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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love'

Every now and the on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“In the Mood for Love”
Dir: Wong Kar-Wai
Criticwire Average: A

Sensual and devastating in equal measure, Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” captures the loneliness of unfulfilled desire better than almost any other film of the 2000s. Wong uses lush visuals, precise framing, and evocative slow-motion to illustrate both the beauty of unexpectedly falling in love and the fractured feeling of knowing it can never be consummated. Its quiet, subtle tone masks a deep well of love and pain that only occasionally shows its face amidst the many visual repetitions, riffing on ideas of adultery, heartbreak, and infatuation without a clear schema. “In the Mood for Love” operates on instinct and intuition, engendering a tender sensation that is ultimately transient but creates the illusion of permanency. It’s a love story about love itself and how it lingers in the minds of its subjects far longer than any one relationship ever can.

Set in 1962 Hong Kong, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into the same apartment building on the same day and become next door neighbors. Both have spouses who work late and leave them alone for long periods of time. Since the two are often alone, Chow and Su see quite a bit of each other in the halls and on the streets, with plenty of chance encounters on their way to the street noodle cart. The two independently believe their respective spouse is having an affair, but after a telling dinner conversation, both realize their spouses are having an affair with each other. In response, Chow and Su strike up a platonic relationship, playacting how their spouses met and got together, and rehearsing how they’ll confront them about their infidelity. Along the way, the two eventually develop feelings for each other and fall in love, but their respective principles and societal norms ultimately keep them apart, leaving them to pass each other by over many years.

The first thing you notice about “In the Mood for Love” is its pacing, and how its both patient but ruptured. Wong employs a snapshot structure to Chow and Su’s relationship, luxuriating in small moments of connection before jumping forward in time to another moment all together. It’s the collection of these moments coupled with Chow and Su’s slow realization of their spouse’s deception that allows their relationship to at first pivot on revenge but then later become something deeper and tangible. Wong edits the moments when they’re playacting their spouse’s affair as if they’re twistingly real before dropping a hint that it’s all been pretend, creating a sense of intimacy that keeps being deferred by their own separate realities. There are a handful of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments that hint at when these two actually fall for each other (one that jumps to mind is the sequence when Su travels to Chow’s rented apartment to help him write that’s punctuated by whirlwind jump cuts), it’s mostly kept to suggestion, as if we know it’s inevitable far before they do.

Wong gracefully employs certain techniques in the film that somehow produce both overwhelming beauty and unbearable dread. The leitmotif of “Yumeji’s Theme” (originally composed for Seijun Suzuki’s 1991 film “Yumeji”) expresses their own loneliness and their respective desire, rendering simple shots of Chow or Su eating alone some of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire film. Wong’s use of slow-motion simultaneously basks in the gorgeous splendor that is Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and ensnares them in prisons of their own love. But it’s Wong’s use of color that stays with you longer than any one sequence ever can. The film’s breathtaking use of reds and blacks captures the suppressed intensity of their love as well as the shadows where it must stay. His cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin create a colorful world of dark secrets, with bursts of flame threatening to pop out from the darkness only to eventually stay there untapped.

But more than any one moment or technique, it’s the last act of “In the Mood for Love” that seals its power because it refuses any neatness, preferring its catharsis to come from separation rather than coupling. After Chow moves to Singapore after realizing that he and Su can never be together, the two pass each other by over a period of years. Su travels to Singapore to see Chow, going so far as to wait in his apartment, but eventually departs before seeing him, leaving behind only a lipstick-stained cigarette as a memento of her presence. Chow goes back to their apartment complex to visit his landlords only to learn that they have left and a “young woman and son” have moved in next door, but Chow leaves before learning that it’s actually Su and her son. Wong insists on keeping their love a thwarted, impermanent event in a larger story we don’t have access to; he creates the sense that there’s a bigger picture behind every single shot in the film, but pushes those hints to the margins and maintains the focus exclusively on the small moments of their relationship. Chow’s only satisfaction is to whisper his emotions into a hollow of a ruined wall in Angkor Wat, knowing it will never see the light of day. We’re left on that moment: A mud-covered hollow containing an enduring love that will never be realized but can never be forgotten.

More thoughts from the web:

Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

“In the Mood for Love” is probably the most breathtakingly gorgeous film of the year, dizzy with a nose-against-the-glass romantic spirit that has been missing from the cinema forever, a spirit found in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the best Roxy Music and minor-key romantic movies like the forgettable 1956 “Miracle in the Rain,” where the lovers’ suffering is sealed because of the chasteness of the era. Sex scenes couldn’t be spelled out, and as in Mr. Wong’s film, yearning becomes the epoxy that holds the material together. The pining here is so graceful that you may be transfixed by it. Instead of explicit physical tangles Mr. Wong eroticizes each movement of his camera, something not many others could do because no one can cut within a camera move the way he does. “Mood” fits the tradition of audacity at the New York Film Festival, where “Last Tango in Paris” once changed movies forever. This film goes so far in the other direction that there’s a fetishistic fixation on clothes; the beautiful floral-patterned silk dresses worn by Ms. Cheung have a sexual charge. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Wong Kar-wai leaves the cheating couple offscreen. Movies about adultery are almost always about the adulterers, but the critic Elvis Mitchell observes that the heroes here are “the characters who are usually the victims in a James M. Cain story.” Their spouses may sin in Singapore, Tokyo or a downtown love hotel, but they will never sin on the screen of this movie, because their adultery is boring and commonplace, while the reticence of Chow and Su elevates their love to a kind of noble perfection. Their lives are as walled in as their cramped living quarters. They have more money than places to spend it. Still dressed for the office, she dashes out to a crowded alley to buy noodles. Sometimes they meet on the grotty staircase. Often it is raining. Sometimes they simply talk on the sidewalk. Lovers do not notice where they are, do not notice that they repeat themselves. It isn’t repetition, anyway — it’s reassurance. And when you’re holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires. Read more.

Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club

With seductive pop love stories like “Chungking Express” and “Happy Together,” Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has developed an intoxicating style that reaches beyond the shopworn conventions of traditional storytelling and into a more abstract realm of human emotion. His unique virtuosity has often been compared to the improvisational riffs of a jazz artist, with straight scenes dropped in favor of rhymes, repetition, and dizzying impressions. Set in the sad yet deeply romanticized world of Hong Kong in the early to mid-’60s, Wong’s ravishingly beautiful “In the Mood for Love” may be classified as a period piece, but only in the technical sense. In detailing the intimate friendship and love between two unhappily married lonelyhearts, Wong collects vivid moments out of time as they might play out in a person’s memory many years later. Shots of the couple first brushing shoulders on a flight of stairs or sharing an umbrella in a heavy downpour are slowed down to poignant effect, as if they wished these fleeting instants would last an eternity. Read more.

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

Studied as it is, “In the Mood for Love” might have felt airless or static were it not for the oblique editing. Every artful contrivance is fuel for the fire, ashes of time scattered on the wind. “That era has passed” is the closing sentiment. “Nothing that belongs to it exists any more.” Is “In the Mood for Love” Sirkian? Proustian? Can we speak of the Wongian? This 43-year-old writer-director is the most avant-garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa). Poised between approach and avoidance, presence and absence, “In the Mood for Love” is both giving and withholding. Governed by laws as strict as the old Hollywood production code, it’s rhapsodically sublimated and ultimately sublime. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

A brooding chamber piece about a love affair that never quite happens. Director Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most romantic filmmaker, is known for his excesses, and in that sense the film’s spareness represents a bold departure. Claustrophobically set in adjacent flats in 1962 Hong Kong, where two young couples find themselves sharing space with other people, it focuses on a newspaper editor and a secretary at an export firm (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the sexiest duo in Hong Kong cinema) who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair on the road. Wong, who improvises his films with the actors, endlessly repeats his musical motifs and variations on a handful of images, rituals, and short scenes (rainstorms, cab rides, stairways, tender and tentative hand gestures), while dressing Cheung in some of the most confining (though lovely) dresses imaginable, whose mandarin collars suggest neck braces. Read more.

Nathan Rabin, The Dissolve

“In the Mood for Love” does for slow-motion sensuality what John Woo did for slow-motion violence. Cheung doesn’t walk so much as glide, as if driven by some divine internal motor. The way Cheung’s hips sway ever so gently in her tight-fitting dresses as she saunters down a hallway is hypnotic in its blistering yet restrained eroticism. But it isn’t just the impossible beauty of the leads that makes “In the Mood for Love” such an immersive sensual experience. Wong’s film benefits from a rare alchemy of sight and sound. Those exquisite textures come as much from Michael Galasso’s score and a brilliant selection of songs sung by Cole as it does Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography. Read more.

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