'In the Mood for Love': Just Next-Door Neighbors Till Love Breaches Walls
By ELVIS MITCHELL New York Times September 30, 2000 FILM FESTIVAL
"It is a restless moment. Hong Kong 1962," reads a title card at the
beginning of "In the Mood for Love," and a restiveness that's almost voluptuous
— like that first blush of love when you can barely concentrate on anything else
and the world seems new and strange — fills the movie. "Mood" is a great word,
because a lot of the movie is mood. The principals are caught as the camera
peers at them through the edges of doorways. Its writer and director, Wong
Kar-wei, is one of that gifted new breed of moviemakers who think through the
lens, and he uses that talent to give the film a heated, rapturous quality; the
camera floats along, sneaking a look at the performers out of the corner of its
eye. Narrative has rarely been a motivating factor for him; instead his heart
spills out onto the screen.
Mr. Wong is infatuated with the headiness of pop and he's brilliant at using
it, as with the Nat King Cole songs that play repeatedly throughout. Cole's
pearly enunciation reflects the refinement of the stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony
Leung. They play a couple married to other people who are renting rooms in
apartments right next door, and they eventually discover that their spouses are
having affairs with each other.
The journalist Chow Mowan (Mr. Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Ms. Cheung) come to
lean on each other, and that need is suffused with desire, which they're unsure
how to act upon. They're the characters who are usually the victims in a James
M. Cain story.
Mr. Wong used the title of a Rolling Stones song, "As Tears Go By," for one
of his pictures, a confused but powerful action film about loyalty, and it would
fit as the name of any of them. It would certainly lend itself to "Mood," which
is a film about confusion over loyalties. Nat King Cole could be all surface,
and Mr. Wong angles the singer's glossiness against the want of the couple, who
constantly stare at each other through glazed, hurting eyes; he plunges beneath
those surfaces, and it's gripping. This may be one of the swooniest movies ever
made about love, and it luxuriates in its tailspin.
"In the Mood for Love" is probably the most breathtakingly gorgeous film of
the year, dizzy with a nose-against-the-glass romantic spirit that has been
missing from the cinema forever, a spirit found in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the best
Roxy Music and minor-key romantic movies like the forgettable 1956 "Miracle in
the Rain," where the lovers' suffering is sealed because of the chasteness of
the era. Sex scenes couldn't be spelled out, and as in Mr. Wong's film, yearning
becomes the epoxy that holds the material together.
The pining here is so graceful that you may be transfixed by it. Instead of
explicit physical tangles Mr. Wong eroticizes each movement of his camera,
something not many others could do because no one can cut within a camera move
the way he does. "Mood" fits the tradition of audacity at the New York Film
Festival, where "Last Tango in Paris" once changed movies forever. This film
goes so far in the other direction that there's a fetishistic fixation on
clothes; the beautiful floral-patterned silk dresses worn by Ms. Cheung have a
It is said that Mr. Wong shot a sex scene and decided not to use it. It's a
great instinct; this is a love story whose intensity comes from the fact that
the skin stays covered most of the time. Ms. Cheung wears dresses with slightly
exaggerated shoulders, trim-waisted and cowl-necked, to accentuate her own
flutelike neck. Mr. Leung wears a charcoal silk shantung suit with a selection
of ties to make it look different each time.
The camera is perched like a voyeur, snatching glimpses from doorways and
corners, gazing lovingly at this couple who are stranded in unhappy marriages.
Allusive and bittersweet, the film uses characters to advance metaphor in the
picture- puzzle manner that Michael Ondaatje used in the novel "The English
Patient"; you may not be sure if it's about people or pop or filmmaking. It's
actually fascinated with all these things, the product of a director who works
primarily on instinct.
That instinct is most poignant and evident in a scene where the movie seems
to be getting at the truth. Ms. Cheung tells Mr. Leung she knows he has a lover
and weakly flings a slap at his cheek. No, he admonishes her, that's not how
it's done. But we realize that something entirely different is going on, and the
misery goes even deeper because this scene is also about their eventual parting.
Mr. Wong uses the song's title to set his pace — it's not heard in the film —
and he looks at these characters through the heart-addled haze of pop songs.
"That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore," reads a title
at the end. This film is a sweet kiss blown to a time long since over, a time
that may have existed only in the movies, with ballads recorded in mono while
hand- sewn clothing lay perfectly over the bodies of the stars. "In the Mood for
Love" is just that.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
Written, produced and directed by Wong Kar- wei; in Cantonese and
Shanghainese, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Christopher
Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin; edited by William Chang Suk-ping; music by Mike
Galasso and Umebayashi Shigeru; production designer, Mr. Chang Suk-ping;
released by USA Films. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown
with a 7- minute short, Oliver Krimpas's "Walking Home," tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.
and Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 38th New York Film
WITH: Lai Chin (Mr. Ho), Maggie Cheung (Su Li-zhen), Tony Leung (Chow
Mo-wan), Rebecca Pan (Mrs. Suen), Siu Ping-lam (Ah Ping) and Chin Tsi-ang (The