Wong Kar-Wai has a cult following here in the U.S. In the Mood for Love shows why devoted fans like his work. It also also shows why Wong isn’t more popular with mainstream audiences.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan
Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) each move in to sublet rooms, right next door to each other. Their spouses are never seen; they’re always on business trips or working late. Not surprisingly, Chow and Chin see each other a lot at the take-out restaurant down the street.
Once, when their spouses are both out of town, Mr. Chow asks Mrs. Chan to dinner. Both are quiet and preoccupied. They both inwardly suspect their spouses are having an affair together. Finally, Mr. Chow broaches the subject of Mrs. Chan’s handbag. His wife has the same one, although it’s only available in Japan. Likewise, Mr. Chow’s tie is just like one Mrs. Chan’s husband brought back from a business trip. It must be true; their spouses are having an affair.
Chow and Chin meet more and more often to commiserate, and eventually they themselves fall in love. Their passion drives them together, although neither is willing to make their relationship physical. “We won’t be like them,” they tell themselves.
The premise sounds intriguing – vaguely like last year’s dog Random Hearts, but with a more human and less sensational treatment. In fact, I was looking forward to the movie as an intense drama.
However, the finished product is not nearly as interesting as the premise. This is the first Wong Kar-Wai film I have seen. I’m told his other films have the same problem this one did: they are all dull.
Kinder critics will call the pace “deliberate,” and in deference, I can tell that Wong has a tight control over the style of his film. Repetition of styles, shots and music show that he and his editor have put a lot of thought into their presentation. Wong shoots without a script, and in an Onion interview, he said “We tried to create the film from our memories. And in our memories, everything moves much slower....”
But deliberate or not, the story unfolds so slowly and and the passion between the lovers is so subtle and repressed, that very little actually happens on-screen. For a moving picture, In the Mood for Love is too often static. The would-be lovers sit quietly together, occasionally exchanging snippets of conversation. They wonder how their spouses communicate. They play out imagined scenes of her husband and his wife meeting, conversing, fighting. It’s not bad drama, but it makes for dry cinema.
What’s worse, the end of the film jumps ahead 3 years, then inexplicably jumps to Cambodia for an odd coda that introduces historical footage of Charles de Gaulle arriving to greet Cambodia’s leaders. After 90% of the film was over, the last thing I wanted was the introduction of new material.
A Pleasant Aftertaste
I once drank some orange blossom water, purchased on a cross-cultural whim. The bottle was pretty and the Arabic script promised an exotic experience. Drinking it was a challenge. The water was absolutely horrible, although it did leave a pleasant aftertaste.
In the Mood was the same experience. When the film was done, looking back, the story had a resonance that I wouldn’t have thought possible, having been bored by the movie. Talking with friends about the film afterwards was more interesting than sitting in the theater watching it.
As for the orange blossom water, it turns out I was drinking it wrong –- the serving size was a teaspoon, and I was drinking a glassful. Maybe the same is true for Wong’s film. Maybe you aren’t supposed to consume it like an American film, maybe you have to know secret of how to sip it.
The best thing, if you’re in the mood, is to drink this film with some caution and no expectations. Either that, or just skip it altogether.