In the Mood for Love
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 23 February 2001

Love and Loss

Quiet. This might be the most accurate word to describe the elegant, perfectly composed surface of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. Set in Hong Kong, 1962, this achingly beautiful film follows the gradually evolving relationship between two neighbors in the same building, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung, who won last year's Best Actor prize at Cannes for this role) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung). Both have spouses who travel frequently on business, which means that more often than not, they're left alone, working at their small offices during the days (he's a journalist, she's a clerk at a shipping company) and eating solo dinners at a noodle shop down the street from the building where they rent rooms.

They meet, they speak oh so briefly, they yearn. Like I say, the film is quiet. It's also ravishing, a superbly nuanced meditation on love and loss. Mostly unscripted, yet tightly choreographed and designed (by long-time Wong collaborator William Chang, working here on production design, costume, and editing), In the Mood For Love considers repressed romance and longing, but watching it is an acutely emotional and grandly romantic experience.

Scenes and emotions move slowly in this film, the camera paying careful attention to details -- a wide white clock face marking time between their meetings, the tap-tap of Mrs. Chow's heels in the tiled hallway, the sensuous curve of her neck in her high-collared cheongsam dresses, the fragile curl of Mr. Chan's cigarette smoke. Eventually, the two notice one another, passing so closely on the way to their apartment doors, or as they go up and down the stairway to the congee (noodle) stand. These instants of almost touching start to make a rhythm, the tension between them builds. Mr. Chan glances at Mrs. Chow, she looks away, shyly, then back again until their gazes meet. Eventually, they start to converse and discover that they share an affection for martial arts serials as well as noodles. They also discover that their spouses are having an affair. Though this is obviously upsetting, at first it seems nearly right -- their awkward non-encounters have a context and now, they have a reason to meet, on purpose.

But still, they're stymied, unable to say what they mean, or even to think it. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are as uptight as any wannabe lovers could be -- wanting so desperately to touch but also wanting, as they put it to one another, to not be "like them," their deceitful partners. And so, they come up with other stuff to do. They agree to write a martial arts story together, then they begin play-acting scenarios starring their spouses, in an effort to figure out how the affair might have started. But there's no knowing, only yearning and wondering. The film never fully reveals the spouses; they're only seen from the back, through narrow doorways, so that they remain elusive and strange, much like they appear to Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan at this point in their lives.

The film's seeming stillness is something of a departure for the forty-two-year-old Wong, best known in the States for his brilliant fever-dreamy love stories, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. But if the pitch and pace of In the Mood for Love are comparatively subdued, the erotic and emotional tensions run high as ever. Shot by two cinematographers, Christopher Doyle (who worked with Wong on Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels) and Mark Li Ping-bin (Flowers of Shanghai), the film's indirection is as taut as any of the director's more frenetic work. Whether the characters lean into one another in the back of a cab (street lights fluttering over their faces), or stand apart in the room Mr. Chow has rented as their "writing" space (gauzy red draperies waving in a barely-there breeze), the very colors and textures that serve to contain them visually, also reveal their unspoken disquiet and desire.

Repeatedly, the film speaks for them, indirectly, but also poignantly. Nat King Cole's Spanish version of "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," delicate and haunting, comes on the soundtrack again and again, at moments of just missed opportunity or drenched with passionate possibility. The song also hints at the ways that Hong Kong was, even in the '60s, a kind of transnational and pop cultural way-station, teeming with imported products and non-natives (both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are from Shanghai) and humming with commercial and social activities. Famous for its political and ethnic mixing, the city is here also caught (and remembered) between eras, the '60s of Wong's childhood and the coming decades that would be fraught with questions of national identity (British or Chinese, traditional or modern).

In the Mood for Love doesn't display these tensions overtly; there's none of the usual "crowded streets of Hong Kong" shots. It's laced through with other, subtler evocations of difficult everydayness. Mr. Chow is utterly proper, hoping against hope that change will come to him; Mrs. Chan would never think of saying what's on her mind, instead losing herself in solitary trips to the movies, her job (which includes making arrangements for her boss' adulterous trysts), or occasional letters from her absent husband. Appearing in graceful, silhouetted long shots, the characters are at once too deeply immersed in their daily identities -- their reputations, their appearances -- and sadly anonymous, feeling displaced and uncertain. At film's end, Mr. Chow travels to Singapore and Cambodia, partly reminiscing but also, perhaps, looking for a future that never happened. The camera pans slowly over the ruins at Angkor Wat, suggesting not only the broadly tragic ravages of time and war, but also those smaller, less visible devastations that so many people find hard to discuss or even admit.

Written and
Directed by:

Wong Kar-Wai

Starring:
Maggie Cheung
Tony Leung
Rebecca Pan
Lai Chen
Ping Lam Siu

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested
Some material may
not be suitable
for children

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