In anticipation of the Aug. 23 opening of the martial-arts epic The Grandmaster — a title Country Life believes could be applied to its director, Wong Kar-Wai — The Belcourt is screening a different Wong film every Wednesday. Subsequent "Wong Kar-Wednesdays" will feature 1995's Fallen Angels (Aug. 14) and the "Redux" version of 1994's Ashes of Time (Aug. 21). But the series starts 7:20 tonight with one of Wong's most gorgeous films, 2000's In the Mood for Love. This review originally appeared in the April 5, 2001 Scene.
The signature shot of Wong Kar-Wai’s recent movies is a person sitting in isolation as the rest of the world rushes by. In Chungking Express, the 1994 movie that served as the Hong Kong director’s introduction to American audiences, a lovelorn cop gazes out the window of a diner. As passersby whirl past in accelerated motion, like electrons that register only as indistinct blurs, he alone remains at rest. From the outside perspective — ours — time whizzes by on triple fast-forward. From his standpoint — that of someone stuck in romantic misery — every moment is endless. Has there ever been a better depiction of how it feels to be sick in love and hopelessly bummed-out?
If there is, it’s in Wong’s new movie, a romantic reverie called, with perfect summation of content, In the Mood for Love. But let’s go back for a second to Wong’s previous movies. Visually, his last few films — Chungking Express, its 1995 follow-up Fallen Angels, and 1997’s Happy Together — are some of the most kinetic movies of recent years. When the world isn’t a smudge of sped-up motion, the camera dashes headlong down sidewalks, or careens through restaurant corridors, or hustles the characters along by the collar. But the dizzying speed doesn’t create momentum. Instead, it slows his movies to a crawl — as if time zooms by so quickly that it leaves us reeling, as dazed watchers of our own lives. Those blurs out the window — they’re the connections we’ll never make, the people we’ll never meet, the love flashed before us like a vanishing veil.
Those strobe-lit moments appear as languid slow-motion in Wong’s new film, a mesmerizing, mood-altering meditation on attraction and desire set in 1962 Hong Kong. The movie could be enjoyed as nothing more (or, I’d argue, nothing less) than an hour-and-a-half of ravishingly gorgeous images with two glamorous actors at the center—something The Mexican couldn’t even deliver with its Hoover Dam of starpower. But if Wong’s previous movies captured the warp speed of alienation, the pretty pictures in his new film are indelibly frozen moments. They’re glimpses of a time in the characters’ lives that’s more vivid, more present, than anything that came before or after. The intensity of those glimpses makes for an overwhelming moviegoing experience.
The protagonists of In the Mood for Love couldn’t miss each other if they tried: They’re hemmed into adjacent rooms in an overcrowded Hong Kong apartment building. In one room, newspaper editor Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) waits most nights for his wife to come home from working late. Down the hall, his neighbor Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), a secretary, eats alone while her husband travels frequently outside the country. The reason for their absences gradually dawns on their partners: They’re having an affair together.
Confused and hurt, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan begin to meet in secret, tentatively tracing the steps that might have led to the betrayal. Ironically, while their spouses carry out a fling in distant privacy, the wounded parties are the ones who must worry about the prying eyes of coworkers and landlords: They meet in restaurants, where dining — usually a private act — affords some measure of public cover. Soon they have reason to hide. After acting out scenarios of how two married people might have fallen in love, Mr. Chow confesses to Mrs. Chan, “Now I know.”
Their reticence makes this PG-rated film beyond question the sexiest movie around. In the Mood for Love takes its visual rhythms from the slow-motion sway of Maggie Cheung’s hips, set to the teasing pulse of Nat King Cole’s Spanish-language sambas. Cheung, the stunning star of Actress and The Heroic Trio, has been outfitted in a spectacular array of form-fitting dresses whose tight, high collars reach for the jaw line: If the dresses always remind us of her body, they also represent constant repression — the pressure to conceal. The erotic tension is a haze. The cinematographers, Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express) and Mark Li Ping-bin (Flowers of Shanghai), emphasize the nearness of the could-be lovers, who pass each other in narrow hallways in a succession of exquisite near-misses. We ache for the moment when their lips will touch, when they’ll become the rare people in Wong Kar-Wai’s world to connect.
But do they? The question hangs, like the wisps of slo-mo smoke from Mr. Chow’s cigarettes. It’s even there in the refrain murmured by Nat King Cole, “Quizás, quizás, quizás” — perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The movie’s scenes are strung with ellipses. Sometimes, as critic Kent Jones notes, Cheung’s change of dresses is the only sign that time has passed. The period the movie covers is an intense blur — weeks morphed by memory into ebbs and flows of desire and regret.
If the movie’s unanswered questions are somewhat exasperating, they only reinforce the poignant transience of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s bond. In old days, Mr. Chow remarks at one point, lovers would whisper a secret into a hole in a wall and seal it away forever. In a haunting coda, the camera wends its way through walls containing centuries of those concealed whispers. The loves that sparked them were long since wiped away by time, the relentless force that surges through all Wong Kar-Wai’s movies. In this beautiful, tantalizing, and perhaps unknowable film, only the secrets remain.