Love the way it should be

In the Mood For Love (PG) | Director: Wong Kar-Wai | Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Lai Chen, 98 Mins
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ah, the love that might have been: so much nobler than the love that actually was, don't you think? The movies would suggest as much. You recall Rick and Ilsa on the tarmac at the end of Casablanca; or Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson agonising through their last moments together in the railway caff in Brief Encounter; or Bette Davis conceding to Paul Henreid that at least they have the stars in Now, Voyager; or even Timothy Hutton saying goodbye to 14-year-old Nathalie Portman at the end of Beautiful Girls when you know all along they were made for one another - a tragedy of bad timing.

Ah, the love that might have been: so much nobler than the love that actually was, don't you think? The movies would suggest as much. You recall Rick and Ilsa on the tarmac at the end of Casablanca; or Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson agonising through their last moments together in the railway caff in Brief Encounter; or Bette Davis conceding to Paul Henreid that at least they have the stars in Now, Voyager; or even Timothy Hutton saying goodbye to 14-year-old Nathalie Portman at the end of Beautiful Girls when you know all along they were made for one another - a tragedy of bad timing.

The idea of moral duty keeping two people apart seems quaint nowadays, which may partly explain why Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has set his mesmerising tale of an unfulfilled romance nearly 40 years back. 1962, when most of the action is located, is poised right before the decade went nuts and became a byword for licence and doing your own thing.

Did I say action? In the Mood for Love remains elusive on that score: it's got mood and texture and nuance in spades, but action doesn't really come into it. This might be the most chaste love ever to reach the screen - even in Brief Encounter they managed to kiss. I was so bemused by the absolute repression of its two lead characters that I went back and watched the whole thing again, convinced I'd missed something. But no: even the film's main publicity still - of a man embracing a woman - not even that made it into the final cut.

It begins as the story of a friendship. A shipping-office secretary, Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) rents a room in a Hong Kong tenement for herself and her husband. On the day she moves in, a journalist, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), takes up occupancy in the adjoining flat.

We never see their respective spouses, yet their absence reverberates through the movie. "You notice things if you pay attention", says Mrs Chan - like the probability that her husband is having an affair with Chow's wife.

Brought together by their suspicions, the pair become close, and act out how their partners might behave in each other's company. When they go out for dinner, Chow puts a dab of mustard on Mrs. Chan's plate, in imitation of his wife's habit. She flinches slightly on tasting it: "Your wife likes hot dishes". It amounts to a confession of intimacy.

A bizarre kind of game has begun between them, its motive unclear: are they play-acting at adultery in order to understand their partners' betrayal, or is it a way of sublimating their true feelings for one another? When, on another date, she asks him why he called her at the office that day, he replies that he just wanted to hear the sound of her voice. "You have my husband down pat", she tells him. "He's a real sweet-talker".

But from the look on Chow's face we realise he may have meant the compliment himself - and then it seems that she realises it too. That the whole scene is soundtracked by Nat King Cole's tender bossa nova version of Aquellos Ojos Verdes only deepens the melancholy.

The ambiguity of the scene is characteristic, and played quite beautifully by the two stars. It's difficult to take your eyes off either of them: Cheung, her neck rigid from the high collar of her florid cheongsams, looks as fragile as a reed, which makes her moral resolve not to bend the more affecting. Leung is glossily handsome yet not in the least narcissistic; Both amusement and hesitancy flicker in his eyes, as if unsure whether he's playing someone else's character or his own. His uncertainty mirrors ours. "Shall we stay out tonight?" he asks her, placing his hand gently on her wrist.

But she rebuffs him: "My husband would never say that". Later, she visits him in his room, and is obliged to stay there all day to avoid being seen leaving by the landlady and her other tenants. Here, at last, necessity seems to have driven the couple into unavoidable intimacy, yet somehow they contrive to avoid it.

Wong and his cameraman Christopher Doyle make something lushly enigmatic from this faltering pas de deux. In choosing to film many shots in doorways or narrow corridors they at once stress the tantalising closeness between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow and the distance that still separates them. The shots tend either to last an eternity or else are brief to the point of brusqueness, and we're still trying to get the hang of a scene when the film suddenly moves on somewhere else.

Certain sequences are repeated, but with a slightly different emphasis, and here and there a slo-mo is inserted, reminding us that this is somebody's imperfect recollection of times past. It's quite unsettling, as is the stately mazurka which recurs throughout, more evocative of prewar Europe than of Sixties Hong Kong.

These fragments of story aren't entirely satisfying, but that might be the point. Wong isn't the sort of director who would hand us a love story "straight", and the way it leapfrogs in both time and place in the closing fifteen minutes recapitulates the coolly elliptical style of his previous films.

Four years later Chow returns to his old flat, having moved to Singapore, and one wonders if a reunion is in the offing. Then without warning we get footage of de Gaulle's visit to Cambodia in 1966, and no sooner have we started pondering the significance of that when Wong winds up the film with a long, wordless sequence that goes beyond merely baffling into the numinous. I think it was at that point that I decided to watch In the Mood for Love once again, but a second viewing only confirmed its strangeness, and its beauty.

As for its reckoning of a love that might have been - The Way We Weren't, if you like - it's right up there with Brief Encounter in Cinema's Top Ten, a wistful and haunting tribute to the unfashionable virtue of restraint.

Comments