FIVE YEARS AGO (though it reached Seattle later), Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love practically drowned itself in the exquisite uncertainty and anticipation of a tentative affair. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung played would-be lovers in 1962 Hong Kong, both of them married, who gradually give in to temptation. (Though they only make love on the DVD.) Wong's follow-up, 2046 (which opens Friday, Aug. 26, at the Harvard Exit), is less a sequel than a tangled, beautiful recapitulation of that first romance, a gorgeously morose meditation on lost, languorous love. Here, there's only the piercing, painful memory of it, as Leung says: "Some years back I had a happy end in my grasp, but I let it slip away." Steeped in regret, 2046 is an equally lovely companion piece wrapped around IML, but it's also too much of a good thing.
Writer Chow (Leung) has grown a rakish mustache in the years following his affair (Cheung appears only in brief black-and-white flashbacks). He's also grown into a womanizer, and a bit of a cad. His pursuing or bedding of each new beauty—including Carina Lau, Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, and Gong Li—becomes a seductive and somewhat confusing blur of silk, smoke, and rain. A showgirl (Lau) leads him to a fabulously decrepit hotel, where she lives in room 2046, the same number as the site of his old adulterous trysts. So much for forgetting. "Everyone wants to recapture lost memories," he explains of the inane sci-fi story—like a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show with the exits locked—that frames 2046, where "some of my own experiences found their way in."
Chow moves into the Oriental Hotel, room 2047, so he can spy on and pursue the next occupant in 2046: a call girl played by Zhang Ziyi, who's the best thing about the movie. Completely transformed from The Road Home and House of Flying Daggers, she destroys every cliché in the book about hookers, hearts, and gold. She's a hard, proud, and vulnerable woman—intoxicated by her own looks (and the effect they have on men), yet wary of those who come too close. Her reaction to Chow paying her the first time—a calculated insult intended to keep her at a distance—has the force of a galaxy collapsing. There's a kind of low rumbling sensation in the theater, only silent, without the surround-sound and THX other directors use to embellish their explosions.
Everything in 2046 echoes IML, each relationship and each woman (including their hair, makeup, and costumes) comments upon the original Leung-Cheung romance. Now his character is so hung up on that memory—did she love him or not?—that he can't see how the call girl has the same issues with him. His heartache makes him a heartbreaker, which moves the emotional center of 2046 to Zhang (who makes her English-language debut in December's Memoirs of a Geisha; buy your tickets early).
No one ever accused Wong of lacking good taste—he's positively drunk on the stuff. 2046 has the same vintage rumbas and Nat King Cole tunes as IML, the same distressed tropical palette of mossy emerald and anemic red, the same slo-mo nocturnal stupefaction (I don't think there's a single shot in full daylight). His love for the period goes beyond childhood idealization, nostalgia, or romantic glow. Even though 2046 is about memory and the passage of time, it's also a denial of time, a freezing of it, like your DVD player skipping back to the same IML scene over and over, for eternity.
That's why it feels like we've already seen this movie—as if we're trapped in a screening room with Wong and a bag of popcorn, him talking through the entire feature. Every shot, every scene, every gesture reminds him of his last masterpiece, IML (one of my favorite releases of 2001). 2046 becomes all about his own interleaved reputation. He told the Village Voice at Cannes last year: "I realized I was making a film about myself, about our process of making films! This film concludes all of my previous work. It's like a reunion of all the past moments. We tried for something different, but the past kept coming back." I'll say.