In the Mood for Love

    The work of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai is suffused with
themes that include the transitory nature of experience, the importance of
memory, and the sting of rejection. In his latest and arguably best feauture,
In the Mood for Love, he addresses each of those preoccupations in a
ravishingly beautiful tone poem that plays like a Chinese remake of
Brief Encounter. At once a film of recollection and regret,
In the Mood for Love is a chamber piece that ranks as one of the most
erotically charged and moving meditations about love and desire ever
committed to celluloid.

    The setting is Hong Kong in 1962 and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) are neighbors renting rooms in apartments
next door to one another. For much of the first third of the film, the director
follows them through their daily routines. He is a journalist with a wife who
suffers from wanderlust. Although she is employed at a hotel, Mrs. Chow is
prone to taking business trips or heading off to care for sick relatives. Mrs.
Chan is a secretary to a man who is conducting an illicit affair. Her husband,
too, travels often on business, but always returns bearing expensive or
utilitarian gifts. Each of them leads an almost solitary, parallel existence.
They move into their apartments on the same day and the movers mix things
up. They pass one another in the hallway or on the street. Eventually, they
begin to converse and the realization hits them that their respective
spouses (who are heard but never seen) are engaging in an illicit affair.

    Rather than confront their cheating partners, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan
begin a chaste and proper friendship, ostensibly to offer moral support.
Indeed, determined to assist one another through a difficult period, they
begin to "act out" the affair, having clandestine dinners and exchanging
hurried phone calls. But there is always an attempt to maintain propriety so
as to avoid gossip. Neither, however, is prepared for the wellspring of desire
that such performances unleash.

    By using the camera as an unseen narrator (shooting at odd angles and
around corners), Wong heightens the intensity of the emotional temperature
of the piece. "Mood" is indeed the operative word -- this is a film in which
very little plot exists. Nothing seems to be happening, yet beneath the placid
surface of propriety are roiling emotions. In adopting this restrained approach,
the writer-director has encouraged his leading players to mine the relationship
in a physical way -- their latent desires are expressed via stolen glances and
body language. (Although reportedly a scene in which they consummate their
own affair was filmed, Wong wisely opted not to include it in the final film.)
he almost chaste depiction of this love story heightens its power as well as
its ambiguity.

    In his two attractive leads, Wong has found the perfect complementary
pair. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung work beautifully together -- like precision
dancers, swirling about one another and project a palpable erotic heat. The
director reportedly shot a great deal of footage that went unused but those
missing scenes apparently allowed the actors to fully explore their characters
and what remains is richly detailed. Both performers have justly won acting
prizes for their performances (she a Golden Horse, the Taiwanese equivalent
of the Oscar, he the best actor trophy at Cannes). Of the two, Cheung has
the flashier role -- and she gets to wear a series of beautiful cheongsams --
and the actress invests her role with a delicate grace. Still, Leung proves
to be her equal.

    In addition to the stellar work of the actors,
In the Mood for Love owes
much of its success to the exquisite production and costume design by
William Chang Suk-ping (who also served triple duty as the film's editor) and
the lush, handsome photography of cinematographers Christopher Doyle and
Mark Li Ping-bin. Their joint efforts were recognized at the 2000 Cannes Film
Festival with the Grand Prix de la Technique.

Rating:                      A
MPAA Rating:             PG (thematic elements, brief language)
Running time:            97 mins.

               Viewed at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.