Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) was the first film I ever fell in love with. I may sound redundant in saying this, since it consistently appears on critics’ “Best Films Ever Made” lists, but for me, the discovery that one could experience this level of fascination with film turned sleepless nights into secret worlds waiting to be discovered. Years later, this sensible, discreet and painfully grown up love remains a favorite.
The premise is simple. A man and a woman become neighbors, each renting one room in apartments owned and populated by other families — a common lifestyle in overcrowded 60es Hong Kong. The film drips with atmosphere, from the narrow spaces to radio-era music and Maggie Cheung’s spectacular cheongsams. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow (played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) move in on the same day, each in charge of their respective moves in absence of their busy spouses. This is just the first in a string of not so coincidental coincidences that eventually climax with the revelation that the protagonists’ spouses are having an affair. Of course, hints had been dropped – a lingering hand here, a suspicious business trip there, but coming to terms with such a reality is never easy. Wong Kar Wai never shows the faces of the unfaithful spouses. The camera always catches their backs, other times their presence is made noticeable by way of dialogue. It is, after all, not their story. Few films and even fewer directors would manage to get away with such a technique, but that is, after all, the beauty of watching a Wong Kar Wai film.
There are directors who treat their characters coldly, others who enjoy manipulating their characters and audiences alike, but Wong Kar Wai is a director who, I feel, loves his characters deeply. Some critics say this trait will sometimes cause him to become too wrapped up in the world he’d created, but here, each moment feels tender and personal. For instance, the sequence where Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are walking down a set of stairs, in a montage meant to show glimpses of their daily existence — the scenes take place in public, there is a market filled with people at the bottom of the stairs; the two are shown in the presence of others, but there is always a sense of distance, an invisible barrier of melancholy, and the mood of the scene is so intimate, it almost feels voyeuristic. When the protagonists finally pass each other by on the stairs, the meeting is both electric and symbolic.
After piecing the clues together and realizing their unpleasant situations, the two, drawn together by curiosity, begin a series of simulations of how their spouses might have begun their affair. Later on, they would mimic the confrontation between Mrs. Chan and her husband – rubbing salt on a painful wound is putting it lightly, the scene movingly played out by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
Curiosity is soon replaced by deeper feelings – the crowded, loud and almost suffocating atmosphere in the apartments only makes the moments of closeness between the two protagonists more precious. A casual walk home becomes a chance to explore an unspoken sensuality. Conversely, an accidental (and completely innocent) stay-over almost has the makings of a scandal when a prolonged game of Mahjong keeps the neighbors up all night, cutting off all routes of escape. Propriety and reputation needed to be considered: one can’t put a foot wrong, Mrs. Chan remarks wearily – even the slightest misstep would make the landlady raise a questioning brow.
Christopher Doyle’s cinematography lends the film a moody, organic dimension that is complemented by a soundtrack ranging from traditional opera pieces and Nat King Cole’s Latin inspired songs to compositions by Shigeru Umebayashi and Michael Galasso. I’ve been a longtime fan of Doyle’s cinematography but his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai were the initial sparks to my interest in his work.
When Mr. Chow is offered the opportunity to write a martial arts novel, something both protagonists shared an interest in, he asks for Mrs. Chan’s assistance, partly in an attempt to move on from their unpleasant situations and their now absentee spouses, and rents a new place – room 2046. However, the guilt and the weight of their failed, yet unresolved marriages still hover over both. They promise each other: We won’t be like them. Then, through a series of missed timings and misunderstandings, their relationship never reaches its deserved outcome.
Keeping with the initial trend, they would even simulate their own goodbye scene, trying to get used to what it would feel like. In the end, the whole relationship consists of and is overshadowed by a series of what ifs and maybes they can’t seem to leave behind, but what comes out as genuine and tangible is the emotional connection between the two, making all the probabilities around them even more hurtful.
The ending sequence has been misunderstood by some, the bit of archival footage seemingly considered out of place. I, in turn, find it suiting to showcase the “widening” of the in-film world, from the personal to a larger, more general scale, or rather a grounding into the real for what almost seemed like a dream. The words of Mr. Chow only drive this point further: That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it is here anymore. And I find nothing could have made a more appropriate conclusion for this love story than Michael Galasso’s score sweeping over the ruins of Angkor Wat.
Rhea Cinna is a doctor, writer and film-maker. While most of her literary endeavors are of the poetic kind, she also enjoys writing screenplays and short prose and has directed a short film. She loves big cities, museums, film festivals and animals in most non-reptilian incarnations. She believes there’s no place like a moated chateau. Her work is forthcoming in Stone Highway Review.