• Director: Wong Kar-Wai
  • Writer: Wong Kar-Wai
  • Starring: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Siu Ping Lam, Rebecca Pan, Kelly Lai Chen, Joe Cheung, Chan Man-Lei, and Chin Tsi-Ang
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#25), BBC 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century (#2), 2000 Cannes International Film Festival (Best Actor Award – Tony Leung)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

I had my first real kiss around the same time that In the Mood for Love came out, I think. I was at a party and spent most of the time hanging out with a girl, sitting on an outdoor wooden swing. We both knew that we wanted to take the next step, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to take physical action and actually do it, something was holding us back. Then, she leaned over and kissed me. Her reaction afterwards was a loud sigh of relief, followed by, “See, that wasn’t so hard.” She was talking to herself. In the Mood for Love is basically a movie about what would have happened if both of us on that swing were me, too afraid to make the first move.

I kid a little bit, but it’s true that In the Mood for Love is a love story about missed chances, a romance without any kisses. It is set among the tiny apartments, cramped alleys, and too-skinny hallways of 1960s Hong Kong, but its characters feel more restrained than those in a Jane Austen novel. In his review of this movie, Roger Ebert wrote that “when you’re holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires.” Which perhaps explains why I don’t generally seek out contemporary romances, but find I am much more likely to find period pieces compelling. It helps that there’s a certain glamor to the proceedings that they would lack if set in the present day. Maggie Cheung spends the movie in a never-ending series of spectacular, colorful, and form-fitting cheongsam dresses, as a respectable 1960s Hong Kong lady would have. Even her landlady (Rebecca Pan) comments that she seems too fancy for her surroundings: “She dresses like that to go out for noodles?”

In the Mood for Love stars Hong Kong superstars Cheung and Tony Leung as a pair of neighbors who each gradually realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. They start meeting themselves, but nothing romantic happens. They agree “we’re not like them,” or at least each agrees with the other, when they both want more but don’t realize the feeling is mutual. Instead, they spend time weirdly acting out how they think their spouses’ affair is going, who made the first move, or “rehearsing” Cheung confronting her husband. He is a writer, assigned to write a newspaper martial arts serial, and when she says she likes to read that genre, they start meeting in a hotel room for her to help with his writing. As it turns out, that’s not a euphemism, it’s actually what they’re doing, though the hotel room is so they don’t start gossip. Eventually, unable to take it any more, Leung takes a job in Singapore and asks Cheung to come with him. He waits for her at the hotel room, but she never comes. We see her rushing down the stairs from her apartment and arriving at the hotel, too late. In a particularly melodramatic note, the movie ends at an ancient temple in Cambodia years later, where Leung whispers for several seconds into a hole in the wall, then seals up the hole with mud and leaves.

What that description might not give you is just how gorgeous this movie is, and I’m not just talking about the dresses. Director Wong Kar-Wai uses every trick he can come up with, in ways that help him tell the story and never feel like gimmicks. His camera floats around the tiny apartments, with close-ups on details like Cheung’s clasped hands or cigarette smoke rising to the ceiling. These moments are often set to period romantic music, particularly Nat King Cole singing “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (in Spanish, as “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” I suppose the language doesn’t matter if you don’t speak English anyway). Everything is deep red, green, gold, or blue, and every scene seems to be shot through something, whether a window, a curtain, the openings in a piece of furniture. Wong gets more mileage out of hands lightly touching than most directors get out of a sex scene, and he’d rather show his characters in a mirror than point the camera right at their faces. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the spouses they spend so much time worrying about are never actually shown on-screen. There are a lot of bits where one of them will talk to their spouse from one side of a doorway, and we’ll only see one side of the conversation. It’s an interesting choice.

In the Mood for Love was a favorite at Cannes in 2000, and over the years since has become a particular favorite of critics. For example, it is the highest-ranked movie from the 2000s on the the most recent Sight & Sound greatest movies list, a poll of international critics and filmmakers. In one recent article, Guardian critic Peter Walker named it his favorite film, while a few years ago a poll at the Busan Film Festival named it the third greatest Asian movie of all time, after only Rashomon and Tokyo Story. On the one hand, praise like this seems like a lot to heap on such a small-seeming, personal movie. But as Walker points out in his article, not only is it a gorgeous movie, it perfectly captures so many universal feelings, such as loss and missed opportunities.

It is that attention to visual detail and lushness of emotion that have become Wong’s signatures over the years. I had previously seen his Chungking Express (named for a fast-food stall involved in all of its overlapping storylines), set at the time in the 90s when it was shot, which captures better than any other movie the pachinko-parlor binging and lights that I had come to think of as classically Hong Kong. Later, he would re-visit the world of In the Mood for Love, as well as Tony Leung’s character from this movie, in the acclaimed 2046 (the number of the hotel room where the two characters meet), which I have never seen but sounds much less, um, restrained than this movie? It apparently includes “science-fiction elements.”

Leung and Wong have worked together frequently over the years, and are set to again in the apparently upcoming Blossoms. Cheung, whose role in this movie made her a fashion icon, felt that it was the high point of her career that she couldn’t improve upon. She mostly retired from acting afterwards, with a brief exception for the 2004 drama Clean, for which she won her own acting award at Cannes. And maybe she was right, thought it would have been great to see what she could do in other roles. For his part, Leung’s Cannes win for his role was the first ever for a Hong Kong actor. He has been a superstar there for decades, though his desire to break into Western movies has for the most part been stymied. This may change soon, however, as he reportedly is set to play the villain in the upcoming Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

In the Mood for Love is, I’ll admit, not the type of movie I’d normally seek out just based on a plot description. But even if that’s true for you, as well, it’s such an achievement on a cinematic level that I definitely recommend it. I found myself wholly sucked in, and will definitely seek out other Wong films in a way I was not compelled to after seeing (and enjoying) Chungking Express many years ago. It is like the most restrained bits of Mad Men, made as an art film. And it captures specific human feelings in a way that no other movie or filmmaker has, or perhaps can.

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