Wong Kar Wai is one of the few directors whose films are actual events: as it's been almost five years since the release of his masterpiece In the Mood for Love, the excitement over his next project has been palpable. In this context, some critics can't be blamed for finding Wong's ambitious follow-up, 2046, a bit of a let-down.

It's hard not to compare the two films, since Wong himself fashions 2046 as a sequel, picking up with In the Mood's hero Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) shortly after the earlier film's heartbreaking ending. Mr. Chow, now a single man, sports a rakish mustache and has devolved from a lovelorn cuckold into a caddish ladykiller. He has kept up his writing, however, and so he channels his buried longing for lost love Mrs. Chan (In the Mood's Maggie Cheung, here seen only in glimpses) into an oblique science fiction story set in the year 2046 – which was, not coincidentally, the hotel room number in In the Mood for Love.

I'll stop right here to tell you that you must see the first film before heading into 2046. The later film's plot is confusing enough. You might be hopelessly lost without knowing Mr. Chow's back story – and in any event, your knowledge of In the Mood for Love will make viewing 2046 a richer experience.

Anyway, we follow Mr. Chow through three different relationships: a torrid affair with a prostitute (ubiquitous Chinese spitfire Zhang Ziyi), a chaste friendship with his landlord's daughter (Faye Wong, who stalked Leung in Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express), and a murky encounter with a mysterious gambler (Chinese superstar Gong Li, still great but worryingly tired-looking). Each woman reminds him of his lost love in some way – Zhang lives in room 2046, Wong helps him write his stories as Mrs. Chan did, and Gong shares Mrs. Chan's maiden name.

Interspersed with expressionistic clips from Mr. Chow's sci fi story (with Wong as an android with whom Chow's hero falls in love), 2046 is an artful mix, with a fantastic soundtrack, stunning cinematography (Wong Kar Wai's usual DP, the genius Christopher Doyle, shares credit with two others), and the greatest cast a filmmaker could ask for. At times I missed the elegant simplicity and emotion of In the Mood for Love, but I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon with other critics and write off 2046 as a disappointment. Chilly as it may be, it's still a substantial film.

In many respects, it's a meta-film: a wistful look at its aging stars and Wong Kar Wai's relationship with them, a wink at the fetishistic qualities of his earlier work, and an examination of Hong Kong's complex history. (The film opens during the riots of 1966-67, and the sci fi story's setting, 2046, is the year before HK fully becomes part of China.)

I won't even go into the whole saga behind this film's production; that's an essay unto itself. (I will say that Wong intended to make 2046 years ago and, while waiting for the money to come in, instead shot In the Mood for Love on the cheap.) My sole reservation is that, at just over two hours, this film could have lost a good 15-20 minutes. Wong spends too much time with Zhang's character, whose relationship with Mr. Chow is ultimately trivial. I suspect Wong was so enamored with Zhang's onscreen appeal – and her chemistry with Leung – that he couldn't bear to pare down her scenes. Perhaps this obsession will be something worth exploring in a later work.