IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) is often cited as Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s greatest film, but it also shows up on numerous “most romantic movie of all time”-type lists. Something of an oddity, as this isn’t a typical romance. If it is a romantic film, it’s romantic in a strange way. Love isn’t so much a plot point here as it is a central and atmospheric feeling at the core of the film. And that feeling, that mood, takes place as much between the audience and the exquisite images on screen as it does between the film’s main characters.
The “mood” of the title isn’t a passing lust so much as it is a moodiness, a thematic downcastness, a sadness of circumstance that brings two people together. This is a sexy film without sex and a romantic film without romantic resolution. By now acknowledged as a modern classic, Wong’s film is an incredible cinematic portrait of urban loneliness and a meditation on the subject of love and its contradictory nature.
Set in early 60s Hong Kong, Wong’s camera captures all the cramped apartment spaces, kitchens, offices, and basement restaurants of the city, but the central visual element of this film are the two lead characters. Stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are simply gorgeous human beings. In this movie they seem to inhabit a world ready-made for cinema. Cheung is stunning in her many qipao (the colorful, form-fitting Chinese dress) and Leung has a moody handsomeness, something of an angsty puppy dog longing as he morosely eats noodles.
Leung plays Mr. Chow, a newspaper writer, and Cheung plays Mrs. Su, a receptionist. The two, along with their spouses, move into a pair of stuffy, close-quarters apartments on the same summer afternoon. We follow them through all the restrained, awkward, and amusing social exchanges typical of new neighbors. Mrs. Su politely and repeatedly defers on dinner and mahjong with their landlord, Mrs. Suen. Meanwhile Mr. Chow too eats alone, waiting for his wife to return home late.
Both Cheung and Leung perform with a formality of speech and presence, a kind of bedraggled, desperate dignity about them. Cheung especially communicates this strange social grace as she managerially schedules her boss’s dates—with both his wife and his mistress. And Leung’s Chow has a bemused relationship with his colleagues at the newspaper, including a hangdog gambler named Ping.
Both Chow and Su have a lovely personal anonymity about them. They are, in a way, whoever the audience wants them to be, and this ambiguous relationship mirrors the on-screen romance that begins to develop between them.
It soon becomes clear that Chow’s wife and Su’s husband (whose faces, importantly, are never shown on camera) are being unfaithful. The pair of mutually cheating spouses brings Chow and Su together and over a painful and droll dinner conversation, we learn that their partners are in fact cheating—each with the others’ spouse.
Not suprisingly Chow and Su pair off, eat steak, and write martial arts serials together. The meetings are platonic, but begin to take a more complicated turn as they start role-playing each others’ partners and confiding in each other about their marriages. These scenes are the best the film has to offer, filmed in a gorgeous and diffuse flush-red glow. They are the heart of the film, both thematically and cinematically. Again, Wong’s “mood” sets in through the camera movement and the cinematic gorgeousness of the two. A recurring thematic, plucked waltz plays as these scenes glide across the screen. Wong and his two cinematographers on this film (Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin) make superb use of slow motion and slowed down frame rates. The intimacy between Chow and Su increases with the intimacy of their on screen presences.
Su and Chow can’t allow themselves to be “like them,” (their unfaithful spouses) and yet they can’t deny the feelings occurring despite themselves. Is it friendship? Is it love? Who is in control? Their mutuality is one of confusion and guilt, and this draws them together more than anything else.
As time goes on, landlords and associates begin to talk. Su breaks things off, and Chow moves away to Singapore on assignment. Years pass as the two circle each other and remember those days with longing. The final scene, shot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, has a poetic intensity completely of its own. And the reverberations of the affair take on a more ancient and deep resonance.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE pairs excellently with David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945), another good candidate for Most Romantic. The tension at the heart of that movie is its characters’ middle class moral restraint against a developing extramarital affair. They know, consciously, that that kind of love is illicit, that infidelity is a social, as well as a moral sin. At the same time they can’t deny that it is a love that exists despite themselves, a mood that exists wholly on its own.
In both films, the central moral-emotional statement is that human relationships are created in uncomfortable, random, and often painful circumstances. And it’s from within these circumstances that we access and process feelings of friendship or love. Here love appears as both a social and private phenomena. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE almost works like a romance in reverse; in classic romantic cinema the private negotiations of the lovers usually resolves and legitimizes itself in the eyes of a separate social space: the friends, the family, the audience. But here, Chow and Su’s relationship begins socially and becomes private—so private that it cannot survive.
Wong’s film completely avoids romantic cliché, which is what makes it such an oddly romantic movie. It reminds us of the contradictory nature of the feeling in the first place—that love is circumstantial, not predestined. That it’s painful. That it’s lopsided, an uneven, sporadic, and spasmodic thing. That’s a rather remarkable thing for a romantic film, especially the best romantic film ever, to say.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, DIR. WONG KAR-WAI. 98 MIN.
PAIR THIS MOVIE WITH ROXY MUSIC, SUMMER EVENINGS, DUMPLINGS, FEELINGS OF ANGST.