In the Mood for Love (2000)

D: Wong Kar-Wai
S: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung

Director Wong Kar-Wai's fascination with interconnectedness and ambiguity demonstrated in Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together continues with this clever romantic drama which plays as a postmodern variant on Brief Encounter. Hong Kong, 1962; two married couples move into lodgings next door to one another on the same day. As time passes, husband Tony Leung strikes up a tentative relationship with next door wife Maggie Cheung. Ah, but it's not as simple as that. As we discover, the real story is in the spaces between the narrative segments which the director allows us to follow. Concentrating on seemingly irrelevant, or at least mundane, detail, the film demands that the audience fill the gaps which tell the 'big' story, that of an extramarital affair which threatens to change the world of these people irrevocably. It is very often the secondary or background characters who provide the most important clues, from Cheung's boss who is carrying on with a younger woman to her landlady who acts as a subtle but definite moral watchdog. In fact the audience is never allowed to see the characters of Leung's wife and Cheung's husband in full view, forcing us to imagine them just as we have to 'imagine' much of the story.

Small indications of the loose links between lives of the leads come early on, as do the suggestions that rather than being fated to develop their relationship, these people keep narrowly missing the crucial moments. Repeated images of places, physical objects (phones, noodle flasks), and situations which might, under slightly different circumstances, produce the kind of story we expect are used to make the audience seek out connections on a different level. When we are finally told that something has been going on all along (only not where we thought it would be), we realise that it too has been perceptible through the narrative gaps rather than in the dialogue and situations before us. The film's mid-section then becomes an exploration of the process by which an actual connection between people form and grow into something more concrete (and threatening) as Leung and Cheung draw closer together. The narrative also becomes more literal at this point, though it still refuses absolute fixity, and for a while it seems as if generic convention will finally hold sway. Of course it doesn't. The audience is instead dragged gently away to follow a new route towards an extended resolution.

Its an interesting journey, filled with the director's characteristic fascinations and fetishistic focus on meaningful trivia. It is visually well crafted, carefully linking shot to shot, movement to movement with an eye for irrelevancy which masks the level of contrivance. The film's colour palette is rich and romantic, especially the use of red. The set designs mingle the cracked and steamy streets of 1960s Hong Kong with the trappings of relatively well-to-do characters living there. The director is very much in control of the film's pace and rhythm, and though the lengthy ending is irritating, this is again within the boundaries of the piece because it suggests a continued and increasing distance between the lives of its leading characters again predicated upon the smallest of shifts in time, space, and emotional connectedness.

Like most products of postmodernism however, the film is really of most interest by comparison with other things. It is worthwhile viewing the film in relation to recent romantic dramas such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair (or the huge body of work upon which they themselves are based) and contemplating questions about the nature of narrative as well as the more abstract questions about human nature which it raises. It really has little more to say about how people relate to one another than the most generic of generic romantic dramas does, but its self-consciousness, cleverness, and tendency to deconstruct motivation and expectation hold attention throughout. Fans will inevitably absorb it with wonderment, discerning viewers should enjoy it for its coherence and detail. Casual viewers may get less from it, but there is plenty to appreciate here if you know where to look, and that, of course, is the game Wong plays with the audience. Care to participate?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.