[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
There may be no more sensual director in the world today than Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai.
His best films (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time) are rich in unconsummated affairs. The delicate shadow dances of would-be lovers and flirtatious courtships of couples that only fleetingly make contact are like a postmodern vision of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama shot in splintered glimpses and burning color.
In the Mood for Love is a film sketched almost entirely in suggestion, at once Wong’s most deftly cinematic work to date and his most aloof. The setting is Hong Kong, 1962. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai are nextdoor neighbors in a crowded apartment building, a tiny, self-contained community bustling with chit-chat, potluck dinners, and all-night mahjong games.
Married to mostly absent spouses who are unseen even when present (Wong leaves them a disembodied offscreen voice), they wander the cramped hallways and dark staircases alone, so wrapped up in their loneliness that they pass one another with hardly a nod of greeting.
When they suspect that their spouses are having an affair they meet to compare notes, but even in friendship and growing affection they keep their social faces in place. Cheung, wrapped tightly in elegant, high-necked dresses, is poised and perfect and so corseted she can hardly move, and she lives her life that way. When the lonely almost-lovers flirt, it’s play-acting cum therapy, interrupted only when it becomes too personal.
Wong shoots the film from around corners, under tables, through doorways and windows, eavesdropping on a life. Slivers of scenes dissolve into one another as time is lost to mood and emotion; the film doesn’t progress as much as spiral lazily around the characters.
That can make the film a frustrating time for viewers expecting a strong story and clean narrative line, and an exhilarating experience for those open to his cinematic textures. Wong remains on the outside looking in, but his gliding camera finds a grace in their sadness and his simmering colors allow their repressed emotions to burn their way into the screen.
2020 update: Both NSFC and NYFCC voted it Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Cinematography