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.

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 qipao matches 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.

When Mr. Chow finally decides to leave Hong Kong, the camera finds him in his office and the image almost freezes on a gesture. Similarly, the narrative itself disintegrates into a remarkable series of vignettes—a scene predicated on a phone call placed to Singapore, a fleeting glimpse through a Hong Kong tenement door. The coda—set, with wild extravagance, in the jungle city of Angkor—is almost too lovely. The monumental merges with the ephemeral, as the stately camera tracks through the empty ruins of someone else’s eternity.

Come and See, the last and most notable film made by the former Soviet director Elem Klimov, is another fusion of popular and vanguard styles, albeit put to more civic-minded use. Klimov takes as his subject one of the most atrocious episodes in the short, convulsive history of the Soviet Union—the 1942 German invasion of what is now Belarus.

A glasnost movie with a script that had to wait some eight years for approval, Come and See was finally produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War and was consequently rewarded with first prize at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival. Klimov, who as a result was briefly elevated to a leading role in the film industry, had revitalized the most sacred of Soviet genres—in part by making a movie that could be readily understood as a warning against the nuclear apocalypse then threatened by our beloved President Reagan, in part by employing the formalist brio and innocent child’s-eye view of carnage used by Klimov’s contemporary and erstwhile classmate Andrei Tarkovsky in My Name Is Ivan.

A 12-year-old boy (Alexei Kravchenko) leaves his hysterical peasant mother to join the partisans in the forest—or, rather, to enter into their hallucination. It is as though they are making a partisan movie—listening to period songs and engaging in surreal clowning. Herons stroll through the mossy woods. Rainbows arc between the trees. The boy, whose wizened monkey face ages visibly over the course of the movie, comes across a beautiful young girl, alternately witchy and playful. But nature is a charnel house as well as a cathedral. When the German bombs fall, the children huddle together for warmth, then, full of foreboding, return to his mother’s empty cabin—where flies buzz around the still warm soup—to find that something truly terrible has indeed happened. At this point, phantasmagoria is grounded in appalling reality. The children flee through the swamp, neck-deep in muck, to hear the last words of a flayed corpse; the boy, perhaps mad, is sent on an expedition to search for food in the fog-shrouded landscape, treacherously illuminated by German flares.

Directed for baroque intensity, Come and See is a robust art film with aspirations to the visionary—not so much graphic as leisurely literal-minded in its representation of mass murder. (The movie has been compared both to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and it would not be surprising to learn that Steven Spielberg had screened it before making either of these.) The film’s central atrocity is a barbaric circus of blaring music and barking dogs in which a squadron of drunken German soldiers round up and parade the peasants to their fiery doom. A final title informs that this is one of 628 Byelorussian villages massacred and burned during the war.

The bit of actual death-camp corpse footage that Klimov uses is doubly disturbing in that it retrospectively diminishes the care with which he orchestrates the town’s destruction. For the most part, he prefers to show the Gorgon as reflected in Perseus’s shield. There are few images more indelible than the sight of young Alexei Kravchenko’s fear-petrified expression. By some accounts the boy was hypnotized for the movie’s final scenes—most viewers will be as well.