With In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai solidifies his stature as the subtlest and most idiosyncratic of Hong Kong directors. In an industry best known for its accessible, crowd-pleasing comedies and action films, Wong has turned out a series of increasingly risky dramas that make little or no concession to the most obvious elements of popular taste. His last film, 1997's Happy Together, was quite daring on the face of it: It detailed the dynamics of an on-and-off relationship between two gay Hong Kong men (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) living in Argentina. At the time, homosexuality existed in Hong Kong cinema almost entirely as the punchline to a lot of crude -- generally dismissive -- jokes.
In the Mood for Love might seem like a safer project: This time around, Leung is paired off, far more conventionally, with Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. But it's hard to imagine Wong doing anything the easy way. And, in fact, his new film could easily prove more daunting to audiences than Happy Together, its central concern being a relationship that never quite happens.
Chow Mo-wan (Leung) briefly meets Mrs. Chan (Cheung) one day as they are both moving into new quarters in the same building. It is 1962, and the housing crunch in Hong Kong is so severe that even childless double-income families like the Chows and the Chans can only afford to rent single rooms within other people's apartments. The Chans move into the Suens' apartment, the Chows into the Koos' place across the hall. Neither Mr. Chow's wife nor Mrs. Chan's husband is around for the move, and for the rest of the film we never see either of them, even though they are the third and fourth most important characters in the story. They are never more than disembodied voices, just out of camera range.
For an indeterminate period of time, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan only occasionally run into each other -- in the hallway or going to and from a noodle restaurant nearby. Their meetings are often awkward, for reasons that we only gradually learn: Bound by a code of discretion and embarrassment, both are keeping up happy faces, despite the troubles in their marriages.
What we find out slightly before they do is that the timing of their marital troubles is not coincidental: Their spouses are having an affair with each other. One night when they are both alone -- their mates off together somewhere -- Chow asks Mrs. Chan to have dinner with him at a restaurant. During a slow and cautious exchange, they each gradually admit to knowing the score. Bound by their mutual betrayal, the two comfort each other and become close. Yet they are determined, as they put it, "not to be like them." Still, their friendship grows. They are both fans of martial-arts fiction; Chow, a journalist, decides to try his hand at writing a serial, and he enlists Mrs. Chan as his editor/critic/collaborator. Most of the rest of the movie is the story of the two of them not ever consummating their romance, despite every sign that they are in love and are meant to be together. As if this were not frustrating enough, the final 15 minutes is a coda in which their few attempts to get together years later continue to fail.
This all may sound dreary, but it's not. Wong has admitted in interviews that, despite his background as a commercial screenwriter in the Hong Kong industry, his stories are weak or nonexistent; his films are all about characters and mood. And these are the realms in which he is able to create effects unlike anyone else's. From the opening shots, he creates a milieu of claustrophobia. Not only is the picture cluttered, there are frequently objects in the foreground obscuring our view of the characters. Almost every conversation is framed by a window or a doorway; often the action will move out of frame without the camera following.
Fans of the great filmmaker Douglas Sirk -- who, during his stint at Universal during the '50s, directed many of the studio's biggest hits, including Imitation of Life (1959) and There's Always Tomorrow (1954) -- will recognize his influence here. (Indeed, when I recently asked Wong whether he was familiar with There's Always Tomorrow, he merely chuckled and said, "Well, you know, everyone has to learn somewhere.")
Although the framing and the subject matter invoke Sirk, very little else in Wong's treatment does. Sirk would often take a melodramatic plot and crank it up to the point of absurdity. But Wong is more interested in stripping the plot away, essentially desaturating the story, so that nothing is left but mood and the most delicate and subtle expressions of character.
Much of In the Mood for Love is made up of interludes between conversations: We get long scenes -- many using Wong's favorite trick, the jerky, slow-motion "step printing" process -- of the characters walking to the noodle joint; of rain hitting the cobbled streets; of cigarette smoke spiraling above the scene; of our protagonists posed in frozen, unreal moments, lit in swaths of gorgeous, unnatural colors. It is all accompanied by a repetitive string motif or Nat King Cole singing romantic ballads in Spanish. In the Mood for Love doesn't move like most films. It seems to drift; one could imagine shuffling certain scenes without distorting the progression of the narrative. One might say that it's moving without ever moving.
To some degree, this may be the result of Wong's working method: He shoots endlessly, often without a real script and without telling the actors how and where any given scene may fit into the whole. Essentially he feels his way along during the shoot and then figures out how to assemble the entire thing later. This method sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Wong has the chops to pull it off. Despite it -- or, perhaps, on account of it -- he manages once again to get performances from Leung and Cheung that are extraordinary, even by their own high standards.
At the same time, Wong's particular brand of cinema may not be for everyone. To an action-oriented sensibility, In the Mood for Love may not be engaging enough; it tries one's patience with its the pace and the ultimate aimlessness of the story. But on a second viewing, the movie's virtues hugely overwhelmed its vices. In fact, it revealed them not to be vices at all but, rather, the necessary elements from which Wong weaves a spell that no other director alive could create.