By definition, science fiction is irreconcilable with realism, not because it is incapable of showing reality (as some may suppose), but because it can only do so through the formal resources that shape artistic production.
Thus, formalism in 2046 is based in the aesthetic experience, and it can only take place in our imagination. It uses cinematographic language to express abstract ideas, that is, to achieve their representation in images (the past, love, fear of pain and rejection, are all elements that cannot be represented except through a process).
We could relate the film to Hugo Münsterberg (one of the fathers of the formalist theory), who understands that the cinematographic purport is developed in the mind of the spectator and therefore implies the adoption of certain elements offered in conjunction with cultural experiences and conditions previous of the beholder. We could also mention Balázs, with his interest in close-ups, expressive frames (the use of the image always above textuality makes him an example of the cinema that does not work on reality but on cinematographic matter) and his conception of cinema as a leak from routine (regardless of what one tries to portray), is another theorist who would probably have been stunned by the display of magnificence of 2046.
As Jameson says:
‘Cultural production has been brought into the mind, into the monadic subject: he can no longer look directly with his own eyes at the real world in search of the referent but, as in Plato’s cave, he must draw his mental images of the world on the walls that confine it. If any realism remains here, it is the ‘realism’ that arose from the shock produced by catching that confinement and understanding that, for whatever unique reasons, we seem doomed to search for the historical past through our own images and popular stereotypes of the past, which itself is forever beyond our reach. ‘
In this film we find a character who wanders within the confines of his own experience, thirstily seeking to relive it, condemned to the same situation over and over again (in the place where nothing ever changes) not because he idealizes it, but because he can´t scape from his cave.
Rather, he analyzes and studies it inch by inch and holds it in his own mind so that he can weave it into a line of events that makes some sense to him.
The referent, as Jameson says, as Wong Kar Wai shows us at the beginning when talking about the lost love of the main character, eludes us for many reasons (perhaps due to a mixture of cowardice and poor perseverance, as the chinese filmmaker seems to suggest), but the use of art as an external image of oneself and his society, by representing it, we get a little closer to where resides, at least psychologically, our own definition of reality.