A visually imposing and thematically superlative film, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 In the Mood for Love, a deceptively simple story of random love, subjects viewers to a tough moral dilemma in dealing with the all too important question of how to keep one’s integrity after being hurt.
If there ever was a movie, beautiful enough to be displayed as a coffee table book, that had to be In the Mood for Love [Fa yeung nin wa]. Every single frame of Wong Kar-Wai’s film is a work of art; a poem made up of yellow, orange and red; a widescreen canvas, painted with flowering dresses and cigarette smoke. What’s most incredible about the movie is that its cinematography is not even the most significant aspect of its magnificent whole. Thematically, this masterpiece (definitively a 21st century Top 10 film) reaches unimaginable levels.
In the Hong Kong of the 1960s, in a cramped tenement, recently arrived tenants Chow Mo-wan, aka Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen, aka Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) meet. Over time they develop a connection, which seems more than mere friendship. Their partners are having affairs with each other of their spouses, helped by their long stays away from home. And although both feel that this new-found, mischievous relationship is justified by their partners’ infidelity, they never consummate their love. Eventually, their superior attitude towards the relationship becomes unbearable, as they realise they’re truly in love. In the end, Mr. Chow moves to Singapore and they never see each other again.
Perhaps the secret behind the film’s magnetic pull is of such fundamental simplicity. Wong Kar-Wai is a smart director as he tells the story of In the Mood for Love with as much what he leaves out as with he leaves in. In keeping the tale fragmented and without obvious explanations, the film not only emulates life and its natural mysteries but it also reinforces ambiguity, a frequent and important element of great art. In periods of the film, the economy of dialogue between these two people and the consequent non-verbal cues that are created, enrich the story, helping to give the movie its dream-like atmosphere.
..Three Reasons: In the Mood for Love © The Criterion Collection.
It is natural to wish that these two handsome people end up together. Not only they share the pain of betrayal and a deep feeling of solitude, but also they managed to find each other in this enormous metropolis of lost souls. Maggie Cheung is so beautiful and sexy, so glamorous and mysterious that one wonders which old noir classic she comes from. Tony Leung is the epitome class and elegance, wit and composure. It is in our nature to root for their ‘perfect’ love exactly because we lack such perfection in daily life. We aim for the ideal to forget the mundane.
At the end, one is left with a melancholy hanging in the air. A man and a woman suppressing their love for each other so intensely that it hurts. The natural frame of mind is obviously to root for their romance to be consummated. However, what we have in front of us with the film is far more powerful. Their platonic relationship is arguably the pinnacle of their feeling for each other. From there onwards, their relationship could only go downhill. Unless, one is willing to accept versions of reality imposed by Hollywood rom-coms.
In the more conventional melodramas, their nobility would reside in their unmistakable decision to stay together, no matter how many people would get hurt. Do not forget though that this ‘love conquers all’ attitude is indeed very selfish. Modern minds like to think that the positive aspect of choosing love cancels out the eventual negative consequences that arise from such choice. Personally, I think that the courageous act of choosing to stay true to principles of honour and integrity compensates for the pain caused by the absence of the loved one.
As Maggie Cheung’s character says ‘We won’t be like them.’ The film captures a brief, and yet glorious, moment in the lives of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. As the cliché would have it, at least they tasted, even if not dined or drunk, honeydew and the milk of Paradise. Slowly, like the mood of the story itself, they grab the notion that dignity and the lasting memories of it might be better tools for sustaining their future selves than the powerful, and yet transient, feeling of being in love. The pride of knowing that they did the right thing is more powerful than the awareness that perhaps they were soul mates.
Who does that? I mean, who renounces happiness in the name of some abstract thinking? A concept or an ideal would never match the power of love, right? Or would it? Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love wants to deal with all such questions and more. And as it refuses to provide clear-cut answers to complex issues like these ones, this masterpiece sits very close to the top of a very distinguished pile of great films of the new millennium.