't, since he hasn't experienced that happy ending yet.
- Write Who You Know: In-Universe. Chow bases all of the characters in "2046" and "2047" on the people around him, most prominently Wang Jing-wen and her boyfriend.