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As production of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 dragged on, the rumors got strange. It was about a Japanese hitman. Tony Leung played a postman from the future. The title referred to the last year before Hong Kong would be completely absorbed by mainland Chinese rule. The title referred to the hotel room used by Leung and Maggie Cheung in Wong's In The Mood For Love. Production had shut down because of SARS. Production had shut down because of conflicting schedules. A photographer sneaking snapshots prompted Wong to rebuild his main set. It was set in a Blade Runner-inspired future and involved androids. It was set in a down-market 1960s hotel and worked as a sequel to In The Mood For Love. It was a mess. It was a masterpiece.

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There are elements of truth to most of those rumors. For Wong, making films has become an act of high-wire ballet involving radical improvisations based on the assumption that he won't fall because he's never fallen before. With 2046, he mounts his thinnest rope to date. The film opens on a futuristic cityscape and some vague talk of returning from a place called 2046, where nothing ever changes. Tony Leung is the one returning, and from all evidence, he's reprising his character from Love. Soon to become a heartbroken gigolo, he flashes back to his last meeting with Cheung before embarking on relationships of varying intensity with the women of the Hotel Oriental, the wayfarers' hotel he calls home. These include a giggly high-class call girl (Zhang Ziyi) with whom he vows to remain platonic drinking buddies, and the hotel owner's daughter (Faye Wong), with whom he resumes writing serialized newspaper stories.

But instead of the martial-arts tales he penned with Cheung, his stories now take place in the year 2046, an era made of Kubrick-esque chill and Barbarella sexuality in equal parts. Often the film goes with him, spinning off into fanciful science-fiction passages in which the characters Leung writes reflect his own heartbreaks. In the hands of other directors, such transitions might be jarring, but with Wong, they become just another shade of the same mood, one more part of the bittersweet atmosphere enveloping the film.

Joining the anything-goes approach of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels and the meticulous pacing of Love, 2046 is about what happens in the smoldering embers of extinguished love. On the surface, that's not much, but the film's style and performances have nothing to do with surfaces. Zhang lets heartbreak ripple beneath her laugh, and Leung's dapper mustache never matches his sad eyes. He drifts from partner to partner, finding a fellowship of the disappointed in a film that's longer and looser (and perhaps unavoidably lesser) than the sustained masterfulness of its predecessor, but just as memorable and emotionally intense as any of Wong's films. It's a mood as much as a movie. Some people get all the happiness they could want out of life. Others, like the residents of the Hotel Oriental, never will. This one's for them.

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