In the Mood for Love
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 23 February
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Ping Lam Siu
PG - Parental
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