Swept away – A new film classic
Movie review: “In the Mood for Love”
Published in: The Economist on Nov. 18, 2000
MEN and women alike go into a sort of swoon when talking about “In the Mood for Love”, the latest film from Wong Kar-Wai, a renowned Hong Kong director. It is possibly the most beautiful contemporary film on offer anywhere and certainly the most romantic one since “Brief Encounter” (1945) set post-war hearts fluttering.
Two couples move in to adjoining Hong Kong apartments on the same day sometime early in the 1960s. A series of coincidences persuades one of the husbands and one of the wives that their spouses, continually away on business trips, are having an affair. From this shared knowledge a parallel friendship develops. But they play by the prevailing rules. “We won’t be like them,” the betrayed wife says; and indeed they are not.
Despite evidence of a physical and emotional attraction-captured in the superb playing of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, in the glances they exchange and in the rapturous camerawork-this is a chaste relationship, setting it far and movingly apart from, say, “Random Hearts”, the Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas film with a superficially similar plot.
Mr Wong’s reputation was built on innovative pictures such as “Ashes of Time” and “Chungking Express” (both 1994), in which, with his regular cameraman Christopher Doyle, he pioneered a kaleidoscopic form of photography unique in contemporary cinema. Here he makes a U -turn and films as David Lean and George Stevens, two classical directors, did in their prime. This is Mr Doyle in a different register. Every shot is expressive and beautifully framed, every camera movement, fade-out and dissolve gauged for maximum impact.
The actors glide rather than walk into shot. Are they filmed in slow motion? Sometimes you can tell-when raindrops, for example, seem to pepper the ground. At other moments you cannot quite be sure, and the effect is to give the film a dream-like quality, reinforced by Michael Galasso’s throbbing score and the use of Nat King Cole numbers, sung unexpectedly in Spanish, instead of the over-familiar song the title seems to portend.
Shrewdly, Mr Wong never shows us the adulterous pair. We hear only the husband’s voice and half see the back of the wife’s head. It is as if they are irrelevant, and all that really matters is the main love story which their affair sets in train.
In this spellbinding film, even the clothes-Ms Cheung has a costume change in almost every scene-are nostalgic and hypnotic. At the end, the director pulls off a master stroke. The world moves on; everything we have been drawn into becomes part of the ashes of time. Or does it? A final scene, set in Angkor Wat as a kind of epilogue, suggests that love, even if never fully expressed, somehow lasts forever.