2046 ★★★★★

“Nothing lasts forever, anyway.”

Wong Kar Wai’s only direct sequel is also his single greatest film, although calling “2046” a direct anything could be a misrepresentation of how scrambled this inwardly spiraling epic can feel the first time through. Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-wan — now a divorced, mustached, proto-Don Draper type who lives in a Hong Kong hotel and files garbage journalism whenever he isn’t busy negging on showgirls — tries to write his way out of the love story he continues to tell himself about his time with Su Li-zhen.

That process is discursive and impressionistic, even by Wong’s usual standards; if “In the Mood for Love” flirted with symptoms of “Vertigo,” “2046” is so dizzying that it can leave you feeling a little seasick. Points of interest include a rotating cast of beautiful women (including Gong Li as Maggie Cheung’s doppelgänger), a timeline that loops around on itself with little warning, and even a glimpse at an imagined future where people can take a train to 2046 in order to recapture their lost memories. No one has ever come back. 2046 is a date, a place, the number of the second-floor room next to Mo-wan’s, and of course the final year of the self-regulated status that China promised Hong Kong at the time of the 1997 handover, but here it always represents a kind of oblivion — a point of no return that forever divides what is from what once was.

2046 is the place beyond the mountain in “Ashes of Time,” it’s the infinite minute in “Days of Being Wild,” it’s the lighthouse at the end of the world in “Happy Together” and the destination where Faye offers to fly Cop 663 at the end of “Chungking Express.” It’s where all of Wong’s characters have been hoping to go, and so it’s no wonder that we encounter so many of them on the way there. “2046” is effectively “The Avengers” of the WKWCU, with Leung and the leftover traces of Cheung (excerpted from “In the Mood for Love”) giving way to the reappearances of Carina Lau (reprising her role as Mimi/Lulu from “Days of Being Wild”), Chang Chen, and Faye Wong, the latter three of whom play double roles in a way that acknowledges their dual existences in this film and in our memory.

It’s a dense ride, and its emotional tempos are certainly easier to appreciate for Wong diehards, but while “2046” depends on its director’s previous work in a way that his other films do not, it would be a grave mistake to write it off as bizarro fan service or the stuff of artistic indulgence. The forward-thinking nature of Wong’s cinema can disguise how looking backward is what it’s always done best, and from a certain perspective “In the Mood for Love” — for all of its ravishing beauty — is more powerful to reflect upon than to watch. It would almost be a waste of time for Wong to design that pit of quicksand in such granular detail if he never returned to see Mo-wan sink deeper as he flails around in search of his past.

Operatic and sprawling where the similarly unkind “Fallen Angels” was punkish and serrated, “2046” isn’t a cold film so much as it’s attuned to the absence of warmth. The surreal and purposely retro-futuristic sci-fi sequences contrast with the airless elegance of the Hong Kong timeline, and Zhang Ziyi delivers one of the greatest Wong performances as a sharp-tongued prostitute whose look took six hours to apply every day, and stays mostly intact even as she follows Mo-wan into the abyss. Wong’s filmmaking reaches mesmerizing new heights as it forges the conflict that sparks between these parallel stories into the key that Mo-wan has presumably been looking for ever since his silent cameo at the end of “Days of Being Wild.” It’s a key that locks the past in place and opens Mo-wan to the possibility that memory is so valuable to keep because people can only be borrowed. It’s a key that allows him to see that nothing can ever be exactly as it was, even (or especially) if it was never that way in the first place. It’s a key that bears the number 2046.