O HAI WONG KAR-WAI. We had you over just last week, didn’t we? It’s kind of hard to tell, because In the Mood For Love doesn’t look anything like Fallen Angels. It’s also a hundred times better, maybe Wong’s best film. I loved this picture.
In the same way that The Big Sleep might be called “Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fall in love,” this film’s plot is simply, “Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung have an affair.” No further description should be necessary, but I’ll provide one anyway: It’s Hong Kong in 1962. Leung plays Mr. Chow, who moves into a shared apartment with his wife. Cheung is Mrs. Chan, who moves in next door with her husband on the same day. The two are instantly and irresistibly attracted to each other. Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are never seen; they are not necessary. As soon as the two most beautiful actors in Hong Kong share a screen together, Wong’s camera lens is for them alone.
The interesting thing about this story is that there are no sex scenes. Sex is superfluous for these characters, something that we can probably assume takes place but is not as important to watch as a real emotional attachment. As the title implies, they are both in search of love, almost like scientists hoping to isolate it in a lab. Like many scientists, they promise objectivity and awareness of what they’re doing; “we won’t be like them,” they say in an empty hotel room, presumably referring to all of the adulterers who have passed before. Like many scientists, they find that even with their detachment as protection, they have gotten too close and compromised their research.
Now, right off the top I could imagine some moralists complaining that adultery ought not be romanticized like this. I’m sympathetic to that argument, but then so is Wong. This movie is drawn not only in love, but also in guilt. These characters need not be judged by the movie, because they are constantly judging themselves and waiting for every stranger they see to judge them. Every line of small talk is punctuated with a nervous glance, every planned meeting made up to look like pure chance. Even when they are alone in a restaurant the dialogue is couched in casual questions, as though someone at the next table over could give them away. It’s amazing that conversations so carefully managed could be constructed by Wong, with his love for improvisation and his tendency to write his films as he goes along.
I’ll just come right out and say it: Tony Leung is the finest actor that the Hong Kong film industry has ever produced. If you are only familiar with his breakout role in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled or his rather reserved role opposite Jet Li in Hero, you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Leung is the Robert de Niro of Hong Kong, a master at underplaying his biggest acting moments. He is constantly holding back throughout the movie, and yet we can see the emotion bubbling underneath. Rather like another adultering character from the 1960s, Don Draper in Mad Men, he represses himself because he thinks most people can’t understand how he feels, and is afraid of anyone who could; the understanding might breed contempt.
Cheung is also fantastic. She may have gotten her start as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in Police Story, but she has subsequently become a fantastic leading lady in multiple languages (Irma Vep and Chinese Box are examples). Moreover, she has been in so many projects with Leung – they even got their start on the same television show in Hong Kong – that he refers to her as his “alter ego,” and their chemistry in this movie reflects that. I especially loved the scenes where Chow acts as Chan’s husband, and vice versa; at first each character plays a stereotype, but as the relationship deepens they can’t help but let their own emotions into the fantasy. This film swept the lead-acting prizes at the Cannes Film Festival (in Cheung’s case, she was the first Asian ever to win Best Actress), and they duplicated that feat in awards shows throughout Asia. The accolades are richly deserved.
I also liked that Wong reined in the wild camerawork from Fallen Angels when making this movie. The famed cinematographer and long-time Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle only shot some of this movie before scheduling conflicts forced him to leave; perhaps replacement Mark Lee Ping Bin suggested things that Wong had not tried before. Whatever the reason, the movie has some occasional flashes of the previous Wong/Doyle movies, such as a couple blurry semi-slow motion shots, but for the most part it holds back. I loved how this movie uses long, quiet shots of a clock or a phone to highlight the secrecy of the livers’ contact.
The old Doyle/Wong style would be all wrong anyway; these are not flashy characters and theirs is not a flashy affair. This movie has a completely pitch-perfect knowledge of its setting, its characters, and how they interact. Wong never once betrays that setting, never forgets its time and place. He never goes too far, never hits a point on the nose when subtlety can be employed instead. His film has a better knowledge of love than any I’ve ever seen, even a classic romance like Before Sunrise. You can’t pinpoint any one moment when Chow and Chan stop playing or pretending and become serious about each other; it just happens, as organically as if Leung and Cheung themselves were having the affair. No fictional film feels more honest and lived-in. I’m not sure any movie can.
Reviewed by Mark Young