In the Mood for Love
dir.: Wong Kar-wai
PG, 98 min.
Opening Friday at Green Hills Commons 16
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 perspectiveourstime whizzes by on triple fast-forward. From his standpointthat of someone stuck in romantic miseryevery 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 filmsChungking Express, its 1995 follow-up Fallen Angels, and 1997’s Happy Togetherare 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 crawlas if time zooms by so quickly that it leaves us reeling, as dazed watchers of our own lives. Those blurs out the windowthey’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 centersomething 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 diningusually a private actaffords 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 repressionthe 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 blurweeks 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.
Time and spass
While adapting J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash for the screen, David Cronenberg spoke of several meetings he’d taken with potential backers. Each wanted him initially to keep the main characters grounded in normality, making the path of the film easier for audiences to follow (a typical concern for investors pouring money into new films). The current system of studio-controlled test screening and mandatory re-editing according to the whims of focus groups means that films are geared to appeal to as many disparate potential viewers as possibleeven if it means dilution or an incongruous alteration to the plot. As a result, moviegoers typically get caught unaware when the cinematic envelope gets pushed.
So what happens when we experience a film that never lets us know where we are on the path? I choose the word experience for a specific reason: You cannot merely watch The Idiots; it is far too precise in its use of the viewer’s own sense of embarrassment simply to be viewed. And it is this queasy sense of nervousness and mortification that writer/director/provocateur/cocky bastard Lars von Trier uses to hook you. Or, as the derisive boos and walkouts that greeted the film at its 1998 Cannes debut demonstrated, it is this queasy sense of nervousness that will drive you away. That, and the hard-core sex.
Ostensibly the tale of a collective of individuals so contemptuous of bourgeois society that they must act mentally disabled in public (“spassing,” as they call it), The Idiots is a story about love and security, and how modern life, for most, is tragically devoid of either. This is the second film in von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy (fitting between 1996’s Breaking the Waves and 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). This endeavor’s heroine is a melancholy and just soul named Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), who becomes our audience surrogate. She is found in a restaurant by three of the collective and brought into the group as a result of her own kindness. Emotional need responds to emotional need, and she reaches out rather than withdrawing.
Karen makes friends with the members of the group: the gentle and good-hearted Susanne (Anne Louise Hassing), the meek Josephine (Louise Mieritz, whose work here is quietly devastating), the bourgeois Axel (Knud Romer Jørgensen), the uncertain Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a gifted actor with a remarkably expressive face), the complex and manipulative Katrine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis), as well as several others. We see these men and women of the group primarily in the “now” of their time in the collective, yet we are also allowed to experience their later recollections of that period. The film fragments time and space, as an unseen interviewer asks the members about their time as idiots and about their specific memories. There is one common thread to each of their stories: Karen.
As Karen becomes an accepted member, taking in the group’s various public spassings, she experiences the group’s tactics, sometimes as silent observer, other times as minder. “You poke fun,” she tells the group’s argumentative leader, Stoffer (Jens Albinus). The group may spass all they want in public, but then they return to their headquarters and evaluate each other’s performance with clinical proficiency. What liberation can there be in such an empty and academic gesture? Von Trier tips no hands, making the motivation of each character a mystery to be untangled from the mess of rage, sadness, and raw aching need that they all slowly drown in. As such, the film was an ideal choice to be made under the auspices of the Dogme 95 manifesto.
As developed by von Trier and three other renowned Danish filmmakers (Thomas Vinterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring), the basic tenets of Dogme 95 involve stripping artifice from filmmakingeliminating artificial lighting, allowing only hand-held cameras, and recording only “the moment,” which supersedes all other artistic aims. This kind of storytelling is suited to emotional exploration and modern melodrama, and like its predecessor, Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration), The Idiots opens itself up, warts and all, to the unflinchingly ugly yet glitteringly beautiful eye of digital video. By the very nature of its visual reproduction, the use of DV lends a certain equality to the film’s many surroundings, making every scene feel like something intercepted, making voyeurs of us all.
Which brings me to the hard-core sex. In keeping with the film’s infantilization of desire, it is during a birthday party that things devolve into a sprawling orgy. “Gang bang!” the men and women of the collective chant over and over again, like some depraved Teletubbies variant. Not all of the collective participate, and the following scene directly contrasts the delicate lovemaking of Josephine and Jeppe with the fleshy free-for-all that precedes it. At this moment, the entire emotional dynamic of the film shifts: The camera is blinded by the purity of a passionate and tender love. Fortunately for us Puritans here in the U.S., the MPAA decided that we didn’t really need to see what genitals can do, and there is ample use of big black boxes to make sure that no one sees what happens to be between anyone’s legs.
This is not a film for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s skittish or easily offended, because there are very good reasons to be skittish about this film. It delivers many moments of absolute cinematic purity that burn very brightly, detonating the emotional powder-keg that builds up inside the viewer’s shame and love centersexemplified by the collective’s response to Karen’s first spass. They take her to the local pool and immerse her as each comforts her with tiny kisses. The image is beautiful, the emotion visceral and intense. In the last half-hour in particular, there is a very concentrated power that I can in no way define or articulate; my first viewing of this film left me so emotionally incapacitated that I immediately had to turn around and watch Charlotte’s Web. Whether you love or hate the film, you will not be the same when it is over.
So take that as a warning, but take also this enticement: There are many paths here. Tread thoughtfully, in case you have to find your way back.
Through Saturday, Fisk University is sponsoring the Fisk International Black Film Festival, a series of films by African American filmmakers along with films from Europe and Africa. It’s a festival with enormous promise, especially since filmmakers from the African continent remain woefully underrepresented in stateside theaters.
The screenings started Wednesday at Regal’s Green Hills Commons 16 with Rage, a British hip-hop drama by writer-director Newton I. Aduaka. The rest of the screenings will be shown on the Fisk campus, and they encompass fiction, documentaries, and short films by young directors. Thursday’s lineup includes the acclaimed documentary Homecoming...Sometimes I Am Haunted by Dreams of Red Dirt and Clay, a chronicle of black farmers since the Civil War era (6 p.m.); “The Thin I’m In,” a seriocomic treatment of weight discrimination by writer-director Kareemah El-Amin, who will attend the festival (9 a.m.); and “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Homicide,” Atlanta filmmaker Narcel G. Reedus’ supernatural examination of black-on-black violence (8:30 p.m.).
Friday emphasizes documentaries, with screenings of Chike C. Nwoffah’s “A Jewel in History,” which explores the history and clouded future of America’s black hospitals (1 p.m.), and T. Anjanette Levert’s “Shake It Up, Shake It Down,” a tribute to Atlanta’s massive Freaknik festival (4 p.m.). The festival concludes 7 p.m. Saturday night at Fisk’s Appleton Room with a program of “Films From Africa and the Diaspora.”
In addition to the screenings, there will be a workshop 9 a.m. Saturday with actor/filmmaker Reed McCants (Project X) and director Neema Barnette (Diagnosis: Murder) on “Recording Images, Race, and Politics in Film.” The FIBFF is part of Fisk’s 72nd annual Spring Arts Festival. For more information on the films and events, contact the Fisk Race Relations Institute at 329-8812, or try the Web site www.fibff.org.
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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