Sometime last week, I wrote the following: "Note to self: watch more deliriously subtle surreal romantic movies." One of my friends popped up in the comments and suggested I watch some Wong Kar Wai movies. I love my friends, and it's a good suggestion. My favorite of Wong's movies is In the Mood for Love (2000), and because it's been a few years since I've seen it, and because I don't think I've ever written about it, I decided that I needed a revisit.
The story here follows two neighbors in 1962 Hong Kong who slowly realize that their respective spouses are having an affair. This shared experience draw them together, but it also keeps them apart. Mrs. Chan is played by Maggie Cheung. She works in a travel office as an executive assistant. Mr. Chow is played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. He's a journalist who wants to write martial arts novels, an interest he shares with Mrs. Chan. During the course of the movie, they play-act the meeting of their spouses in an attempt to understand and come to terms with the affair. Later, they play act the confrontation with their spouses. This acts as a kind of long courtship, and, inevitably they fall in love. But they don't consummate it. "We're better than them," Mrs. Chow says. Eventually they part and their paths continue to almost meet again, but it's not to be. "That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore," the movie tells us near the end. The feeling of loss is palpable.
The word "mood" in the title is important, because this is not a movie about story, per se. It's about atmosphere, feeling, and (yes) mood. The mood is ultimately melancholy, but it's bittersweet. It's amplified by music--mostly Nat King Cole--and by Christopher Doyle's languid and dense and utterly ravishing cinematography. This is one of the most beautiful movies of the decade, a quality that is only exaggerated by casting Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the leads, but it's also one that has a certain bleakness to it. This is a nocturne, with an Edward Hopper-ish sense of lonliness underlying it.
This is a love letter to Maggie Cheung, who the movie puts in a series of period dresses with high collars and figure defining fits that make Ms. Cheung's neck seem impossibly long. The architectural hairstyle they've chosen for her is a composition in itself, one the movie occasionally exploits. Leung, for his part, has been put into a stylish shantung suit. It stays the same through the movie; only the ties change. Wong understands movie stars. He knows how to film them. Of course, casting Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the movie does prejudice the viewer into wondering what their spouses could possibly be thinking in having their affair. And so it goes...
This is also a movie about negative spaces. In art, negative spaces are the empty areas that define shapes. Wong here is filling in the area around all those movies about infidelities. In a darker movie, Mrs. Chan or Mr. Chow would be victims--more than they are now, that is--but this isn't playing that game. Instead, they're the absent characters who define affairs in other movies. The movie pointedly does not show either of their spouses faces on camera, and thus inverts the formula. The affair is now the negative space. The scenes where our lovers play act the affair are defined by the fact that we don't know their spouses, only the hole that they leave in the movie. This is emphasized in the shot compositions, too, in which the emptiness around the characters is telling, as is the distances between them. The concept of negative space is a Buddhist one, and the sense of loss at the end of the movie is suggestive of Buddhist notions of ephemerality. It's appropriate, I think, that the movie ends at Ankor Wat, with Mr. Chan whispering his secret love into a hole and covering it. The shots here have a ghostly quality to them, as if everything has been erased by time.
In the Mood for Love also reminds me of E. M. Forster, who famously implored the world to "only connect" in Howard's End. This is a movie where the longing to connect is so strong it hurts to watch, and where the fact that no connection is ultimately made is the real tragedy of the film. Not the infidelities. Those are common (in both senses of the word), the movie insinuates. It's the passing of its characters without that connection that haunts me, even ten years later. It's a film that lingers.