Normally, I’m pretty cranky about movies that arrive in theaters after weeks of hype; all that oversized publicity dares me to be disappointed, and usually I am. Sometimes, though, even excessive quantities of promotional activity can’t ruin a movie for me, and I’m happy to report that I’ve found one: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love. I knew it had already won two prizes at Cannes, I’d read all the glowing stories in The New York Times, I’d heard countless ads for it on public radio and still I adored it.
Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film revolves Chow Mo-Wan (played by Tony Leung), a journalist with a passion for martial arts serials and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a quiet woman who works as a secretary. The two, it seems, have a fair amount in common. Li-zhen’s husband is a businessman whose work requires frequent travel; Mo-Wan’s wife has the sort of job that demands she work nights. Although they’re neighbors in a small apartment building, these unhappily married, lonely souls keep to themselves, doing nearly everything going to the movies, traveling to work, eating dinner alone. Occasionally they receive a phone call from their spouses; once in a while, they socialize with their neighbors. And for the first half of the movie, as we watch them go about their empty lives, the two don’t exchange much more than pleasantries with each other.
But slowly, it begins to dawn on them that they’ve got something more specific in common than the soft ache of their solitude: their spouses aren’t just cheating on them, they’re cheating on them with each other. Which is to say that, sometimes, when Li-zhen’s husband is supposed to be on a business trip in Japan, he’s actually next door, having sex with Mo-Wan’s wife. The pair join forces in the battle against their respective anguish, developing a relationship that lies somewhere between friendship and romance: they begin collaborating to write what turns into a successful martial arts story; they get stuck together in a series of rainstorms and bedrooms; and they ride around in a bunch of taxicabs holding hands.
These events don’t unfold so much as they ripen. Without relying on heavy-handed plot twists, high drama, or overt sex scenes, Wong simply weaves these ordinary-seeming events into a sensual meditation on desire and shame. Instead of attempting to describe the texture of his characters’ heartache with words, he exploits a diferent set of tools at his disposal music (Nat King Cole singing “Quizàs, Quizàs, Quizàs,” with a jarringly pitiful Spanish accent) light (reflected, for example, through the steam rising off of a pot of noodles), cinematography (methodical, obsessive), and editing (which, at the moments of deepest despair, he uses to create jagged, interrupted, repetitive stanzas). Wong’s point, maybe, is that the typical tools of narrative snappy dialogue, attention-keeping fast cuts are useless when it comes to portraying just how it feels to watch your love life curdle.
Most of the film’s visuals are so sensuous and evocative that you might forget to notice the virtual absence, over the course of the film’s ninety-seven minutes, of any explicitly depicted sexual behavior. All the plot-driving marital infidelity between the absent spouses, for example, happens off-screen. And although Wong suggests that Li-zhen and Mo-Wan might, just might, be sleeping together, we never see any evidence of this. On screen the two touch only in modest ways: head on shoulder, friendly embrace. Instead Wong evokes the sultriness of such simple events by fracturing the narrative into disjointed, repetitive scenes, and honing in on scenic details that the characters themselves are sometimes too anguished to notice. His camera lingers on the evening rain as it drips lusciously down a stone wall, and it stays intently trained on an anguished gaze passing between Li-zhen and Mo-Wan. At one point, Wong (who works without a set script) slows down a neighborly mah-jongg game so intensely that it becomes a gorgeously public sort of group foreplay. Irresistably ambiguous, the slo-mo scene, filmed from behind and below, is set to the music of violins: Li-zhen stands with her arm around her husband’s shoulder, and faces various other players landlord, neighbor and, of course, Mo-Wan.
The nearest we get to any explicitly erotic interaction is during a series of inventive, layered scenes in which the two cuckolds stand around in the quiet backstreets of Hong Kong playacting their spouses’ betrayals. Precisely the sort of cruel indulgence that would only occur to the freshly wounded, these scenes quickly turn into wildly complicated enactments of smaller betrayals, heartache and shame. The first time Li-zhen and Mo-Wan perform one of these dramatizations, for instance, they’ve only just realized who, exactly, is lying to whom. They’re walking home, still in shock, wondering aloud about how it was their spouses first hooked up. Within seconds, they’re heavy into the scene: flirting with each other, speaking the words that they imagine were said on the night their spouses began their affair. But when it comes time for Li-zhen who’s pretending to be Mo-Wan’s wife to make the move on Mo-Wan who’s supposed to be her husband she stops.
“I can’t say it,” she whispers, dropping out of character.
“I understand,” Mo-Wan says, although he seems unspeakably disappointed. “After all, its already happened. It doesn’t matter who made the first move.”
Despite the obvious agony of this game, it becomes, over the course of a few weeks, their favorite way to paw through their own tangled emotions. One night they go out to dinner and, glancing at the menu, decide to order the kinds of meal that their respective spouse’s new lover likes to eat; they hold impromptu rehearsals to plan out how to get their partners to confess; and, as they become uncomfortable with the intensity of their own relationship, they rehearse saying goodbye to each other. Because actors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who, incidentally, won best actor at Cannes 2000) do a flawlessly understated job at rehearsing their characters’ pain, these rituals aren’t agonizing to watch instead, they’re appealing and provocative.
If you pinned me to a wall and commanded me to find something wrong with this film, its possible I’d weaken and say something about how these scenes, in spots, drag a bit. But the truth is, they’re so filled with ambiguity and depth (visually, emotionally) that actually I could have probably watched any one of them even if it dragged on all night.
But, of course, none of them did, and so instead I watched the credits and then went home to my own broken narrative: life.
For more Rachel Mattson, read:
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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Rachel Mattson and Nerve.com, Inc.