Longing has always been a recurring theme in Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai’s body of work that it was only a matter of time before he made a feature that centered on the feeling. And that’s exactly what In the Mood for Love is about, plain and simple: pure, painful romantic longing. That the film is nothing more may make the film a less-than-fulfilling dramatic experience, but the emotional richness of the piece undeniably pierces the heart.
In the Mood for Love’s success rides largely on the shoulders of the romantic leads, and Wong has put together a peerless pair in HK superstars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Wong’s screenplay has no real story per se, just a basic narrative idea to anchor the ambience and performances: in 1962, Mr. Chow (Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Cheung) move next door to each other and shortly thereafter discover that their spouses (both of whom are never seen and only rarely heard) are having an affair. This knowledge both brings them together and keeps them apart; the two become best friends and eventually come to collaborate on writing a martial arts serial, but pressures of society and–most of all–their steadfast desire to “not be like them” prevents them from giving each other the slightest hint of their growing feelings.
That is, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan never give each other the slightest hint of their growing feelings, for their passion is quite apparent to the audience–and that is due to Leung and Cheung. Even more exquisite than their subtle yet expressive performances is their remarkable screen chemistry. With the simplest of glances and barely a touch, these two create a smoldering, slow-burning sexual tension; the looks in their eyes suggest a soul-deep passion that is barely contained by their cautiously cool veneers.
But contained it always seems doomed to remain, and that’s how Wong wrings power from the scenario, making the repression all the more frustrating with the seductive lull of his sound and images. The subdued melodies of Michael Galasso’s score and the swoony croon of Nat King Cole seem to caress the often-slow-motion sight of the ever-elegantly decked-out Mrs. Chan making routine walks to and from work, to and from noodle houses. Wong’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes ’60s Hong Kong a lush explosion of vibrant Technicolor-esque hues that just about encourages Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan to give in to their hearts.
As the title explicitly states, In the Mood for Love is all about mood, which spells trouble when the film has to resolve itself. While Wong’s conclusion is right in line with the rest of the film in terms of design, that doesn’t necessarily make it a particularly satisfying one; the epilogue feels forced, not to mention strangely remote as opposed to subtly affecting. Yet the emotions evoked by the bulk of the film manage to survive this late false note–and for a film called In the Mood for Love, that’s what ultimately counts.
With the prize-winning In the Mood for Love finally making its eagerly awaited debut in American theatres, some viewers may be eager to bone up on the work of that film’s director, Wong Kar-Wai. At quick glance, the one title likely to make the most inviting impression out of the arty auteur’s remaining body of work is Ashes of Time. After all, counted within the 1994 film’s ensemble are none other than Mood lovers Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung; and with its theme of romantic longing played against spirited swordplay, admirers of the box office phenom Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are sure to take notice. However, this is no ordinary romance, nor is it hardly your typical period martial arts film–even more so than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.