True visual splendor is surprisingly rare in the new millennium. Oh, high-resolution digital cameras and video have progressed to the point that even home movies can look "better" than the real world, and computer effects open infinite possibilities. But the majority of films that stake a claim to eye-popping visuals tend to overload with the digital stuff at the expense of looking sterile and safe, even in ostensibly tense action and suspense sequences. No, I'm talking about good, old-fashioned beauty, the kind that auteurs have been assembling long before George Lucas' brain tank at ILM signaled a new age for Hollywood. Directors such as Orson Welles, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock (to say nothing of the precise craftsmanship of the French New Wave filmmakers) produced some of the most resplendent films ever made. Wong Kar-Wai, in contrast to the most commercially successful efforts of his contemporaries Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, very much looks to the old style of filmmaking for inspiration.
In the Mood For Love, Wong's 7th full-length picture, is one of the most meticulously crafted films I have ever seen, and a better argument for the importance of Hong Kong cinema than Lee's or even the early output of action legend John Woo. Its craftsmanship is even more impressive when you consider the director's improvisatory nature; indeed, he began with little more than actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who slowly crafted their characters and a story, and somewhere along the way Wong set up a camera and documented the rest. But I invite everyone who watches this film to spot a moment of sloppy editing or plotless meandering.
Set in 1962 Hong Kong, In the Mood For Love charts the paths of a platonic romance between two neighbors. Leung plays Mr. Chow, a newspaper reporter, while Cheung is Su Li-zhien, an executive assistant. They both have the capital to live in far more comfortable conditions, but space is an issue in the rapidly overcrowding region (both Su and the friendly landlady, Mrs. Suen, are from Shanghai and speak that dialect as opposed to Cantonese, reflecting the influx of different cultures into the city). The two meet and gradually strike up a friendship, then they realize with horror that both of their spouses always seem to be missing at the same time.
The revelation of their spouses' infidelity brings the two closer. They meet more often, and not in romantic, glamorized locations. Very little time passes before both evidently fall in love, and Wong reflects this by turning all of the grotty urban sprawl that they traverse into something beautiful. It strikes me as Scorsese's New York, where such decay reflected the hopeless emotional turmoil of his leads. But Wong softens his city with bright colors and floral patterns; after all, even though our characters may be doomed, they're in love. But they do not allow themselves to consummate their relationship, saying it would make them no better than their spouses. Both agree to this out of...what? Social norms? Personal ethics? They clearly want the other to say "That's a load of rubbish. Why can't we be happy?" but they're both afraid to say it.
So the film becomes a paean to unrequited love, one in which the camera has to do all the work we expect the characters to do. That is to say, every pan, every tilt, every cut contains a sexual undertone. The two meet in claustrophobic locations, or the camera makes open spaces seem cramped, highlighting their proximity yet their perpetual uneasiness. Su's dresses become a sort of fetish, her bright floral outfits piercing the muted colors of the world around her and making her that much more attractive.
They even go a bit mental after the pressure builds a little too much. One scene in particular stands out: at the start of the scene, Su turns to Chow and bluntly asks "Do you have a mistress?" The conversation begins to play out until, at last, we discover that the two are engaged in a sort of game, role-playing their cheating significant others in order to get answers they're too cowardly and restrained to demand of the real person. Wong compared Tony Leung's character to Jimmy Stewart's in Vertigo and, while Chow isn't nearly as intense or deranged, they both harbor an inner turmoil belied by their charming outer appearance. For the two to play out these sick fantasies to both string along their own flawed sense of moral duty and find hollow comfort shows just how deranged their spouses' affairs have made them and how Chow and Su are preventing themselves from moving on.
The ending brings an inevitable conclusion, but a surprising one, given the American mindset when it comes to romance. Love in Wong's world hearkens back to the unrequited poets composing sonnets for the women who barely acknowledged their existence if they noticed at all; in this world, relationships are imagined and eroticism and sex are reserved for fantasies with the one you adore. With gentle camera movements and elegant mise-en-scène, Wong Kar-Wai captures these feelings (and a great many more) in ways that appear simultaneously stylized and real. The deleted scenes on the Criterion DVD set up a meeting between the two past the film's official end, a brief moment that doesn't add or detract anything but somewhat undercuts the reality of it all. Many times love simply doesn't pan out, and that's the beautiful tragedy of it all.