Wong Kar-wei is best known in America for the vibrant, goofy visual pyrotechnics of Chungking Express and Happy Together. These films are the work of a perpetual adolescent, unlikely love stories shot through with bursts of reckless energy and a gear-grinding capacity for radical shifts in tone that sometimes erupt in mid-sentence. Chris Doyle’s casually virtuosic handheld camera supplied the coherence the stories rejected; each sharply composed frame had the vivacity of an off-the-cuff snapshot, bathed in lurid neon blues, the perspectives skewed by a wide angle lens. These films are ungainly – they meander at times and they’re ultimately a little exhausting – but they’re so crammed with tossed-off ideas and unkempt beauty that they bring to mind nothing so much as the great early films of Jean-Luc Godard.
Wong’s magnificent new film In the Mood for Love would be cause for celebration coming from anyone, but to see such a mature, focused work from him marks his transition from gifted prodigy to one of the era’s major filmmakers.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbors in mid-’60’s Hong Kong. They’re both married to partners who travel extensively, so they live in isolation, working and waiting, their days a matter of routine. Once they both realize that their spouses are not just having affairs, but are in fact seeing one another, they begin an affair of their own.
It begins as compensation for their loneliness, with an edge of awkward retaliation (at dinner, Cheung orders only what Leung’s wife would have eaten at that restaurant). But as they go on, their neediness pushes them into a relationship more complex and richer than anything they’d experienced with their partners.
In the past, Wong’s offhand, elliptical style served to underscore the fleeting quality of young love – his stories flew by in fits and starts that matched the uncertainty of the emotions he was exploring. Here, he uses his odd expositional style to different ends. He likes to keep his audience a bit confused, cutting off scenes before we know what’s transpired and letting us sort out the details for ourselves once we see the repercussions later. He omits the scenes we’d expect and plays out small, quiet moments in exacting detail. Circumventing the big moments excises the melodrama inherent in his scenario. Rather than histrionics, we get contemplation. It earns our responses rather than dictating them to us.
Doyle’s camera is much more subdued here, favoring measured, stately tracking shots over his usual quicksilver handheld work. He revels in the deep reds and smoky textures of the apartments, giving each image a richly tactile surface. It’s a move away from the arresting immediacy of their earlier films, but the loss of energy pays off in a greater concentration and depth in the images.
Wong has structured the film with distinct stylistic movements. The first third is built from fragmented scenes cut with a jagged, skipping rhythm. These give way occasionally to lyrical slow motion sequences set to a minor key string quartet. The tension between these two styles ratchets up our involvement in the unfolding story – the significance of the snatches of narrative is weighted by the moody passages, so we’re constantly reframing the impact of what we’re seeing.
As the story falls into place in the film’s middle third, Wong leaps from fragmentation to a measured, deliberate pace that allows each scene to play out fully. Rather than tantalize us with enigmas, he leaves us to savor the performances of his leads. Their work is all just below the surface, building intensity from their very reserve. Each gesture is so contained, each line reading so circumspect, that we become attuned to the weight of the smallest shifts in timbre, the tiniest glances. The slow motion passages in this movement blossom into full blown romanticism, accompanied now by Nat King Cole singing Spanish ballads. These songs may seem like parody at first, but that jokiness evaporates – soon the songs are giving voice to the characters’ unspoken feelings.
The final third returns to the clipped rhythms of the opening, but the possibilities of the style are expanded by our experience of the first two movements. Wong plays out the denouement in a series of scenes that feel like short, sharp jabs – they communicate with a raw directness belied by the beauty of their realization.
In the Mood for Love is a work of enormous gravity. One never feels that anything could happen here, that the story could implode and take off in a
completely unexpected direction, as in Wong’s earlier work. But whatever’s lost in sheer exhilaration is more than made up for with the added resonance and depth of feeling. If he ever manages to combine the two, it should make for an extraordinary film.