Hong Kong writer/director Wong Kar-wai finally ditches the constraints of lousy Hong Kong filmstock and his film has never looked, or sounded, better. With his latest movie, “In the Mood for Love”, Wong has completely shed any semblance of “fake action” that existed in the two previous films of his that I have seen, “Ashes of Time” and “Chungking Express”. With a string of critical successes around the world, Wong seems free to make the kind of movie he was destined to make: heartfelt drama devoid of the usual Hong Kong “action.”
“In the Mood for Love” is a simple story that follows neighbors Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, respectively), who moves into the same apartment building in 1962 Hong Kong at about the same time. Months later, the neighbors discover that their spouses are having an affair with the other’s spouse. Whereas Chow seems ready to accept the affair and move on with his life, Chan seems paralyzed with indecision by the betrayal. As the two becomes more and more drawn to each other, can Chan accept her husband’s infidelity and finally move on with her life and into Chow’s arms?
In a simply aesthetic sense, the movie is gorgeous to look at. Cameras invade the cramp corridors of 1962 Hong Kong apartments and spies on the various players in dark alleyways and claustrophobic staircases, and they’re all rendered in beautiful light or darkness by long-time Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle (with the assistance of co-cinematographer Pin Bing Lee).
As he did with “Chungking Express”, Wong Kar-wai has returned to the domain of voyeurism, as the camera seems to be constantly in hiding as it captures intimate moments between Chan and Chow as well as their unfaithful spouses. Wong has decided not to show the cheating spouses in full frame, and instead we only see glimpses of them from behind, or certain body parts, and hear their voices as they conspire behind closed doors. In a similar fashion, once Chan and Chow begin to move toward something approaching a relationship, the camera begins to see less and less of them, mirroring Chan and Chow’s actions with those of their cheating spouses.
The acting is superb, especially by the two leads. Maggie Cheung gives a soulful performance as the suffering wife. Cheung’s Mrs. Chan knows her husband is cheating on her, but knowing and accepting are two different animals, and she is greatly struggling with the latter. She realizes her own weakness in her inability to accept the infidelity and start over with Chow, and that is perhaps the most painful of all. She knows she’s weak, even as she continues to meet with Chow in secret and at the same time attempt to carry on with life at home as if everything was fine.
Tony Leung’s character, on the other hand, seems to have accepted the situation, and is determined to move on. His Chow wants Chan to come along, he wants to be a part of her new life — their new life — and it’s heartbreaking to see how much Cheung’s Chan resists him at every turn, despite the fact that she is becoming more and more drawn to him. The movie’s best scenes involve Chan and Chow as they act out each other’s spouses in order to understand the why’s of the infidelity. The scenes are so perfectly filmed and acted that you can’t help but feel for both of them as they try to soldier on, using this role-playing as an excuse to mask their internal devastation and broken hearts.
And yet, despite the terrific acting and Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful visuals, the movie is a little disappointing. Once the two neighbors unearth the infidelity and become friends, we are treated to over an hour’s worth of “will they or won’t they” scenes. After a while, even Maggie Cheung’s Mrs. Chan started to get on my nerves. The woman is so utterly condemned to indecision that she is unable to see the forest from the trees (as the saying goes) and it gets quite irritating after a while. It wasn’t long before I started to find her character’s actions (or in this case, inaction) to be insufferable, since she seems to lose (if she ever possessed it in the first place) all sense of good judgment or even the ability to make judgments at all.
Of course I realize this is Wong’s intention all along, and that it wasn’t some lacking thespian ability on Maggie Cheung’s part. This is the Mrs. Chan character: a rigid woman, held steadfast by tradition and weaknesses, and is incapable of making the simplest choices for fear of the unknown. Not only is her husband cheating on her at home, but she’s an accomplice to her boss’s infidelity at work. Maggie Cheung pulls the role off perfectly, but I wish Wong had written a stronger character, since I am not the kind of person who suffers weaklings easily.
“In the Mood for Love” has very good visuals and amazing performances by all involved, but its resolution left me not only unsatisfied, but a little irritated. I was hoping for something more and didn’t get it. Then again, isn’t that the whole point of the movie?
Kar-wai Wong (director) / Kar-wai Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Leung Chiu Wai …. Chow Mo-wan
Maggie Cheung …. Su Li-zhen
Ping Lam Siu …. Ah Ping