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High Lonesome

Wong Kar-wai may be the most fetishized—as well as the most fetishizing—of contemporary filmmakers, and with In the Mood for Love he takes this form of worship as his subject. Boldly mannered yet surprisingly delicate, In the Mood for Love is a wondrously perverse movie that not only evokes a lost moment in time but circles around an unrepresentable subject.

Mood is the operative word. A love story far more cerebral than it is emotional, In the Mood for Love invests most of its passion in the act of filmmaking . . . mainly by subtraction. Oblique events unfold in a sort of staid delirium. There may be no distinction between creating the memory and making the movie—"the past was something he could see but not touch," it is explained of the lead character—except that In the Mood for Love is structured on a principle of selective amnesia. The movie's presumptive title song is scarcely the only absent element.

Wong's story is set, mainly among displaced Shanghainese, in the Hong Kong of the early 1960s—which is to say the period and milieu of the filmmaker's own childhood. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) simultaneously rent rooms in adjacent apartments in the same crowded building and are forever bumping into each other in the narrow corridor. Through a series of parallel conversations, they deduce that his wife and her husband—who are several times heard, but whose faces are never shown—are having an affair, seemingly on their frequent business trips abroad. As a result of this, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are often alone and consequently drawn together.

Ritual in transfigured time: In the Mood for Love’s Leung and Cheung.
photo: USA Films
Ritual in transfigured time: In the Mood for Love’s Leung and Cheung.

Details

In the Mood for Love
Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai
A USA release
Opens February 2

Come and See
Directed by Elem Klimov
Written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich
A Kino release
Walter Reade
February 2 through 8

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This overdetermined symmetry is Wong's version of the urban romance epitomized by the 1928 silent picture Lonesome, in which a young couple meet, fall in love, and then lose each other in the mass-society frenzy of a Coney Island Saturday night only to discover that they actually live in adjoining rooms in the same anonymous boarding house. Wong begins where Lonesome ends and, in a sense, works the story backwards as well as forwards. (At times, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow pretend that they are their own adulterous spouses, rehearsing confrontations that may never take place.) With its blatantly manufactured coincidences, In the Mood for Love works both as experimental character drama and ritual in transfigured time. (That Mrs. Chan is employed as the personal secretary for a boss who is juggling a wife and mistress adds another invisible character to the movie.)

A largely fluid succession of short, often shot-length scenes interspersed with tantalizingly incomplete interactions between its two stars, In the Mood for Love is rhythmically a matter of dramatic elision and elongated privileged moments. Wong is never more modernist than in his willingness to create a narrative out of trivial dailiness, the storyteller's equivalent of the painter's negative space. If the relationship between his two elegantly unhappy and impossibly beautiful losers is sexually consummated, the audience will never know it: In the Mood for Love is a family romance without a primal scene.

Because the stars almost never touch, the air between them accrues an electric charge. The slightly slow-motion interludes, accompanied by Michael Galasso's stringent, wistful score, allow for the enraptured contemplation of Cheung's moving form—seen from the perspective of her affably depressed admirer—as she recedes slowly into the past. There is a sense in which the movie is all about the pensive languor with which the actress models her qipao. In the Mood for Love has many clocks but no temporal signifiers. The viewer learns to tell time by the leading lady's dresses—she wears a new one in every scene. (The size of her closet is another off-screen mystery.)

Although In the Mood for Love is less frenetically new wave and more lacquered than previous Wong, its period stylizations hark back to his first hit, Days of Being Wild. Unlike the earlier Chris Doyle-shot films, the camera is relatively sedated. The movie feels as much designed as directed—it's a loving reconstruction in which fake rain gently erodes the doctored exterior of worn apartment buildings. (Wong's longtime art director and costume designer, William Chang, also edited the film.) Scenes are typically set in cramped corridors, framed by doorways, and played out in shadowy back streets amid carefully positioned old automobiles. When they eat Western food at a faux L.A. coffee shop, Mrs. Chan's flowered qipaomatches the palm trees on the oversized plastic menu. Wong puts the antique bric-a-brac in the foreground but the old music seems overheard at some distance—except for the recurring songs of multiple displacement that Nat King Cole croons in Spanish.

Studied as it is, In the Mood for Love might have felt airless or static were it not for the oblique editing. Every artful contrivance is fuel for the fire, ashes of time scattered on the wind. "That era has passed" is the closing sentiment. "Nothing that belongs to it exists any more." Is In the Mood for Love Sirkian? Proustian? Can we speak of the Wongian? This 43-year-old writer-director is the most avant-garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa). Poised between approach and avoidance, presence and absence, In the Mood for Love is both giving and withholding. Governed by laws as strict as the old Hollywood production code, it's rhapsodically sublimated and ultimately sublime.

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