Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s new film In the Mood for Love paints a visually stunning, emotional portrait of two bruised lovers. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the film follows Chow (Tony Leung), a journalist who rents a room in a tiny apartment with his ever-absent wife. Across the hall lives Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and her husband, who, like Chow’s wife, is prone to long hours at the office and extended business trips.
The two become casual acquaintances and both attend dutifully to their professional lives, Chow at his paper and Li-zhen at her job as a secretary. Slowly, it becomes apparent to both characters that their respective spouses are having an affair – with each other. They seek comfort in one another and romantic chemistry ensues, along with the titillating promise of intimacy.
Cheung is striking in snug gowns and spike heels and Leung – all cigarettes and well-groomed style – glows with refined charm as these reserved characters cope with hurt and betrayal.
Kar-wai (As Tears Go By, Chungking Express) displays tremendous talent as he lets this slow-burning fire of a film smolder into a sumptuous work of art. The movie is filled with tender exchanges and clever dialogue for all the characters, but the silences also speak volumes.
The beauty of this film is in the great attention paid to detail. From the wispy plume of Chow’s cigarette smoke to the click of Li-zhen’s heels on pavement, every facet of this film is beautiful, artful and, well…sexy. As Li-zhen tells her boss, “You notice things if you pay attention,” her words become emblematic of the film’s precision.
Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-Bing deliver some of the best cinematography in recent memory. The cramped quarters of the crowded city isolate the characters in a way that almost always leaves someone obscured by walls or window frames. The result, far from frustrating and claustrophobic, is a carefully constructed world that evokes the repressed, trapped emotions of the characters. The story is as much in what is not shown as what is revealed. And that is part of this movie’s seductive charm.
Worthwhile as it is, In the Mood for Love has its flaws. The score, simple and engaging at first, becomes tiresome as it gets overused. The film’s play with space and time is disorienting even to a seasoned moviegoer. And the ending is guaranteed to produce a “what the hell?” reaction from anyone who preciously guards their eight bucks. On the other hand, this is a film so dripping with sensuality and life that it is destined to become a forgotten gem. Passed up for a best Foreign Language Film nomination in this year’s Oscar race, commercial success in the states seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, In the Mood for Love earns its place among a recent string of Asian films, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that are shaming mainstream Hollywood cinema with their outstanding artistry and craft.