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With: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lai Chen, Rebecca Pan
Written by: Wong Kar-wai
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief language
Language: Cantonese with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 20/05/2000

In the Mood for Love (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Mood' Piece

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Wong Kar-wai makes movies that render all other movies plain and ordinary. His visual style takes everything into account, vertical and horizontal space, depth of field, colors, movement, dazzle, angles, etc. But it's more even than that. There's a certain kinetic electricity to his films that's difficult to describe, but one frame of his work tells you who made it.

At the same time, Wong's films keep growing emotionally. All of his movies are about longing and elusive love, but they're often wrapped in cop stories (Chungking Express & Fallen Angels) and action stories (Ashes of Time). But his new film In the Mood for Love, does not hide behind any genres, offering up its lost love as the movie's central moment. It's a truly great, not-to-be-missed event.

In the film, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai (both in Wong's Days of Being Wild) star as next-door neighbors in 1960's Hong Kong. Both are recently relocated from Shanghai and neither truly feels at home. This loneliness is made worse by the fact that both their spouses (never seen on film) travel all the time. Both Cheung and Leung gradually realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. The brokenhearted couple proceeds to play love-games with each other to understand how it happened.

But plot does not matter much here, as the title suggests. What we're really watching is the equivalent of two birds fluttering around each other, exploring each other, but painfully aware of being watched. Wong simply makes it an interesting and poetic game. The two jilted lovers play all manner of scenes together but never traverse their romantic boundaries in any way. Occasionally, they playact their respective spouses but without letting the audience in on what they're doing. Only when they suddenly break character do we let our collective breath out.

Matters get more interesting when Leung and Cheung team up to work on a pulpy kung-fu novel together (about a drunken master!), and when Cheung is seen at work, covering up for her married boss' indiscretions with an unseen mistress. One night, Cheung comes to Leung's apartment for dinner, but his landlords and ladies suddenly come home, trapping the pair in Leung's bedroom. Though they have nothing to be ashamed of (and no one would blame them under the circumstances) Cheung stays all night long in Leung's little room with no sexual contact whatsoever.

Wong uses all the spaces in the film, even the very air itself, as important characters. The narrow, cramped apartment building they live in, the dingy noodle bar located at the bottom of a set of constricted wooden steps, the back of a taxi cab, dimly lit restaurants, and dull work places, all seem to reflect the moods of the characters, as well as acting upon them. Certain atmospheres practically beg for our two hapless heroes to romantically link.

Another brilliant device in the film is Maggie Cheung's costumes, a series of lovely dresses that change their pattern but never their shape. They're snug and form-fitting, suggesting both sexuality and entrapment. Ms. Cheung was once a cutie-pie actress in Hong Kong movies, playing squealing girlfriends until her now-husband, French director Olivier Assayas, cast her in her first "serious" role, as herself in the brilliant Irma Vep (1996). Since then, Cheung has only improved, making the most of her stunning good looks and her intelligent awareness of them.

I've made it sound like nothing much happens in In the Mood for Love. On the contrary, everything happens. Every scene, every grain, every particle is tantalizingly charged with romance, longing, hope, and sadness. This is great, poetic filmmaking at its finest. I don't expect to see many films this year as good as this.

DVD Details: Wong Kar-wai's achingly unfulfilled love story may be his greatest film -- but that's ultimately hard to say because it's so different from his previous works. Certainly it was one of the two or three best films released last year. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung star as neighbors in a cramped apartment building circa 1962 Hong Kong who discover that their never-seen spouses are having an affair. Wong places Cheung in beautiful but constricting dresses to perfectly illustrate her state of mind, and the confined, rainy sets do the same. Criterion has done a beautiful job on this two-disc set, including a new short film by Wong and tons of other stuff, but sadly lacking a director commentary track.

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