In The Mood For Love (Fa yeung nin wa)
Hong Kong (2000) Dir. Wong Kar-Wai
Hong Kong 1962 and assistant newspaper editor Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) rents a room in an apartment building on the same day as married secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). As well as being neighbours they also share the fate of having spouses whose work sees them taking many trips overseas leaving them alone. Despite the friendliness of the landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan) and the other tenants, the pair either work late or spend time alone. Having realised their similar predicaments Chow and Su begin to spend time together and become close.
The phrase “it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it” is very applicable to this highly acclaimed and equally rewarded film from fastidious Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai. The plot is as fundamental as it gets yet Wong is able to create a visually engaging and emotionally immersive film that belies the simplicity of the story.
1960’s Hong Kong was a very conservative place so for married couples to fraternise away from their wedded nest would be seriously frowned upon, hence the nervous tension that consumes our two leads. Neither are looking for an affair or indeed actively seek company when their spouses are away but fate has a funny way of leading people down a path they’d not normally travel. Keenly aware of this our would be lovers even address each other as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, maintaining a dignified distance at all times. The rare dialogue between them is limited to polite but trite small talk and the usual pleasantries when passing each other in the hall or on the stairs.
However to the audience it is evident they won’t stay strangers for long. After dancing around the inevitable attraction they enjoy a purely platonic cup of coffee where they suspect and eventually conclude that not only are their partners (who are never seen on screen) playing away but with each other’s spouses! As you might expect Chow and Chan are too polite to follow suit but do enjoy each other’s company. They rent a hotel room (number 2046 – also the title of the follow-up) where together they write a martial arts serial while enjoying noodles and soup, but are constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of being found out.
For the audience part of us, even knowing that infidelity is wrong and two wrongs don’t make a right, will be in danger of become infuriated by their continual resistance to each other’s obvious feelings. This is where Wong Kar-Wai excels at being a master manipulator of our emotions, taking us to the brink of what we expect to happen then pull us back with a sharp tug at the very last second. It doesn’t help that the first thirty minutes plus are one big tease of “will they won’t they” which gradually morphs into “get on with it!”, yet the couple are so polite and good natured about everything that one has to respect their reluctance to have a revenge fling.
The power of this film lies in three areas – the visuals, the cast and Wong’s own inimitable artistic style. First, Wong has gone to great length to ensure the replication of the 1960’s is as flawlessly accurate as possibly. To achieve this the film is suffused with a slightly washed out colour palette to recreate the effect of films from this period, while the clothing, soundtrack, set pieces and other fixtures are equally faithful to the era.
Speaking of the clothing Maggie Cheung wears a different cheongsam in every scene and looks like she was sewn into them they are so tight! In fact she manages the impossible in being the sexiest chaste woman ever seen on screen, which is due part to these tight dresses and her own natural sensuousness. And Mr. Chan is cheating on HER?? Meanwhile for the ladies, Tony Leung is dressed as your everyday worker in bland suits and ties but still exudes his effortless cool panache.
Wong is know for an artistic style riddled with visual metaphors and surreal expressions often for the sake of it, and yes there are touches of these present but by holding back on them this film is arguably Wong’s most accessible to date. The narrative as a result is far more straightforward for the most part, with a few quick cuts that create an impression of either a major time leap or a flashback. But for those of you who enjoy Wong’s visual flair there are some treats for you.
One recurring motif is the use of cigarette smoke to create a mood. As much as I hate smoking Wong does create some interesting images with the emissions from the heavily featured cancer sticks to great effect. For Chow they are able to express exactly what he is thinking from hurt to loneliness to concern to uncertainty. It sounds pretentious but is actually a clever and sublime method of visual communication and expression.
To say Leung and Cheung have an incredible chemistry is an understatement; if they weren’t supposed to be lovers or a couple in this film, they should have been! They connect not just on an aesthetic level but through an unspoken language where every little action, be it a turn of the head, a simple coy look or an accidental brush of the arm. Both actors who are known for powerhouse dramatic performances as well as dabbling in martial arts action but here Wong has them both reining in the actor in them so their every movement and expression feels natural and without contrivance.
Closing on an arty and slightly ambiguous note which clashes aggressively with everything that precedes it, there is no question that In The Mood For Love is a triumph of art and natural storytelling that beguiles and engages on many levels, standing tall and proud – for this writer – as Wong’s finest work.