This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Dale Nauertz’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I resisted this movie for many years. I just didn't see how the story of two people in love who resisted each other, who felt passionately about one another but didn't act on those feelings, could possibly be all that interesting.
But "In the Mood for Love" is less about the story than how it is told.
"In the Mood for Love" is about how doing the so-called "right thing" can lead to as much regret as doing the wrong one. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and their respective spouses move into the same apartment building on the same day. They are next door neighbors. At first they casually bump into each other and make idle small talk. They pass by one another as they get noodles from the same restaurant. They pass in the hallways. But soon they realize that their spouses, whom we fleetingly glimpse but never fully see, are having an affair. Chan's husband and Chow's wife are frequently gone on business, and it seems that part of that business with each other.
This is the initial bond that brings Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan together, but soon their relationship deepens. They resolve not to enter into an affair with one another. They want to be morally superior to their philandering spouses. But the chemistry between them is soon evident. It is also powerful. Cheung and Leung are magical together. Whatever elusive alchemy it is that makes two actors click and makes a movie love story work, is definitely there. It is strong that every tiny, fleeting touch that passes between them becomes more powerful than most full-on sex scenes I have witnessed between other actors.
I love how these tiny moments are captured, as well. The sparks between Cheung and Leung are vital to the film's success, but the way in which Wong Kar Wai presents them are equally crucial. These moments feel as if they were accidentally put on film, as though they were barely captured by a camera that was just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. The camera work is voyeuristic and lively, sneaking around as stealthily as Chow and Chan so often do, just to share some fleeting moments together away from the prying eyes of their neighbors. The colors here are as vibrant as the central relationship as well. The movie is mannered and precise, just like its central relationship, but the vivid colors pop off the screen, every bit as intense as the repressed passions of that relationship.
Somehow, Wong Kar Wai made me feel the longing of these two people. Their desire to be together, and the perfect fit of them, is an ache that translates to the viewer. They are so good together, not just fulfilling each other emotionally while their spouses do not (their spouses never actually seem to be home) but also embarking on a rewarding creative collaboration on a martial arts novel. They so clearly belong together, and are so good for one another, that it becomes maddening that they do not simply give in to these feelings. These couples should really just trade spouses and everyone would be happier, but Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan's need to be morally superior keeps their relationship chaste and, eventually, causes them to move away from another when the bond between them becomes far too powerful to deny any further. I admire their resolve, but the fact that they never act on these feelings that are so palpable between them, becomes tragic. What good comes from this repression, the movie asks, and I have no answer for it. It is a situation that would be so easily resolved if these characters simply confronted their spouses, put everything out in the open, and moved on.
They never do, but I loved how the movie played with my expectations. There are several "rehearsals" that the characters engage in throughout the movie, where they role play how their spouses met and courted and even how they might confront their spouses, that give the movie a wonderful bit of surprise and keep it lively. It's one of the many ways that this film is far more rewarding than it seems on paper. It also adds to the tragedy that they never actually do the things they rehearse, that they simply stay in their unsatisfying situations when they so clearly long for so much more.
The ending struck me as too abrupt (and, honestly, I can't see how this movie could have ended in a satisfying manner without undermining everything that came before) but before that it is a breathtaking and powerful examination of Repression and Longing, perhaps the best example of such ever put to film.