Friday, July 06, 2012

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong/France, 98 minutes
Director/writer: Wong Kar-wai
Photography: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, Ping Bin Lee
Music: Michael Galasso, Umebayashi Shigeru, Nat King Cole
Editor: William Chang
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Kelly Lai Chin, Rebecca Pan, Ping Lam Siu

It's interesting that In the Mood for Love should find its way to the top of the critics' consensus list for the 21st century (as collated by the fine folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?), inasmuch as it seems notably one that involves a deliberate choice at some point, choosing whether or not to like it. Of course that's true to some degree with all movies (and literature, music, art, etc.).  But few films I know seem set up for that on such an active, conscious basis. So if I have decided to like it I'm aware how easily I could have gone the other way, complaining about its arch premise, its maddening indirectness, and all its surface sheen that arguably comes at the expense of narrative coherence.

There's also the matter of the contrarian in me and the fact that In the Mood for Love has occupied its #1 position for as long as I have been aware of the list (unfortunately the fine folks have not made information available about how the rankings have changed year to year, as they do with their big list). But I can't imagine it won't give way sooner or later to something else—it seems altogether too slight to hold such an imposing position. On the other hand, it's possible to make out surprising connections to, for example, Citizen Kane: it's a moment of a great flowering in a national style, it plays with an array of cinematic elements (and does so with bracing confidence)—soundtrack, composition, staging, performances—and it's insanely capable of delivering pleasures once you begin to take it on its own terms and forgive it its louder qualities of implicit braggadocio.

Set mostly in Hong Kong of 1962 (and made in Hong Kong of 2000), it's a story about two couples who happen to move in next door to one another. Before they have even become neighbors, however, the husband in one of those relationships is already involved with the wife in the other. This movie, then, is about the other two—in fact, the cheaters are barely seen at all, except as disembodied voices or figures glimpsed furtively from behind. Mr. Chow (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Mrs. Chan (played by Maggie Cheung) strike up a stiff and awkward acquaintance that gradually develops into an intense yet chaste friendship.

Indeed, as good a place as any to start with In the Mood for Love is the performances of Leung and Cheung, who were already established and important figures in the Hong Kong cinema that started to find its legs in the '80s, and of which this is one of the finest moments. Leung and Cheung put on a matched clinic, opening into the interiorities of their characters with one indelible moment after another, often a matter of a pause that goes on too long, or a tilt of the head that communicates volumes. In one memorable scene, the way they chew and eat meat is an entire treatise in itself. As the mutually rejected toss-aways of their partners, they have much in common. They are both angry and about the same thing. They already rejected such behavior before it ever wounded them. It's impossible now for them to indulge it themselves, as lonely and in need of comfort as they are. "We won't be like them," they say to one another. Yet they spend a lot of time together, and are on intimate terms, even if they don't sexualize it. Interestingly, the movie may well use fewer words of dialogue than there are words in this paragraph to tell this. Much of that owes to these two masterful players, whose sturdy performances are amazingly complete, telling a fragmented story at great depths.

And as much of it owes to the photography, which is fluid, lyrical, and often stunning. Smoke, rain, darkness, spot lighting. Many shots through curtains, billowing or static, interior images checkered by windowpane partitions, or exteriors sliced by fence bars. Lots of angled mirrors. Shots are often set up in hallways or through open doors (or both at once), with the result of presenting an ever-shifting array of frames, many tall and narrow, like the aspect of a closet, alternating in lulling rhythms. There are even slow-motion shots and freeze-frames. It almost feels like the most natural way to talk about this picture is in the terms of art objects more than narrative—lines and tensions, chiaroscuro, palettes, triangles and squares, balance. The narrative is more convenient than natural, with its over-thought premise providing just enough complexity for the requisite momentum. But the picture is otherwise a jewel box to pick through, with elements that keep adding up to more and more: the blank clock face, always the same always telling a different time, Mrs. Chan's noodle thermos, her parade of outfits, an exterior just outside the building in which they live, seen from an alley. There's even time, in this relatively compact movie, for scenes from Cambodia in 1966 at the end, which look like nothing so much as unusually competent tourist footage.

As much as I may complain about the narrative, there's no denying the nice sense of pacing, moving without haste yet quickly from scene to scene across weeks at a time. And there's a fascinating way that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan seem to largely interact via mediating role-playing games. In the eating scene they order dishes for one another that their partners would order. At one point Mrs. Chan says, "You have my husband down pat. He's a real sweet-talker." They rehearse confrontations with their respective partners and even their own separation from one another. Some of the role-playing is set up explicitly to fool us. But the characters seem most comfortable constantly playing, performing, even for one another. Later, as Mr. Chow begins to enjoy some success with writing martial-arts serials for a newspaper, the two begin to collaborate on fiction.

The last big piece to what makes In the Mood for Love so extraordinary is the music, which as so much else here is a kind of artful statement and repetition of basic motifs. The one perhaps most associated with it is a striking waltz, "Yumeji's Theme" by Umebayashi Shigeru (listen), a percussive string figure with a wheedling and haunting violin melody scraping across the top of it. There are also fragments from three Nat King Cole songs recorded in Spanish, the most memorable of which, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," appears at many of the picture's most indelible moments, such as the eating scene and also the ending, which now that I look at a mashup clip (here) I realize how capably it can constitute a "single" version of the entire picture. I prefer Wong Kar-wai's extended mix it should go without saying.

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