A Desire Soaked in Pain, Confusion and Great
Source: The New York Times, Feb 2, 2001 pE10(L) col 01 (21 col
Subjects: Motion pictures - Reviews
''In the Mood for Love'' was shown as part of last year's New York Film
Festival. Following are excerpts from Elvis Mitchell's review, which appeared in
The New York Times on Sept. 30. The film -- in Cantonese and Shanghainese, with
English subtitles -- opens today at the Lincoln Plaza, Broadway at 62nd
''It is a restless moment. Hong Kong 1962,'' reads a title card at the
beginning of ''In the Mood for Love,'' and a restiveness that's almost
voluptuous -- like that first blush of love when you can barely concentrate on
anything else, and the world seems new and strange -- fills the movie. ''Mood''
is a great word because a lot of the movie is mood.
The principals are caught as the camera peers at them through the edges of
doorways. Its writer and director, Wong Kar-wai, is one of that gifted new breed
of moviemakers who think through the lens, and he uses that talent to give the
film a heated, rapturous quality; the camera floats along, sneaking a look at
the performers out of the corner of its eye. Narrative has rarely been a
motivating factor for him; instead, his heart spills out onto the screen.
Mr. Wong is infatuated with the headiness of pop and he's brilliant at using
it, as with the Nat King Cole songs that play throughout. Cole's pearly
enunciation reflects the refinement of the stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
They play people, married to others, who are renting rooms in apartments next
door, and they eventually discover that their spouses are having an affair.
The journalist Chow Mowan (Mr. Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Ms. Cheung) come to
lean on each other, and that need is suffused with desire, which they're unsure
how to act upon. They're the characters who are usually the victims in a James
M. Cain story.
Mr. Wong used the title of a Rolling Stones song, ''As Tears Go By,'' for one
of his pictures, a confused but powerful action film about loyalty, and it would
fit as the name of any of them. It would certainly lend itself to ''Mood,''
which is a film about confusion over loyalties. Nat King Cole could be all
surface, and Mr. Wong angles the singer's glossiness against the want of the
couple, who constantly stare at each other through glazed, hurting eyes; he
plunges beneath those surfaces, and it's gripping. This may be one of the
swooniest movies ever made about love, and it luxuriates in its tailspin.
''In the Mood for Love'' is probably the most breathtakingly gorgeous film of
the year, dizzy with a nose-against-the-glass romantic spirit that has been
missing from the cinema forever, a spirit found in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the best
Roxy Music and minor-key romantic movies like the forgettable 1956 ''Miracle in
the Rain,'' in which the lovers' suffering is sealed because of the chasteness
of the era. Sex scenes couldn't be spelled out, and as in Mr. Wong's film,
yearning becomes the epoxy that holds the material together.
The pining here is so graceful that you may be transfixed by it. Instead of
explicit physical tangles Mr. Wong eroticizes each movement of his camera,
something not many others could do because no one can cut within a camera move
the way he does. ''Mood'' fits the tradition of audacity at the New York Film
Festival, where ''Last Tango in Paris'' once changed movies forever. This film
goes so far in the other direction that there's a fetishistic fixation on
clothes; the beautiful floral-patterned silk dresses worn by Ms. Cheung have a
It is said that Mr. Wong shot a sex scene and decided not to use it. It's a
great instinct; this is a love story whose intensity comes from the fact that
the skin stays covered most of the time. Ms. Cheung wears dresses with slightly
exaggerated shoulders, trim-waisted and cowl-necked, to accentuate her own
flutelike neck. Mr. Leung wears a charcoal silk shantung suit with a selection
of ties to make it look different each time.
The camera is perched like a voyeur, snatching glimpses from doorways and
corners, gazing lovingly at this couple stranded in unhappy marriages. Allusive
and bittersweet, the film uses characters to advance metaphor in the
picture-puzzle manner that Michael Ondaatje used in the novel ''The English
Patient''; you may not be sure if it's about people or pop or filmmaking. It's
actually fascinated with all these things, the product of a director who works
primarily on instinct.
That instinct is most poignant and evident in a scene in which the movie
seems to be getting at the truth. Ms. Cheung tells Mr. Leung she knows he has a
lover and weakly flings a slap at his cheek. No, he admonishes her, that's not
how it's done. But we realize that something entirely different is going on, and
the misery goes even deeper because this scene is also about their eventual
Mr. Wong uses the song recalled by the film's title to set his pace -- it's
not heard here -- and he looks at these characters through the heart-addled haze
of pop songs. ''That era has passed,'' reads a title at the end. ''Nothing that
belongs to it exists anymore.'' This film is a sweet kiss blown to a time long
since over, a time that may have existed only in the movies, with ballads
recorded in mono while hand-sewn clothing lay perfectly over the bodies of the
stars. ''In the Mood for Love'' is just that.
Setting His Tale Of Love Found In a City Long
Source: The New York Times, Jan 28, 2001 p11(L) col 01 (41 col
Author: Leslie Camhi
ALMOST nothing remains of the Hong Kong neighborhood where Wong Kar-wai grew
up: the narrow alleyways, cramped apartments and crowded noodle stalls where
elegant men and women tried to recreate the cosmopolitan lives they'd led in
Shanghai, before Mao Zedong's revolution.
His most recent film, ''In the Mood for Love,'' is set in 1962 amid Hong
Kong's exiled Shanghai community, but Mr. Wong shot most of the film in Bangkok;
the one or two Hong Kong locations he used during filming two years ago have
already vanished as the city continually rebuilds itself.
And in the film itself, very little remains of the miles of footage he
amassed over a 15-month shoot. On the editing table, Mr. Wong cut out most of
the story, leaving only a fevered dream of passion and a celluloid love letter
to a time and place that is lost.
In the past decade, Mr. Wong, 42, has emerged as Hong Kong's leading
director. His seven features, from ''As Tears Go By'' (1988) to ''Happy
Together'' (1997), blend sophisticated editing, pop cultural references, urban
anomie, a surreal visual sense and frequently absurdist characters. His is an
artificial nighttime universe where Hong Kong call girls wear blonde wigs and
cackle hilariously, where hit men take the bus home from shootouts and run into
old high school acquaintances. Yet despite their maker's hipster image, the
films are laced with the melancholy of displaced people and missed
''I think it's because of my background,'' Mr. Wong said in an interview in
New York last fall, when ''In the Mood for Love'' was shown at the New York Film
Festival. He was born in Shanghai and moved with his parents to Hong Kong when
he was 5, joining a wave of immigrants fleeing Communist China. ''In 1997, just
before Hong Kong's hand over to China, we had to reregister our identity
cards,'' he added. ''And I realized that though I've been staying in Hong Kong
for 33 years, it still feels like a permanent vacation, a transition that lasts
forever. It's weird and fun. We were always prepared, as kids, that we would
move on, to somewhere else or back to Shanghai. There was no sense that you
belonged to this place or city.''
''In the Mood for Love,'' which opens on Friday, finds Mr. Wong in a more
contemplative mode, reaching back to childhood emotions and sensations to
recapture the grace and mystery of a world that's disappeared. As the film
opens, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who won best
actor last year at the Cannes International Film Festival for his performance)
rent rooms in adjacent apartments. Mrs. Chan works as a secretary in a shipping
office; Mr. Chow is a journalist. Their spouses (whom we never see) are
frequently absent; her husband travels regularly to Japan for business, and his
wife often works late as a hotel receptionist. In wordless refrains set to the
haunting strains of a waltz by the Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru, we
watch them joining their neighbors' mah-jongg parties, passing each other on the
stairs, descending to the local noodle stand for solitary meals or standing lost
''Compared to the local Cantonese population, these people from Shanghai are
very sophisticated and are considered very snobbish,'' Mr. Wong said. ''They
live in their own neighborhood, with their own language, music, food, magazines
and cinemas. They never treat Hong Kong as a hometown. They think they will go
back to Shanghai when things get better. At the same time, they recreate a small
Shanghai in Hong Kong. It's like building a dream there.''
One evening, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow meet for dinner at a restaurant. As Nat
King Cole croons a Latin love song on the soundtrack, they gradually admit the
truth that each has come to realize: their spouses are having an affair
together. The secret, once shared, unites them in a complex dance of seduction
and betrayal. Trying to understand and put themselves in the place of the
adulterers, they begin a new relation, layered with passion and regret for all
that has come before.
To help recreate the ambience of an era in which discretion vied with the
lack of privacy and mainland traditions kept company with the fragmenting forces
of modernity, Mr. Wong hired a chef to cook Shanghai dishes for the cast and
crew and engaged retired Hong Kong radio announcers, now in their 70's, to
record radio programs for the soundtrack featuring bits of Mandarin pop and
Chinese opera. He was also inspired by newspaper writers of the period whose
columns on subjects ranging from martial arts and food to news and pornography
were transformed into ''40-cent novels.'' Quotations from them frame the
The art director William Chang Suk-Ping designed the film's unique look,
using overlapping textures and luminous colors to create an intense
concentration of sensation and experience and controlling every visual detail,
from settings and props to costumes, hair and makeup. He was also the film's
editor. (For their work on the film, Mr. Chang and the cinematographers
Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin were awarded the Grand Prix de la
Technique, the technical grand prize, at Cannes.)
Transforming Ms. Cheung into the impeccably clad and coiffed Mrs. Chan
required more than four hours of daily preparation. In each scene she wears a
different cheongsam -- a form-fitting, classic Chinese dress -- cut from vibrant
floral or geometric fabrics (often imported from the West) that harmonize or
clash with the decor's wallpaper and curtains or echo the more subtle patterns
of rain on pavement. (Mr. Chang cites Jacques Demy's extravagantly colored 1964
musical ''The Umbrellas of Cherbourg'' as a stylistic influence.) The dresses
tell a story of Western influence and Eastern tradition, sensuality and reserve,
restraint and vibrant expression.
''The dress is very constraining, yet it's also very revealing,'' Mr. Chang
said by telephone from Hong Kong. ''The colors I am using are very vivid, to
contrast with the characters' restrained emotions. These contradictions are also
in the lines they speak. Everything that Maggie and Tony say to each other can
also mean its opposite. Are they rehearsing their love, or is it real? It's
With his choice of locations, all angles and corners, Mr. Chang wanted to
suggest the feeling of characters hemmed in and spied upon by ever-present
neighbors. ''We're always seeing them through doors, windows, or corridors,'' he
said. ''There's no direct contact with the characters. We're looking at things
from afar. It gives you space to think and feel rather than just identifying
with the actors.'' It also lends the whole film an aura of recollection.
''In the Mood for Love'' (the English title comes from the classic pop
standard ''I'm in the Mood for Love'') ends in 1966, when the increasing
repression of the Cultural Revolution in China and anticolonial riots against
the British in Hong Kong forced members of the Shanghai community to confront
their choices. ''The wealthy ones moved on to the United States or Europe,'' Mr.
Wong said. ''The ones who couldn't realized that their stay in Hong Kong was no
longer temporary.'' (The film handles these political details with a light
touch: a coda shot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in which images of that magnificent
ruin, to the sound of Michael Galasso's mournful score, suddenly expose the
characters full sense of loss.)
Mr. Wong's family was among those who remained behind. Trained as graphic
designer, he got his start as a television production assistant during the first
years of local broadcasting in the 1970's. Later, he spent a decade writing film
scripts before directing ''As Tears Go By,'' a wistful gangster movie in which
Ms. Cheung plays the young thug's love interest, a girl who lives far from the
city's mean streets on a remote vacation island.
''I sometimes treat space as a main character in my films,'' Mr. Wong said.
'' 'Chungking Express' is about a Hong Kong street corner. The same with 'In the
Mood for Love.' I had to know the apartments and the streets intimately. They
are the silent witness to the whole story.''
He works regularly with a small group of collaborators, including Mr. Chang,
Ms. Cheung, Mr. Leung and Mr. Doyle, whose long familiarity allows him the
freedom to think with his eye and ear. He never starts shooting with a finished
script; rather, as with ''In the Mood for Love,'' the characters, dialogue and
story evolve in response to actors and locations.
''At the beginning, we were given a four-page short story by a Japanese
writer from the 1960's, about an affair between two neighbors,'' Ms. Cheung
said. ''There was not a lot of detail. Then, during every hair and makeup
session, we would receive a still-warm fax with some lines of dialogue to be
shot later that day, and which Kar-wai had clearly written that morning.''
''Sometimes we would shoot the same scenes with the dialogues between myself
and Tony reversed,'' she said. ''Or we would film the same dialogues but on a
different set,'' as if Mr. Wong were trying out every possible variant of desire
and emotion. Illnesses, the Asian financial crisis and prior commitments
interrupted the filming, which dragged on for more than a year, testing
everyone's patience. Yet the result is Mr. Wong's most personal film, fusing
image and sound in a work of pure memory.
''Maybe that's why it took so long,'' Mr. Wong said. ''I didn't want to let
go of it.''
Mr. Wong's next film, ''2046,'' is set in the future. ''In 1997 the Chinese
government promised Hong Kong 50 years of an unchanging political and economic
system,'' he explained ''The number 2046 represents the last year of that
promise. We wanted to make a film about promises, and whether anything remains
unchanged for that long in life.''
''In the Mood for Love'' began with a waltz; ''Happy Together,'' his previous
film, was inspired by the tango; ''2046'' is based on opera, and will include
segments of ''Carmen,'' ''Madama Butterfly,'' ''Tannhauser.''
''Opera is about promises, betrayals and myths,'' Mr. Wong said. ''The form
has been here for hundreds of years -- much longer than 50. And these topics
Meanwhile, his hometown remains a city in perpetual motion.
''Every night on the local TV station, after 1 a.m. they show old Hong Kong
films until morning,'' Mr. Wong said. ''As a student, I always stayed up late to
watch them. So I always wanted to put some place in my films, a corridor, a
restaurant or a street, because I knew it would be gone soon. Things change so
fast here. Maybe somebody watching my films at 2 in the morning will see
something of what Hong Kong was like in the year 2000.'' Or in