With gracefully swaying hips, Maggie Cheung glides into a crowded living room, in sync with a luscious stringed score. Tony Leung squeezes past her to the doorway, as if waltzing, with a pelvic motion in time with the soundtrack. Their movement is indescribably sensual, without any overt sexuality. They do not make eye contact or even seem to acknowledge one another; the music intimates their ultimate, though slowly realized, passion for one another.
This early scene epitomizes both the style and action of In the Mood for Love, the stunningly quiet and seductive film by Wong Kar-Wai, maker of the ultra-hip and hyper-stylized romances Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. Wong has staked out star-crossed lovers as his specialty, and In the Mood for Love proves his most sophisticated romance yet. A swoony, adult film of unexpected restraint, it shines with radiant color schemes and two devastating central performances, by Cheung (Irma Vep) and Leung (Chungking Express, Happy Together). Cheung and Leung play Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, two people who have recently moved to Hong Kong with their spouses and are renting rooms within adjoining apartments—apparently the housing market in 1962 Hong Kong was as tight as present day New York City. On the day both couples move in, their belongings are mixed up in a chaotic scene in which hired movers can’t be bothered to keep the apartments straight. From this day forward, the Chans’ and Chows’ lives become entangled.
These spouses, rarely onscreen, only appear from behind; Wong never allows a clear picture of their attributes or personalities. They travel a lot, “on business,” and leave their respective partners to live unhappy, mostly solo lives. Mrs. Chan spends her lonely nights at the cinema; Mr. Chow stays late at work to avoid going home. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow meet one night while eating take-out noodles from a congee stand, before fast-food franchises made urbanites eating alone commonplace or acceptable. They begin to meet repeatedly at the congee stand, hardly exchanging glances or pleasantries. Eventually, however, they come to recognize their mutual loneliness… and each other’s familiar accessories. At their first sit-down dinner together, they discover that both Mr. Chan and Mr. Chow have matching ties; likewise, Mrs. Chow and Mrs. Chan have matching handbags. These items—all of them gifts—can only be purchased “abroad.” Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow know, even before the discussion begins, that their spouses are having an affair, but they also know that it’s indecent to discuss it. Their curiosity gets the better of them, however. Soon they’re trying to find out how this affair began by performing as each other’s spouse. Eventually, they understand where the feelings came from, because they feel them as well, but they won’t allow themselves to be similarly unfaithful.
Instead, they collaborate on writing a martial arts serial, which distracts them from the sexual tension while granting them an excuse to spend time together. Unfaithful to their own emotions, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s dialogue functions either as role-playing or as polite formality. They rarely speak for themselves, which means that the viewer must infer their true feelings. During unexpected encounters, as when they meet coincidentally on the stairs or find each other seeking shelter from the rain under the same awning, they appear awkward, as if unsure how to deal with seeing each other without a proper rationale. But here the skies emote for them, pouring tears of movie rain, the sort of torrential flash flooding so typical of romantic films.
The film includes elliptical sequences that convey the passage of time by Mrs. Chan’s revolving wardrobe. (Mr. Chow’s suit always looks the same, even though his ties change.) As in Happy Together, a taxi provides a private semi-space for the emergence of the couple’s affections: in the back seat, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can graze hands or lean into one another. These modest courtship moments are the only visible evidence of a physical relationship (Wong cut a sex scene in order to keep the film ambiguous), but Mrs. Chan’s landlady suspects an affair. Trying to keep up appearances, Mrs. Chan joins a mahjong group. She remains, however, an outsider to the group, the primary social circle in the film. Mahjong plays a central role in the film, marking generational and cultural differences between the older Chinese and Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, both from Shanghai, who have no interest in the game.
All the characters originally came from different parts of China and have made Hong Kong their temporary home, allowing for business trips to Japan or back to the mainland. People move into crowded homes and sublets because they do not plan to actually settle there. Through intermixed customs, languages, and the seemingly temporary residential situations, Hong Kong is portrayed as a transitory place where no one actually belongs. It’s a city of lost adults (only one child ever appears onscreen), especially for Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, who do not have the ties to their homeland through circles of family and old friends.
At the film’s New York Film Festival premiere, Wong said that he was challenged to make a film that did not include trick photography, cigarettes, clocks, or voice-over narration. He succeeded in making a film without voice-over. But who would want him to resist his signature curls of smoke or clock-faces denoting the hard fact of time? As for trick photography, Wong uses only slow motion, as a way of marking the slow passing of time and the agony of loneliness. The camera remains stationary in most shots, poised rather than frenetic as in Chungking Express.
Still, Wong’s jukebox-style use of music (familiar songs are compiled, played, replayed, and fractured as themes for specific characters or situations) is his most obvious trademark. Two basic musical themes suffuse In the Mood for Love: a longing, string arrangement and smooth Spanish-language versions of Nat King Cole’s classic songs. These provide the film’s rhythmic and sentimental cues. The choice of Cole not only establishes 1962 Hong Kong, but also the incursion of international influences into Hong Kong culture. Both Cole’s American-ness and the Spanish-language lyrics represent Spain’s colonial impact on the Philippines, which ultimately affected Hong Kong.
Wong has also stated that Cole was his mother’s favorite singer; for the filmmaker, this period—his childhood—is, in Almodovarian terms, all about his mother and memories of his childhood. In the Mood for Love‘s gorgeous success cannot be all about Wong, however. He conceived it with Cheung and Leung in mind, then developed their relationship on screen during fifteen months of shooting. Radiant even when her soulful eyes are swollen with tears, Cheung delivers what would be a star-making performance if she weren’t already a star of international art cinema. At the same screening, Cheung said that she prepared for the role by remembering how her mother looked and the ways she prepared herself when dressing. (All about her mother?) For Leung as well, creating the character was a process of remembering the interactions of adults when he was a child. Leung plays the part he plays best, the repressed lover, more subtly than ever before. Special credit must also go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong’s longtime collaborator, for again creating exquisite compositions. It’s the film’s look, more than any other element, that lingers with the viewer. Ultimately, this seems to be what Wong is getting at: the way he and his collaborators remember their childhood and their parents, as fondly reimagined fragments.