Directed by: Wong Kar-wai || Produced by: Wong Kar-wai
Screenplay by: Wong Kar-wai || Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Siu Ping Lam, Rebecca Pan
Music by: Michael Galasso, Shigeru Umebayashi || Cinematography: Christopher Doyle, Mark Lee Ping Bin || Editing by: William Chang || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 98 minutes
One of the biggest names in world cinema today is renowned Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. He seems to have a knack for producing steamy, tortured romances (e.g. Happy Together , 2046 , In the Mood for Love), but has shown he can utilize his trademark auteur skills in a variety of genres — case in point, this past year’s (2013) Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, The Grandmaster. Wong’s most famous film is without a doubt the alluringly titled In the Mood for Love, starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Let’s discuss that one now, shall we?
In the Mood for Love (IML) follows the lives of two married Hong Kong citizens who move next door to each other with their spouses. One, played by Tony Leung, is a journalist, while the other, played by Maggie Cheung, is a secretary for a shipping company. Time passes and Leung and Cheung end up running into each other simply by chance. However, the more times they end up eating alone and exchanging information with each simply by osmosis, they realize their spouses are having an affair with each other. This leads to the two cheated spouses getting to know each other more and more, not to cheat in revenge, but instead to try and understand what led to their spouses’ infidelity. As time passes, Leung and Cheung develop a platonic friendship out of a shared sense of loneliness and empathy for each other’s plight.
The rest of the narrative continues in predictable fashion, but what’s interesting is how Kar-wai never films the cheating spouses of either Leung or Cheung, save for glimpses of their backs in a few brief shots. The focus is kept entirely on the two leads and their mostly silent suffering. This works for the most part because Kar-wai does an excellent job of combining the mirror images of Leung and Cheung’s emotional states. He uses creative transition shots, slow-motion pans, and distinct color patterns to communicate emotion from the characters to the audience. Kar-wai also makes liberal use of the film’s score, particularly the main theme, which plays whenever romantic interest is implied by either of the two leads. The main theme might even be used a bit too much for my tastes, but the hook is well written and fits with the narrative’s running theme. Overall, the film’s biggest strength is its presentation of the intense emotion felt by Leung and Cheung, which is thanks to Kar-wai’s memorable directorial style.
For my part, I could empathize with both of the main characters and felt the vivid cinematography combined with the catchy music to bring their emotions to life. I was, however, less impressed with the screenplay overall in terms of how the characters progressed and how the film ended. While I can appreciate the tension that comes from restrained sexual and emotional desire, I found the lack of any sort of passionate climax deflating and a little disappointing. They didn’t have to end the film on a sappy, cliched, happy ending where Leung and Cheung married and drove off into the sunset, but the fact that nothing happens romantically between the two feels like a freaking cocktease. Furthermore, the sheer number of times that Cheung and Leung almost run into each other and keep barely missing each near the end of the film becomes ridiculous. They both realize they have feelings for each other, and Kar-wai keeps coming up with one obstacle after the next to keep them apart. One time Leung unintentionally avoids Cheung’s character when he is in the hallway adjacent to her apartment, not knowing that she is a resident there.
I can appreciate In the Mood for Love for its nuanced direction and how smoothly Kar-wai integrates a sensual undertone into every nook and cranny of every scene. I admire the film’s cinematography, and I thought Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung did good jobs as the male and female leads, respectively. Despite all that though, I have significant problems with the screenplay and the way I felt the director kept artificially separating his characters in order to create some contrived sense of tragic poetry or coincidence. I feel it wasn’t the right move and, consequently, I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. For me, I need at least little bit of touching to go along with all that looking, even if it’s merely implied and not actually shown on camera.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: In the Mood for Love is a tough film to analyze. On the one hand, it’s beautifully composed and sounds amazing, but on the other hand, the characterizations are hard to connect with beyond a superficial level. You empathize with their situation, but not necessarily their development nor their full persona.
— ON THE FENCE
? If you can go from writing and directing this to writing and directing The Grandmaster, you must be versatile indeed.