17 December 2000 | repulsion
Possibly Wong Kar-Wai's best film
It's easy to see why many people consider In the Mood for Love to be Wong Kar-Wai's best film. The toned down appeal of the film, centering on the studied view of a relationship put through an emotional ringer, is a retread into Happy Together territory but without the hyper-kinetic patchwork of jarring film stocks and hyper-saturated sequences that have become a trademark of Kar-Wai's films since Chungking Express. Like Soderbergh's The Limey, this is a different kind of curio for Kar-Wai; where dialogue and plot are forsaken by mood and composition in order to create a tale of two delicate lives in a seemingly confining emotional stasis.
It's a testament to the genius of Kar-Wai that he is capable to making such a simple tale so resonating. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move in next-door to each other within the same apartment building. He's a journalist who dreams of publishing martial-arts novels and she is a secretary at a shipping company. Their eventual coupling is obvious from the beginning but the pleasure here is the way that Kar-Wai ambiguously paints such a journey with his grand masterstrokes.
The key to the success of the film is Kar-Wai's use of the interior space, playing with foreground and background planes in ways that are similar to the works of Polanski. During the wooingly sensuous first half of the film, Kar-Wai isolates Leung and Cheung within shots in such a way that the second person in a conversation is never visible. Kar-Wai is concerned with environment and space here, creating a cramped emotional dynamic between his characters. It's also telling that Kar-Wai never chooses to focus on the physicality of Mo-Wan and Li-zhen's spouses. Their faceless partners are noticeably absent from the film, as they are tending to their own love affairs with each other.
This is not to suggest that In the Mood for Love is a confining experience because Kar-Wai manages to inundate his film with broad splashes of hypnotic camera movement and sound. There is one shot where Cheung's slow, sensual rise up a metaphorical stairway turns into Leung's descent down the very same stairwell; their movements perfectly compliment each other, bookending the shot and creating a sense of erotic duality between the two figures. Their souls have connected but they have yet to physically unite. The erotic displacement of these scenes is both fascinating and frustrating, as two star-crossed lovers reject physical consummation due to their humble fidelity.
Other scenes in the film are punctuated with brief slow-motion shots of Cheung erotically moving through her interior surroundings, set to Mike Galasso's hauntingly beautiful score. Cheung's dresses beautifully compliment her exterior space as she moves slowly through her surroundings. Her movements slowly build up to what seems to be an inevitable fusion between Li-szhen and her dream lover even though the seduction process seems to be entirely sub-conscious.
If I make it seem that these two characters are more like two birds unleashing pheromones on each other, it probably isn't that far-fetched of a statement. The tight bond these two characters have with their internal spaces is almost as intense as their relationship to the exteriors. The film rarely moves into an exterior space and when the camera does it is usually to peak through oval windows and symbolic bars that always remind us that these characters are like confined animals. Kar-Wai continues to tease us even when the lovers get close enough to touch, shattering the couple's proximity to each other by shooting them through mirrors or through gaps within articles of clothing located inside of a closet. Mother Nature even seems to respond to their love lust, often unleashing a soft crest of rain over the characters after their bodies have glided near each other.
Kar-Wai's hauntingly atmospheric shots of a waterfall allowed Leung's Lai Yu-Fai to experience a cathartic release in Happy Together, even if Leslie Cheung's Ho Po-wing was not there to enjoy it with him. By that film's end, love was so inextricably bound to the act of war that a third man's muted declarations of love signaled Yu-Fai's realization that his dreams of seeing a waterfall would bring him inner peace, even if it would not bring him back his lover. Mo-Wan's journey terminates within the confines of a crumbling temple. His own emotional depletion is paralleled nicely with the political climate of his country, and the absence of Li-szhen is only made tolerable by the fact that Kar-Wai allows Mo-Wan to experience a release of sorts. Mo-Wan caters to an ancient myth and his secretive release into a crack in the temple leaves him capable of living his days with the hope that all his loss and heartache somehow served a higher purpose.