A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai has been called "the world's most romantic filmmaker." This is hardly an inaccurate description, but it may prove a bit of a head-scratcher to those who are encountering Wong's films for the first time, and who may be expecting something closer to the traditional romantic storylines of Hollywood cinema. Eschewing the expected outcomes of most films about romantic love (i.e. characters who end up together, and consummation in one form or another), Wong often focuses instead on the melancholy aspects of human attraction, such as unfulfilled longing, and unrequited or lost love. This is certainly true of his lush and moody masterpiece In the Mood for Love, and yet it is undoubtedly one of the most romantic films ever made, a film in which even a single shared moment between the film's two main characters carries more emotional weight than most films contain in their entirety.
The film is set in Hong Kong in 1962. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist who moves into a new residential building with his wife. On the same day, secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) moves into the same building with her executive husband, Mr. Chan. Both Chow and Su find themselves frequently alone as their spouses work long hours or travel out of town (in fact, we never see the faces of their spouses, a subtle touch which serves to enhance the two lead characters' respective isolation), and their paths cross repeatedly in the busy hallways of their building and on their way to and from the nearby noodle shop. One day, they realize that their spouses are having an affair with one another, and their discussion of the affair leads them to imagine the details of the infidelity, details which they re-enact as a sort of game between themselves. It becomes clear to both Chow and Su that there is a strong romantic attraction between them, but they remain determined not to degrade themselves the way their spouses have, and their relationship remains platonic. Knowing of Su's interest in martial arts stories, Chow invites her to help him write a martial arts serial for the newspaper. To avoid attracting the attention of their neighbors, Chow rents a hotel room where they can work on the serial, and their feelings for one another grow as they spend more and more time there, working on the story and rehearsing their spouses' infidelity. Finally, Chow asks Su to leave with him to Singapore when he takes a new job there, but she fails to arrive at their hotel room in time, the first of several missed connections and lost opportunities that keep them apart.
This may not sound like the stuff of great romance, but this film is proof that a story about repressed desires can be far more sensual and affecting than a story in which desires are fulfilled. Much of this can be attributed to Wong Kar-wai's distinctive emphasis on mood and style, rather than plotting. A frequent criticism of Wong's work is that he favors style over story, but this narrow view misses the point of his work, which is to evoke particular moods and emotions. There are numerous scenes in In the Mood for Love in which the camera lingers on fleeting moments and small details, like Su's slow-motion walk to the noodle shop, or Chow smoking a cigarette.
A great deal of credit for the film's incredibly evocative visual style should be given to the film's cinematographers, Lee Ping-bin and frequent Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle. In the Mood for Love is, quite simply, one of the most gorgeous color films ever made. Doyle and Lee lend the film a ravishing beauty, both in the film's interiors and its street scenes, and their work does much to highlight the beautiful period costume work, in particular Su's many floral-printed, high-collar dresses. The film's luxuriant mood can also be attributed in part to the film's superb soundtrack and original score, which feature both traditional Chinese music and popular music from the fifties and sixties, as well as the lush, recurring theme composed by Shigeru Umebayashi.
Wong Kar-wai has long been a critical darling and favorite among his fellow filmmakers, and In the Mood for Love is one of the most acclaimed films of the past thirty years. In the 2012 critics poll by the illustrious cinema magazine Sight & Sound, it was one of only two films from the 2000s to be listed in the top 50 films of all time. This makes it easy to dismiss Wong Kar-wai as a filmmaker who would only appeal to viewers with an arthouse sensibility. However, In the Mood for Love is such an evocative and intoxicating film, it should appeal to any viewer who is in the mood for romance.
Note: Wong Kar-wai followed up this film with a sequel of sorts, 2046, which follows Chow as he holes up in his hotel room, writing science fiction stories and recovering from his heartbreak over Su. 2046 is also available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection, along with most of Wong's other films.