Wong Kar Wai has long been a rock 'n' roll Marcel Proust for the art house crowd, shaking things up with his hip, funky meditations on sentimental love and loss connected with the passage of time. Best known by American audiences for his cinematic tangos Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together, Wong stakes out more traditional, straight-laced territory with his excruciating new melodrama, In the Mood for Love.
Wong's fan base may be most surprised at the stillness of this new entry. Putting aside the hyperkinetic blurry visuals of his earlier works, Wong favors careful compositions and warmer lighting. If this film were in black and white, it might be confused for early Bresson. Wong shoots entire scenes of Love in static, pristine minute-long takes emphasizing the distant spatial relationships between a handsome young man, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung, Hard Boiled) and a beautiful young woman, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep).
They would make the perfect couple, but have each already exchanged marriage vows with someone else (though their spouses remain discreetly offscreen). Set in the conservative climate of early '60s Hong Kong, Wong places these would-be lovers as uneasy neighbors in a cramped apartment building. Chow and Chan pass one another in hallways or on narrow streets, often casually brushing up against each other.
Though these scenes often play without dialogue (accompanied by the lush, repetitive score by Michael Galasso), these awkwardly polite encounters hint at feelings significantly deeper. Cloaking those feelings, they may as well be wearing emotional corsets. Unlike the verbose heroines of Jane Austen novels, however, this pairing may never be able to consummate their feelings, even through words.
One fateful night, the two neighbors share a dinner only to discover (through a clever discussion revolving around a necktie and a pocketbook) that they are being cuckolded by their partners. Those offscreen figures often did seem to take unlikely business trips at the same time. Chow and Chan take tentative steps toward their own affair, not so much physical as introspective. This is, after all, an austere, rigorous, almost puritan art house film.
For the rest of Love, these two "almost lovers" sit across tables staring meaningfully at one another, make aching phone calls, walk each other home through the rain, contemplate grilling their significant other for information. (Repeat this cycle ad nauseam.) Forever balancing the teacup before it spills, they settle into a routine.
Mostly, though, they just walk, allowing Wong's camera to provide ripples of emotion through shadows and light, slow motion, cigarettes in the rain. While he creates an indelible mood, exquisitely photographed by his right-hand man Christopher Doyle, Love lacks any palpable tension. Leung and Cheung both have exquisite faces and bodies, often ogled by the camera, but their emotional current runs unbearably slow.
Scene after scene, Wong repeats images, situations, and dialogue, so hung up on representing paralysis that the situation fails to blossom. When Chan places her head on Chow's shoulder (finally, some physical contact), it's recycled from that classic moment in Happy Together when the gesture actually had some meaning, considering how far those characters had come in their more active scenario. Here, it's reduced to an image for it's own sake, a "Wong Kar Wei" image just as surely as gangsters popping off two guns at a time is a "John Woo" image. Sometimes, familiarity breeds discontent.
Most audiences will no doubt be turned off by Wong's obscure, frustrating resistance to connecting to his characters on a less formal basis. He's too detached for the frothy, simplistic charms of the crowd pleasing Sense and Sensibility. I suspect that those who supported his work in the past will be shifting in their seats alongside the mainstream viewers. While the pall In the Mood for Love casts is not easily shaken, it makes for substantially difficult viewing.
Criterion has put out a gorgeous two-disc version of the film on DVD, complete with deleted scenes (no, don't expect a lot of talking), a making-of documentary, and cast and crew interviews. Perhaps most interesting, though, is a 48-page booklet included with the disc, with the full text of the short story "Intersection," which inspired the film. It's a beautiful package that befits the haunting, yet flawed, motion picture.