Wong Kar-wai's Beautiful, Sad Lament for Love Denied in HongKong
By Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/5.23.2000) --A movie suffused with a ravishing physical beauty and an infinite sadness, Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love" is a devastating piece of work. It marks a vital and necessary move away from the signature aesthetic that made his reputation, to extend his art in new and invigorating directions. This virtuoso moviemaker withholds the very impulses that have defined his movies -- their flamboyance, movement and intensity -- in favor of an emotionally acute examination of love, loss and regret. He reveals new dimensions, conceptually, emotionally, in a body of work that has made him one of the most exciting directors working anywhere.
In many respects this is Wong's most conservative, classically structured film. It is a restrained, interior work that functions in a wholly different way than his previous films. The film has a visual texture -- dark, velvety blacks, crystalline, piercing reds and diaphanous blues -- of haunting beauty that woven together create and sustain a musical, lyrical rhythm. The movie is bound to frustrate some people; there isn't a great deal of plot, and it is a movie more attuned to feeling, mood, and longing than the visceral, boldly expressive action of Wong's "Days of Being Wild," "Chungking Express" and "Happy Together." But it is a work of enormous cumulative power, in what it refuses to state explicitly but illustrate through its beautiful imagery and the expressive, almost painstaking attention to the actions, inflections and movements of the two protagonists.
The film is a stylistic departure but its emotional content is clearly aligned with the director's other works. Wong has long been fascinated by and drawn to characters defined by solitude and social estrangement, people whose solipsism and extreme individuality push them to the margins of society. The emotional register here is part of that continuum, particularly "Chungking Express" and "Happy Together," the elliptical, lost opportunities of emotional and physical engagement. Opening in Hong Kong, 1962, "In the Mood for Love" details the friendship, emotional complications and social restrictions of an unconventional couple, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), who first meet when they both vie for the same apartment.
Thwarted desire or love that cannot be consummated is the critical theme of Wong's work. Here it takes on an intoxicating, poetic poignancy. Su and her husband, who works for a Japanese company, and Chow and his wife, move into their new apartments, on the same floor, the same day. Though she works at an export company, Su is deeply unhappy and desperately lonely because of her husband's prolonged absences. Chow is the prominent editor of a local daily, whose wife is also largely absent given the demands of her profession, working at a hotel. Su's sanctuary from her grief and escalating loneliness is the cinema. The two strangers establish a wary, tentative friendship, complicated by her fear at what might result if their respective landlords discover the two are spending so much time together.
Wong details this through precise physical movements, his camera isolating their bodies, hand gestures, the curls of smoke that wrap around them. In these scenes, the camera movement is restricted, concentrated on the succession of small, precise images. Physically, Wong repeatedly narrows and restricts space, the perfect physical representation on their unusual friendship. The way Wong photographs them at work, in medium and long shot, suggests confinement and enclosure. Additionally, "In the Mood for Love" unfolds almost exclusively at night, in the shadowy, brooding spaces of rain covered streets, the darkened interiors of cabs, and the small, tight spaces of their apartments. This only further heightens their longing for love and makes palpable the absence and incompleteness of their lives.
In the movie's key scene, set in a restaurant, the elliptical script suddenly makes explicit what Wong has only previously hinted at. Su and Chow realize that their partners are engaged in an affair. Wong's continuous underplaying of these scenes heightens the feeling of hopelessness and pain.
The camera work, by the master Christopher Doyle and Mark Lin Bing Ping, develops a dance, a reverie, in the physical contrasts of their bodies, a meditation on desire and attraction. Cheung is sinewy and angular, projecting a feral intensity; the shots of her restricted in the dress of 60's middle-class Hong Kong housewives is acutely revealing. The immaculately handsome Leung, who was named the best actor at Cannes, is possessed with a liquid sensuality that perfectly serves the quietly sad, introverted Chow.
A significant number of films from Hong Kong and Taiwan all return to a profound subject, the severe social and personal dislocation wrought by political, cultural and historic change. These allegories of missed opportunities, unrealized chances, that imbue works such as "In the Mood for Love" with a romantic fatalism. The movie ends with an enigmatic coda. In the past Wong Kar-wai created movies so stylized and abstract they formed his own particular reality, a dreamscape that flowed with possibility. With "In the Mood for Love," Wong breaks our hearts with images, songs and Maggie Cheung's face.