Just as memories of lost loves defy logic, so Wong Kar-Wai's alluring 2046 resists order: As a movie with a beginning, middle, and end, Wong's askew sequel to his voluptuously sad 2001 romance In the Mood for Love is a head cracker, but as a cinematic bath for the senses, it's a rush, a swoon. Nobody does repressed, yearning misfits in exquisitely tailored costumes better than this Hong Kong director, who loves the look of beautiful people making hopeless romantic choices. And no other connoisseur of musical accompaniment (Wong always knows the right tune for the right variation on a theme of emotional distance) would choose to mark the passing of years in a run-down Hong Kong hotel, circa the 1960s, with a sexy mix of Dean Martin, bel canto opera, and Latin nightclub riffs.
The title of his immersive, imperfect reverie refers both to a year in the sci-fi future as well as to a room number in a seedy flophouse where Chow Mo Wan (the essential Tony Leung) wastes his talent and buries his feelings: The aspiring writer and faithful husband attracted to Maggie Cheung's married woman in In the Mood for Love has become a hardened gossip columnist and pulp fiction scribbler whose heart is no longer available for the plucking. And so Chow, now a callous roué and literary hack, recalls his stingy relationships with a series of unsatisfied beauties. And I mean beauties: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Faye Wong, and Cheung herself appear in turn, each glowing like moonlight for her director, each a vision of wounded femininity in a luscious wardrobe. Indeed, Christopher Doyle's sumptuous cinematography emphasizes tactile sensuality with such passion that we can practically feel the silk and satin.
Chow imagines the year 2046 as a concrete science-fiction destination a haven to which anyone can travel for the recovery of one's lost memories. As the address of a tatty room in a Hong Kong that no longer exists, on the other hand, it's a site of stasis, loss, trembling sadness. There are many places a visitor may go astray in 2046 places where the filmmaker appears to be a bit at loose ends too. Still, Wong's invitation ''Let's get lost'' is irresistible.