London Times, THURSDAY OCTOBER 26 2000, By James Christopher
Wong Kar-wai’s latest heartbreaker, In the Mood for Love, is a victory of style over substance. But what style. The plot could slip through a crack in the pavement, but the atmosphere of desire and frustration is something else. Set, for the most part, in a dimly lit tenement in Hong Kong, the film remembers a shady relationship between two married couples in 1962. Tony Leung is a junior newspaper editor with an elusive wife. Next door stews a lonely secretary, Maggie Cheung. Her husband seems to spend more time on business trips than he does in his home or office.
The two neglected spouses edge politely around each other in the communal corridor, or pass on the steps to the food stalls in the bucketing rain. A small series of coincidences leads to a shattering conclusion. Their respective partners are having an adulterous affair. How should they react? Chris Doyle and Mark Li Ping Bing’s cameras scrutinise the mutual agonies of Leung and Cheung through doorways or in smoky mirrors. It’s a startling medley of atmospherics: a China crisis where the adulterers themselves are heard speaking but never seen. This is the anonymous face of a dirty secret.
The smooth, dapper Leung and the tall, shapely Cheung chastely speculate about the sordid affair over bowls of noodles. Or they stand silently together in the dark streets, getting drenched. The unspoken question between them: should they reciprocate in kind?“I wonder how it began?” she muses. “Someone must have made the first move,” he says. The next step in the healing process, naturally, should be rampant sex. He lunges at her. She lunges at him. Neither scene, it transpires, is true. The sense of missed opportunity is almost painful. Our heroes wallow in it to the weeping strains of Michael Galasso’s melancholic cellos. Who is to blame for this exquisite torture? That’s the skilful tease at the heart of Wong’s film. Leung and Cheung vow that they will not behave like their partners, but every loaded conversation screams otherwise. The idea of an erotic melodrama whose most explicit moment of intimacy is the squeezing of a hand might not appeal to those armed with normal carnal appetites. But the sexual chemistry is as compelling and intense as Emmanuelle. It’s simply better dressed. The elegant Cheung has more costume changes than a catwalk model. And Leung is effortlessly dapper in his suits and ties. It would be hard to find two more repressed, exotic and steamy leads.
Restrained and still, the actors communicate their longing and awkwardness with their eyes. “One can’t put a foot wrong,” says Cheung about the tightrope nature of their tentative relationship. And so it proves.
The camerawork is ravishing. The hypnotic slow-motion sequences trailing Cheung as she slinks out to the noodle bar for her solitary supper are fantastically sensual. Yet there are plenty of gritty ironies. The noisy, intrusive neighbours leap to the wrong, seedy conclusions. And most of Cheung’s duties as a secretary seem to be booking restaurants and buying presents for her own boss’s lunchtime mistresses. Though the period detail is marvellously evocative, the film’s grandiose attempts to nail the cultural anxieties sweeping Hong Kong in the 1960s are at best half-baked. The ending too smacks of rushed editing. Indeed Wong was still shooting the closing scenes a week before the film debuted in Cannes. It may be premature to declare it a masterpiece but I doubt you’ll see a film this year that aches so eloquently.
Film of the week: In the Mood for Love (PG)
London Times, SATURDAY OCTOBER 28 2000, BY CLIVE KING
Director: Wong Kar-Wai Stars: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai
THIS SLOW-BURNING tale of two people torn between convention and their intense desire to be together brings to mind Brief Encounter, David Lean’s classic romance from 1946. Perhaps if Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard had batted their eyelids over a steaming bowl of noodles at a Hong Kong market stall, instead of sharing tea and buns in a grimy British station café, their uptight flirtation might have ended very differently.
Then again, maybe not. Set in 1962, this version of Hong Kong is a less forgiving place than the anything goes, neon-drenched modern city that hosted the same director’s cult hit Chungking Express (1994). In the Mood for Love unfolds in a much more structured environment, a town without pity where respectability must be maintained at all costs.
Chow (Leung) is a young newspaper editor who moves in to a new apartment building with his wife. Their neighbour is the beautiful Li-zhen (Cheung, above), whose sales rep husband is rarely at home. Over games of mah-jong, Chow and Li-zhen form a warm friendship. Eventually they realise that their spouses are having an affair, a discovery that forces them to examine the true nature of their feelings for each other.
Though the narrative bobs along at the leisurely pace of a slow boat to China, there is much to admire along the way. The period is recreated with careful, richly coloured detail and Leung and Cheung are magnificent as the hesitant sweethearts. They share that rare brand of screen chemistry that makes you yearn to see them fall in love from the first moment they appear in the same room.
Like the popular tune from which it borrows its title, this bittersweet analysis of repressed passion lingers in the mind long after the last note has faded.