Friday, September 21, 2007

In the Mood for Wong Kar-Wai

Moody cinematography from In the Mood for Love

Last night I watched In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000), Wong Kar-wai's celebrated film about unrequited love between Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk in 1962 Hong Kong. Having seen 2046 (2004), the sequel to this film, earlier this year, I figured it was time to back-pedal and finally get closure on the story. I wasn't disappointed. Though they are related (2046 is a hotel room where the two actors meet in In the Mood for Love), they are almost two completely different films (in fact, Zhang Ziyi replaces Maggie Cheung as the lead in 2046); you don't need to see both to appreciate either, but seeing one, you want to see both.

First all of, watching a Wong Kar-wei film is like visiting an art museum in which the paintings move. The cinematography - usually by his frequent gwailo collaborator Christopher Doyle (as well as Pin Bing Lee for In the Mood for Love) - makes each film a visual feast in terms of lighting, colors and framing.

Second, he gets the best in acting talent. At 43, Maggie Cheung is no longer the young babe who prances around in black leather catsuits like in Heroic Trio (Dung Fong Saam Hap, 1993) or Irma Vep (1996), but her work since the mid-'90s has grown in stature, especially in films like this, Wayne Wang's Chinese Box (1997), Zhang Yimou's Hero (Ying Xiong, 2002) and her amazing polyglot performance in Olivier Assayas' Clean (2004). And frequent Wong Kar-wai performer Tony Leung is, well, Hong Kong's best actor, period. No one else comes close.

Third, Wong Kar-wai is a non-narrative filmmaker who writes his own non-narrative "scripts." (In fact, filming for In the Mood For Love was shifted from Beijing to Macau after Chinese authorities demanded to see the completed script from this director who notoriously never uses scripts.) What this means is, his films are like zen koans whose meanings must be unearthed and deconstructed, like unfolding intricately layered origami. The surface is beautiful and elegant, yet restrained; it must be reflected on. He creates - as this film's English title suggests - moods rather than resolutions. Ultimately, this is much more rewarding than a simple "let X=X" narrative exposition.

But my words cannot do justice to In the Mood for Love. For that I turn to Roger Ebert, whose Chicago-Tribune review (below) got it just right, IMHO. I also suggest checking out Wong Kar-wai's DVD commentary, as he points out many things that are obvious to Chinese audiences (such as the food being consumed signifying what season it is) but not so to Westerners.

In The Mood For Love
BY ROGER EBERT / February 16, 2001

They are in the mood for love, but not in the time and place for it. They look at each other with big damp eyes of yearning and sweetness, and go home to sleep by themselves. Adultery has sullied their lives: his wife and her husband are having an affair. "For us to do the same thing," they agree, "would mean we are no better than they are." The key word there is "agree." The fact is, they do not agree. It is simply that neither one has the courage to disagree, and time is passing. He wants to sleep with her and she wants to sleep with him, but they are both bound by the moral stand that each believes the other has taken.

You may disagree with my analysis. You may think one is more reluctant than the other. There is room for speculation, because whole continents of emotions go unexplored in Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," a lush story of unrequited love that looks the way its songs sound. Many of them are by Nat King Cole, but the instrumental "Green Eyes," suggesting jealousy, is playing when they figure out why her husband and his wife always seem to be away at the same times.

His name is Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Hers is Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk). In the crowded Hong Kong of 1962, they have rented rooms in apartments next to each other. They are not poor; he's a newspaper reporter, she's an executive assistant, but there is no space in the crowded city and little room for secrets.

Cheung and Leung are two of the biggest stars in Asia. Their pairing here as unrequited lovers is ironic because of their images as the usual winners in such affairs. This is the kind of story that could be remade by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, although in the Hollywood version, there'd be a happy ending. That would kind of miss the point and release the tension, I think; the thrust of Wong's film is that paths cross but intentions rarely do. In his other films, like "Chungking Express," his characters sometimes just barely miss connecting, and here again key things are said in the wrong way at the wrong time. Instead of asking us to identify with this couple, as an American film would, Wong asks us to empathize with them; that is a higher and more complex assignment, with greater rewards.

The movie is physically lush. The deep colors of film noir saturate the scenes: Reds, yellows, browns, deep shadows. One scene opens with only a coil of cigarette smoke, and then reveals its characters. In the hallway outside the two apartments, the camera slides back and forth, emphasizing not their nearness but that there are two apartments, not one.

The most ingenious device in the story is the way Chow and Su play-act imaginary scenes between their cheating spouses. "Do you have a mistress?" she asks, and we think she is asking Chow, but actually she is asking her husband, as played by Chow. There is a slap, not as hard as it would be with a real spouse. They wound themselves with imaginary dialogue in which their cheating partners laugh about them. "I didn't expect it to hurt so much," Su says, after one of their imaginary scenarios.

Wong Kar-wai leaves the cheating couple offscreen. Movies about adultery are almost always about the adulterers, but the critic Elvis Mitchell observes that the heroes here are "the characters who are usually the victims in a James M. Cain story." Their spouses may sin in Singapore, Tokyo or a downtown love hotel, but they will never sin on the screen of this movie, because their adultery is boring and commonplace, while the reticence of Chow and Su elevates their love to a kind of noble perfection.

Their lives are as walled in as their cramped living quarters. They have more money than places to spend it. Still dressed for the office, she dashes out to a crowded alley to buy noodles. Sometimes they meet on the grotty staircase. Often it is raining. Sometimes they simply talk on the sidewalk. Lovers do not notice where they are, do not notice that they repeat themselves. It isn't repetition, anyway--it's reassurance. And when you're holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires.


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