In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai is a beautiful film. In fact, it is a film that the word “beautiful,” as applied to the movies, could have been invented to describe. It helps, of course, that the two principal players are Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, both extraordinarily good-looking people, and that the film is set in Hong Kong in 1962, before the awful curse of casual dress arrived like a plague bacillus from America to lay low any possibility of grace and elegance in the appearance of ordinary people. But Wong Kar-wai and his two cinematographers, Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin (they must have had to work as a tag-team) have gone to extraordinary lengths to turn these promising materials into a succession of beautiful images.
Where you may find yourself growing impatient with it—at least if you are an old-fashioned plot-oriented moviegoer like me—is in its static quality. This, to be sure, is deliberate. The film is about a “mood” not an action, and the director’s skill at evoking the mood in a whole succession of different ways is a wonder to behold. It is the cinematic equivalent of an exquisite Chinese painting whose absence of movement is used to create expectation and a sense of spaciousness. The impression is reinforced by the use of music. The many tableaux vivants of loneliness and longing are accompanied by a slow gypsy waltz by Umebayashi Shigeru played by a sobbing violin over pizzicato strings. This tune alternates with Nat King Cole singing songs evocative of the period—and the mood.
The basic situation is easily told. Two couples of Shanghainese origin move in next door to each other in Hong Kong. The movers mix up shoes and books belonging to one couple with those belonging to the other. The establishing phase of the movie sets up the lonely lives of the wife of one couple, who introduces herself by saying “My husband’s name is Chan” (Miss Cheung), and the husband of the other, Mr Chow (Mr. Leung), both of whose spouses travel a lot. Left on their own, she, secretary to the boss of a shipping company, and he, a journalist, fall into a routine of lonely pursuits, accentuated by the inability of each not to recognize the answering loneliness of the other. It might seem too pat that they soon work out that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other—but that this seems only to strengthen their determination not to “be like that” themselves.
So the film is built around a negative, a not-being, which is also the point of its never letting us see the adulterous couple. Sex is everywhere around Mr Chow and Mrs Chan—most particularly in the absent Mr Chan and Mrs Chow—which makes its ghostly presence in their lives loom larger as they are increasingly thrown together. Mr Chow’s earthy friend Ah-Ping makes jokes about his sexual adventures and desires, eliciting from Chow the reply that: “I’m not like you.” Mrs Chan makes a similar point, though silently, in response to an affair that her boss, Mr. Ho doesn’t bother to conceal from her. All the world is coupling, it seems, but them, which creates a vacuum into which the different ways of not-being rush.
As in Faithless, the characters try to come to terms with their pains by role-playing. They start playing the parts of the missing couple—Mr Chow plays Mr Chan and Mrs Chan plays Mrs Chow—ostensibly in order to “rehearse” what they will do when they confront their spouses with what they have learned. On these occasions, Mr Wong teases us by making us think over and over again that we are witnessing a real scene of emotional confrontation (and the missing people seemingly required for it!) only to reveal that it is another “rehearsal.” Yet it soon becomes apparent that the emotions generated by the rehearsals are real, even though the characters don’t know precisely what is producing them.
But where, in Faithless, the characters slip easily into the familiar roles, so satisfying are they, here they are never sure when they are acting and when they are not. Like us, they cannot tell if the intensity of their feelings is owing to the affair of Mr Chan and Mrs Chow, which is really happening, or the one between Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, which is not. As in all the greatest love stories, the realization of the truth comes too late, but because In the Mood is remarkably lacking in the self-pity that sloshes around everywhere in Faithless, we are more impressed with the beauty of the principals’ restraint than the tragedy of their erotic unfulfilment. The brief excursion (for a very particular reason) to pre-Communist, pre-Lon Nol Cambodia in the film’s final passages also adds just a whiff (we wouldn’t want more than that) of Casablanca’s hill of beans, to which the great world is forever reducing the problems of two little but immensely attractive people.