Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung Classification: PG Rating: ****
Such care goes into every shot, every scene and gesture of Wong Kar-wai's masterly In the Mood for Love, the effect is fetishistic, hypnotic and swooningly lovely. Stylized, set-designed to the last hair wisp, the film is a mixture of bold devices with delicate understatement that leave a remarkable aftereffect.
At its soulful heart, the seventh feature film from the cerebral and romantic Wong Kar-wai is a love story. Or, perhaps, it's better to say that it is about the memory of love, expressed with an artful self-consciousness through film.
We begin at the time of the 43-year-old director's childhood in 1962 Hong Kong, in the mad tumult of an apartment that is home to a noisy Shanghai family, yelling like the clattering of tin cans. An elegant young woman comes to inquire about a room; a moment later, a handsome young man arrives asking about the same room: He's sent next door to inquire there. Soon, the new families are settled. "You are too polite," the landlady tells each of them in separate conversations.
In the madcap confusion of moving day, they mix up each other's belongings. Both the man, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), and the woman, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), are married, but neither one's spouse is ever directly seen. Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are soft-spoken, matinee-idol beautiful, lit by a special kind of radiance out of keeping with the mundane world around them. We hear their voices, see the backs of their heads, or their images, just out of view on a photograph on the wall. "The past was something he could see but not touch . . .", the subtitles tell of us of the lead character. That selective seeing sometimes takes place in a single long breath of a shot, followed by a sharp blackout. More often, the details are offered in series of brief glimpses and gasps: Two bodies passing in a narrow corridor or stairwell, a woman seen through a door frame sitting reading a newspaper, the melancholy yearning in his or her eyes. The director plays a refined fan dance of revealing and hiding, of peeks around windows and doorways, and reflections in mirrors, followed by those moments where the viewer has the privilege of longer gazes.
In the comings and goings in the apartment, there are allusions to airports, trips to Japan, a new rice cooker brought from abroad. Through a series of conversations, Mr. Chow, a journalist, and Mrs. Chan, an executive secretary for a shipping company (juggling the calls of her boss's wife and mistress on the telephone), discover that their spouses are apparently having an affair on their frequent trips abroad. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan share a common pain and a close physical proximity. But they are too polite. Finding a justification for being drawn together, they begin to rehearse how their spouses might have fallen in love, how they will confront them in the future.
The play-acting is bold, contrived and tantalizing, as, in a sense, they begin to give each other lessons in the art of adultery: "Shall we spend the night together," he says recklessly. She looks disgusted. "My husband would never say that," she snaps back. He calls her at work: "I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice." "You have my husband down pat," she says approvingly.
At times, the mood suggests Douglas Sirk's fascination with delicious agony of doomed romance. At times, In the Mood for Love is richer, Proustian in its sense of the potent moment. Time moves forward oddly, signalled not by any exterior indication other than Maggie Cheung's dazzling series of form-fitting shifts. She often moves in slight slow motion, enhancing the delicately erotic impact.
The movement in the film is anxious, repetitive: We watch Mrs. Chan's continual trips to the noodle shop to buy dinner for one. "She dresses like that to go to the noodle shop?" asks the landlady incredulously. And the answer is, of course she does, because she is not like everyone else. There are frequent scenes of these almost-lovers' bodies brushing each other in a hallway.
There's a cheap hotel where Mr. Chow eventually goes to stay -- yellow-gold light and carnal, billowing red curtains. Will she go up the stairs? The image stutters: Her feet go forward; her feet turn around. Step by step, the filmmaker teases out the tormented pining of the two characters.
In the Mood for Love is a piece of beautiful artifice that never lets you ignore its formal design and self-conscious symmetry. Wong's long-time production designer William Chang (who also edited the film) and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (aided by Mark Li Ping Bing when the production ran on too long) have created a kind of jewel box here (in refreshing contrast to the often pretentious sloppiness of the Dogme advocates.) The camera is, for the expressive Doyle (the famously mobile cinematographer of Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels), relatively static. The colour palette -- red, gold, delicate jade and grey, mottled backdrops -- makes even eroding concrete walls look gorgeous. The gauzy, improbable sound of Nat King Cole singing in Spanish adds another layer of artifice.
The real world doesn't disappear in In the Mood for Love, but it fades into the background. Occasionally, it spills into the film in forceful intrusions, such as the scene where the drunken landlord bursts through the door, red-faced, with vomit boiling up from his mouth. Then there's Mr. Chow's homely, salacious colleague, Ming, trying to borrow money to pay off a debt to a hooker, and crudely speculating on his chances with the lonesome Mrs. Chan. It is the worldly Ming, naturally, who convinces the resigned Mr. Chow, whose marriage has now disintegrated, to move to Singapore to start a new life.
The soft and liquid world of the almost-love-affair of In the Mood does not really end though, until a brief coda, set in Cambodia in 1966, where Mr. Chow goes as a reporter to cover the arrival of Charles de Gaulle -- a scene that appears abruptly in the film in the form of a piece of crude faded newsreel footage. In the final scene, the venerable religious monuments of Angkor Wat, stand in for the whole of Asia's past. The ephemeral experience of two humans fades, both against the backdrop of the brutal new Asian reality and the crumbling structures of the ancient past. "That era is past," say the subtitles. "Nothing that belongs to it exists any more." Nothing, except these wonderfully ordered images that Wong Kar-wai has woven into this perfect mood piece, an invented document representing the ache of transitory experience.