In the Mood for Love

"I've had lots of girlfriends. Why is this any different?"

In the Mood for Love, a lovely mood piece from Hong Kong, is more erotic than a thousand Basic Instincts or Color of Nights. It accomplishes this with a PG rating and not a single scene of outward sexuality. Pity that this enchanting movie had to idiotically shoot itself in the foot in its final minutes; we might have been looking at a masterpiece instead of just a decent arthouse alternative.

Hong Kong, 1962. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) are moving in next door to each other on the same day. It is no coincidence that they are both doing so without their spouses. It’s not long before they begin to guess that Chow’s wife is having an affair with Su’s husband. The relationship that develops between them is, we suspect, nowhere near as explicit as that of their spouses, but the yearning, the emotion is palpable. A look as they pass each other on the stairs, holding hands as they ride in a taxi — this is as far as they go in consummating their affair and yet each of these subtle acts carries enough sexual tension to bowl over Stanley Kubrick.

Soon, they start to imagine what would happen if they came out in the open, taking turns playacting scenes between them and their spouses. But if they do act on their feelings, they think, they will be no better than their adulterous partners. So they keep giving each other looks as they pass each other by, with no real hopes for a future.

Director Wong Kar-Wai’s (Chungking Express) cinematography always looks gorgeous and his use of slow motion is powerful, accentuating the romantic charge between his two protagonists. He gives the audience a feeling that there are vast amounts or emotion hiding right below the surface that neither of them have the courage to release.

Do Chow and Su love each other, really? Or do they simply find solace in each other’s company at a time when their loved ones have abandoned them? The script drops hints here and there; the way their conversations linger on their other relationships makes it reasonable to guess at the latter. But maybe that is the only subject that they can talk about without feeling guilty. Many will disagree with this, I’m sure; there’s certainly room for disagreement here.

At one point in the movie, I could have wagered my life savings that the credits were going to roll right now. It seemed like the perfect note to end on and I was preparing to heap all kinds of hosannas on the film, which just then seemed like one of the best of the year. But that scene was followed by another. And then another. And another. In the Mood for Love runs a scant ninety-eight minutes, but, in its last twenty, becomes increasingly tortuous. It takes pointless leaps through time when it could have concluded then and there and retained far more of its thematic significance. This way, it not only loses its gravity but risks becoming a bore.

The performances are uniformly excellent, especially that of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who effectively conveys the disheveled romanticism of his traumatized character. Along with Maggie Cheung, he helps make In the Mood for Love uniformly watchable, even if its riveting only to a certain point. The good thing about American movies sometimes is that they know when to say “the end.”

-- Eugene Novikov

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