How much gloriously unrequited passion can a person, a director, and an audience take? According to Wong Kar Wai's ''2046," too much and never, ever enough.
This long, enigmatic, rapturously beautiful meditation on romance and remembrance has been impatiently awaited by moviegoers who fell under the spell of ''In the Mood for Love," the 2000 movie that catapulted the Hong Kong-based Wong to the forefront of world directors. The new film lives up to expectations and, indeed, pushes past them into virtually unmapped territory. It takes chances, sometimes unwisely, and it is not an experience for the casual viewer. ''2046" is Wong Kar Wai, the graduate course.
If you're already a convert -- particularly if you've got ''Mood" and 1991's stunning ''Days of Being Wild" under your belt -- there should be nothing holding you back from heading out to the theater right now. ''2046" takes characters, themes, and even lines of dialogue from those two earlier films and stirs them into a new and mind-altering cocktail; it's not a sequel so much as the third side of a prism through which Wong can shine light on a vibrantly fallen world.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai once again plays Chow Mo-wan, the heart-stricken near-adulterous lover of ''Mood" -- except that he seems a completely different man. By 1966, six years after the events of the earlier movie, Chow has morphed into a brilliantined Hong Kong cad, a journalist who beds a succession of beautiful women and whose heart is never dented. Once timid, now brazen, he drops enough references to the lost love of his life for a viewer to sense he has consciously taken up hedonism as a sort of personal numbing agent. As little physical contact as there was in ''In the Mood for Love," that's how much sex there is in ''2046." Even the walls look ripe to the touch.
The women Chow romances and discards make up a who's who of Asian film actresses, coutured within an inch of their lives and passing through different stages of love and regret. Carina Lau reprises her ''Days of Being Wild" role as the hotblooded tootsie named Lulu -- or is it Mimi? -- while Faye Wong, the adorable punkette from the director's ''Chungking Express," plays the daughter of Chow's landlord, an achingly ardent girl in love with a young Japanese businessman (Takuya Kimura). Her father disapproves, and Chow agrees to act as go-between; his passing but earnest crush on the girl might not exist if she weren't gazing so helplessly at another man.
Gong Li (''Raise the Red Lantern") appears at the beginning and end of ''2046" as a Singapore gambler in a black silk shift who helps Chow find his way back to the land of the living after the events of ''Mood." Curiously, her name is Su Li-zhen, the same as the elegantly forbidden lover played in that film by Maggie Cheung (and the same name as the character played by Cheung in ''Days of Being Wild" -- still with me?).
So where's Maggie Cheung? She's glimpsed all too briefly in 2046, the science-fiction future about which Chow writes short stories when he's not dallying with the ladies. A cyberpunk landscape of neon, automatons, bullet trains, and ruined piping, 2046 is as much a place and a mindset as it is a year -- a location where the lovelorn can travel to recapture their lost memories. It's also a number that resonates in Chow's past (the number of the apartment where he chastely trysted with Su in ''Mood"), his present (the number of the apartment across the hall), and Hong Kong's future (the last year before it comes under the full governance of the People's Republic of China). It means everything and it means nothing.
As does Bai Ling, Chow's neighbor and the central female character of ''2046," a chicly dressed courtesan who falls for this easygoing roue across the way. Ling is played, in a performance that can only be called a coming of age, by Ziyi Zhang, the young sensation of ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," who negotiates such hairpin turns of emotion here that a viewer can only watch in awe. Ling is controlling, kittenish, lusty, petulant, and, finally, a harrowing vision of romantic devastation, and the actress somehow makes her all of a piece. Even more than Leung -- whose performance is quieter but just as full -- Zhang holds the shiny pieces of ''2046" together like a steel pin.
And there are many pieces, because Wong is a cinematic magpie of the first order. He fuses costumes, set design, cinematography, and music into frames that burst with color and sound -- gorgeously cluttered images in which the characters are swallowed up by the sensuousness of a world too rich to contain. The score, in addition to reprising snatches of music from ''Days" and ''Mood," makes increased use of opera as a tempestuous backdrop; William Chang Suk Pin's production design and editing, and the camerawork by Wong's longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle and two additional cinematographers are indispensable in creating an ambiguous and very special mood.
If you're new to Wong Kar Wai, ''2046" may seem as baffling and overlong as it is intoxicating. The director doesn't build linear story lines so much as concentric rings of narrative and poetic meaning that continually revolve around each other, a process this film takes to rococo heights. Yet there is a way in: If you're willing to take the time to rent ''Days of Being Wild" and ''In the Mood for Love" -- they're both on DVD and highly recommended -- you'll be much better prepared for the new film.
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.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.