"In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa)" is the long-awaited new film from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai, bringing his conspicuous three-year absence from the world stage to an end. Renowned for his artfully directed and intoxicatingly esoteric films, Wong revisits familiar territory with this latest film, a romance set in 1960s Hong Kong that drips with heartache and longing. Though "In the Mood for Love" is certainly not Wong's best work (that title would be reserved for "Ashes of Time" and "Chungking Express"), this leisurely-paced character study has a rapturous quality to it, a combination of the director's distinct 'introspective' visual style and the nuanced performances he distills from his talented lead actors, Tony Leung ("Happy Together") and Maggie Cheung ("The Heroic Trio").
The setting is Hong Kong in 1962, and the 'action' takes place in a claustrophobic apartment complex where two couples have moved into adjacent units on the same day. Chan Li-zhen (Cheung) and her always-on-the-road husband sublet a room from the chatty Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan of Wong's "Days of Being Wild"), while newspaper editor Chow Mo-wan (Leung) moves in with his beautiful wife next door.
At first, the relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan is strictly neighborly, with trifle pleasantries being exchanged as they meet each other in the hallways and stairwells of their building. However, as time passes (which it does relentlessly in Wong's films, highlighted by the numerous Godard-ian shots of clocks), they cultivate a deeper bond when they both suspect that their spouses are having an affair with each other.
Together, they piece the subtle clues left behind by their wayward spouses, and even conduct some 'role-play' to rehearse how they plan to ultimately confront them. Though they find comfort in each other's company as they come to grips with the conflicting emotions seething within, the smoldering passion that develops between them never comes to fruition. Instead, their actions end up being governed by their heads, not their hearts. They each still have a deep-seated loyalty to their marriage vows, and cling to the faint hope that things can somehow return to the way they were.
At first blush, "In the Mood for Love" shares a number of similarities to Wong's sophomore effort "Days of Being Wild". In addition to being drenched in the ambience of Sixties Hong Kong (including the judicious use of period pop songs), this latest film shares the relaxed pacing and lingering camerawork that was a hallmark of his 1991 film. This is in sharp contrast to the intense and urgently executed atmosphere of his more recent work, such as the neon-drenched "Fallen Angels". In addition, the maiden name of Cheung's character, Su Li-zhen, is the same as that of the character she played in "Days of Being Wild", the counter girl who spends the entire film pining for playboy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung of "Happy Together") in 1960. Perhaps the Li-zhen of this latest film is the more mature incarnation of that counter girl, who still has the same emotional vulnerabilities that she did two years ago.
The thematic territory traversed in "In the Mood for Love" should also be very familiar to those who have followed Wong's career. Like Wong himself, the characters that inhabit his films are creatures of nostalgia, victims of loss doomed to remain fixated on the failed relationships in the past. Those readers familiar with my essay "Meditations on Loss: A Framework for the Films of Wong Kar-wai" will recognize Mo-wan and Li-zhen as the Wong archetypes called 'blind mourners'. They are both in a state of emotional paralysis, arising from the transgressions of their spouses, and in their blind desire to maintain the status quo, they miss out on the key opportunity of the present-- their growing feelings for each other.
As the story unfolds, the emerging relationship between the cuckolded spouses is divided into a series of 'movements' in which the motivations and the emotional bond between Mo-wan and Li-zhen evolve. Each one of these movements is marked by an interlude featuring sumptuously-shot slow-motion set to Shigeru Umebayashi's evocative "Yumeji's Theme"-- a seductive and soulful waltz that romanticizes the tentative and emotionally-charged state these two characters find themselves in, as they slowly circle one another. In addition, the camera work (split between Wong's long-time cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee) undergoes a similar metamorphosis between each of movements, with static one-shots in the early scenes gradually giving way to two-shots as the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen intensifies.
Like all of Wong's films, there is much 'substance' that can be discerned from the 'style', as the milieu that he creates is often rife with metaphor. For example, style of dress of the characters is quite consistent with the nature of their personalities. Mo-wan is consistently seen in a pressed suit with tie, with his hair cleanly slicked black, while Li-zhen always wears elegant chong-sams, all with distinctively high collars, even for mundane tasks such as going to a curbside noodle stall. Li-zhen is so uptight about maintaining appearances that she would rather continue wearing a pair of uncomfortable shoes, and only remove them when she is in the privacy of her own apartment. Like the conservative attire that they bind themselves in, these two characters allow their lives to be constrained by rigid codes of behavior ingrained into their personal history, thereby denying themselves the opportunity for true happiness.
Another interesting point of style is how Wong never shows the audience the faces of Mo-wan or Li-zhen's adulterous counterparts, as they are always off-screen or shot from behind. Of course, the purpose of such a move is three-fold. First, to illustrate the strained marital ties and isolated existences that Mo-wan and Li-zhen find themselves in. Second, to emphasize that these past relationships are inconsequential in moving forward. Finally, to highlight the slow flirtation between Mo-wan and Li-zhen, which is the only meaningful relationship in the entire film.
Noticeably absent from "In the Mood for Love" is the director's penchant for using eloquently-verbose voice-overs, as Wong opts to tell his story in a more straightforward manner. Without the benefit of the 'internal narrator' that was afforded by the voice-overs of the past, Wong must rely exclusively on the ability of his actors to convey the thematic and emotional foundations of the story. Thankfully, Wong could not have found a better pair of actors to pull it off. Tony Leung received a well-deserved Best Actor Award at the Cannes 2000 Film Festival, as he adeptly handles the subtle transformation of Mo-wan who is reduced from being a self-assured husband to a lonely man haunted by regret over a love that slipped through his fingers. Maggie Cheung, who has become one of the finest actresses to emerge from Hong Kong in the past decade, is also worthy of praise with a remarkably expressive performance that exudes her character's suppressed emotions in every facial expression, movement, and gesture.
Unfortunately, "In the Mood for Love" also has an incomplete feel to it, as though it were a rushed effort. This is most evident in some unpolished edits that are made throughout the film, mostly in scenes shared by Leung and Cheung (particularly their first meeting in a restaurant). Apparently, Wong was still editing the film in the final hours before its premiere at Cannes 2000, which may account for these small lapses in an otherwise polished effort.
However, what many viewers have faulted to the last-minute editing job are the film's three epilogues that trace the lives of its two protagonists from 1963 to 1966, which seem abrupt and arbitrary upon initial viewing. On closer examination, the epilogues are in fact a very deliberate resolution of the story, detailing how the incessant march of time quickly erases the traces of what might have been, leaving only memories tinged with the pain of regret. This is powerfully portrayed by the film's final scene where Mo-wan divulges his long-undeclared love for Li-zhen in the 'long-lost' ruins of Angkor Wat, as composer Michael Galasso's poignant orchestration laments in the background.
Though "In the Mood for Love" is not scheduled for its limited North American theatrical release until February 2001, Wong Kar-wai fans can get their fix from the imported DVD and VCD that have been available in Chinese music and bookstores since last month. In the final analysis, "In the Mood for Love" probably will not change the mind of those moviegoers who consider Wong's films confusing and esoteric exercises, as it is yet another one of his trademark 'meditations on loss'. On the other hand, those who religiously follow the director's work will find a lot to like in this somewhat more sedate offering (perhaps an indication of the director's maturity), a haunting and exquisitely-shot study of how an unspoken intimacy can be just as emotionally-intense and consuming.