NEW YORK (AP) - Her hair tucked tightly into a perfect bun, her gracious body
constricted in a high-collared Mandarin dress, and her face made pale by layers
of makeup circa 1962, actress Maggie Cheung seemed ready for the camera.
But something was missing: the script. Her character, in fact, was little
more than a name.
That's how Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai makes his movies, including his
latest feature "In the Mood for Love."
"I hate writing," said Wong, who spent 10 years as a television and movie
scriptwriter before directing his first film, "As Tears Go By," in 1989.
"I've been working with writers for many years, and I know most of them have
a script and they don't change it. It can be pretty boring," he said in an
interview last fall while in New York for the movie's U.S. premiere at the New
York Film Festival.
"But the way we work is very organic."
Originally envisioned as a short film about food, "In the Mood for Love,"
which is opening in limited release around the country now, resulted from 18
months of experimentation, a process both lead actors, Cheung and Tony Leung,
described as exhausting and rewarding.
"Most days, you just go in front of the camera and improvise. Kar-wai would
watch and watch behind the camera while you do it over and over again," said
Leung, named best actor at last year's Cannes Film Festival for his role as a
conservative, introspective journalist. "Then comes the smile, and you know
you've got it right."
"In the Mood for Love" is set in Hong Kong in 1962, a turbulent era when
the pre-industrialized British colony was fretting in the shadow of impoverished
Communist China, which formally launched the Cultural Revolution four years
later and persecuted intellectuals and capitalists for the next decade.
Su Li-zhen (Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Leung) rent rooms in adjacent
apartments, but they mostly keep to themselves, rarely speaking to each other
and being oblivious to the host of nosy but good-natured neighbors.
They find out their spouses are having an affair with each other, and out of
curiosity and despair, Su and Chow begin spending more time together. They
explore their spouses' liaison, using each other as stand-ins for their partners
in mock interrogations. Later, they struggle with a fleeting romance of their
It's a relationship with little conversation, a romance with no kisses. They
convey their bond only through painful yet yearning glances, both long and
discreet, or subtle brushes as they squeeze past each other in stairwells and
hallways. The film explores the temptations they silently fight, the joy they
fear to show.
"It's a classic Wong Kar-wai film - it deals with the lost soul, the
loneliness, and the kind of detached relationship that is so common in today's
world," Cheung said.
"In the Mood for Love" is ravishingly rich yet so sparse it seems bleak.
Rich primary colors and ballads of Nat King Cole cloak the movie in a
sensual, dreamy mood. But like Wong's previous films, it's not an in-depth
character study. It's a showcase of impressionistic portraits of lonely beings,
staring at the face of missed opportunities.
"Cinema is a media that combines all these things: It's more than a story,
more than music, more than mood," Wong said.
Perhaps to accentuate the feeling of forbidden love, the camera is often
placed in voyeuristic positions, peering inside a room from the corridor or at a
distance from behind a bookshelf. The cheating spouses are never shown in full -
only their backs, and often obscured by other objects, are seen.
Though visually stunning, "In the Mood for Love" is more sedate that Wong's
In 1991's "Days of Being Wild," about the demise of a James Dean wannabe
bad boy, Wong let the camera languish idly on mundane action or objects - a
ticking clock, a cashier waiting for her next customer in an empty store, a
policeman walking his beat.
Such lengthy stationary sequences gave way to dizzying hand-held camera
action in 1994's "Chungking Express." The film's hip collage of eccentric but
ghostly characters include a gun-toting call girl in a blond wig, a fast-food
cashier who breaks into and cleans a customer's apartment every day, and a
depressed policeman who returns to the same store nightly to buy cans of
pineapples with the same sell-by date.
In 1997, Wong was named best director at Cannes for "Happy Together," about
two men who leave Hong Kong for Argentina to mend their broken relationship.
Wong compared "Chungking Express" to pop music, "Happy Together" to
tango, and "In the Mood for Love" to a piece of chamber music.
"Everything happens in a very small room with very little going on. It's not
a symphony from which you get a lot of plot," he said.
"Most of the events happened outside the frame. There're a lot of things you
know, but never actually happened. You don't actually know about the affair, you
don't even see a love scene. You have to observe the film to get something
At the Movies: 'In the Mood for
By CHRISTY LEMIRE, AP Entertainment Writer
Tuesday February 13 3:56 PM ET
"In the Mood for Love" is so vibrant, so sumptuous, it's as if you're
watching an Impressionist watercolor come to life.
The latest film from Hong Kong writer-director Wong Kar-wai looks like it was
made in 1962, the year in which it's set - and that's a compliment to the amount
of detail put into it.
The film is gorgeous, dripping with texture and sensuality and, well, mood.
Everything is perfect, from the floor tiles and the wallpaper to the lamps
and the purses and shoes. And oh, the colors - bleeding, rich shades of crimson
and emerald and midnight blue.
It's so visually seductive, you can ignore the fact that the main characters
aren't terribly well developed, and that there's minimal chemistry between them
because they're both so reserved by nature.
None of that matters, because Wong and cinematographers Christopher Doyle and
Mark Li Ping-bin make them and everything else look great.
Maggie Cheung is luminous as Su Li-zhen, a woman whose husband is constantly
away on business. She moves into a tiny apartment in the Shanghai community of
Hong Kong, next door to the refined Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), whose wife works
late nights at a hotel.
After several innocent brushes past one another in the hallway and cordial
conversations at the noodle shop, Chow and Su eventually realize they never see
their spouses because the spouses are having an affair with each other.
The shared discovery draws Chow and Su to each other - not for revenge, but
out of curiosity. How does an affair begin? they wonder over intimate dinners
At one point, Su asks Chow, "Do you really know your wife?" That's a good
question. Like Liv Ullmann's "Faithless," which also explores adultery, "In
the Mood for Love" forces us to ask whether it's possible to know anyone,
But unlike "Faithless," Wong's film isn't bleak. It's very much alive and
almost hopeful. Su and Chow are resilient; they're survivors. They're getting on
with their lives and seeking satisfaction now that they're free of the people
who betrayed them.
The original score by Michael Galasso, along with several Nat King Cole
ballads, contribute perfectly to the film's nostalgic quality.
Cheung is the real star, though, impossibly beautiful and impossible to stop
watching. Perfectly coifed at all times, she's almost like a doll in her
brightly-colored, form-fitting, high-necked gowns. No one else could wear them
with such elegance, and it's worth seeing the film simply to sit in awe of her
myriad costume changes.
After showing impeccable attention to detail, it's a shame Wong seems to have
slapped the ending together, with forced themes of political and social flux.
Wong has said he thought the film at first was a love story, "But in the end,
I thought, 'This film is about a certain period in Hong Kong which I know, but
which doesn't exist anymore.'"
No, Mr. Wong. It's a love story. Leave it at that.