In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love ★★★★★

“It is a restless moment…”

Writing about “In the Mood for Love” has always been a bit like dancing about architecture. “If we could tell a film,” a frustrated Jafar Panahi once raged under house arrest, “then why make a film?” If we could express in words the heart-stopping beauty of Wong Kar Wai’s sensually choreographed shadow tango (or bottle the shudder of feeling that runs up our spines at the first strains of “Yumeji’s Theme”), he wouldn’t have felt compelled to shoot it. For 15 months straight. To an extent that’s true of all Wong’s work, which is singularly cinematic even in its shortcomings. But the feeling is perhaps most palpable with “In the Mood for Love,” which was hardly the first of his movies to focus on the space between people, but remains one of the only movies — by Wong or anyone else — to capture that space on camera as if it were as tactile as anything else.

For 98 minutes, the figure-ground confusion is so intense that you can actually see the longing between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s would-be lovers take shape on screen like a Rubin’s vase in motion. You can feel the Shanghainese-accented rift between these characters’ origins in mainland China and their exile to 1962 Hong Kong, where they collide amidst an insular community that isn’t defined by one place or the other so much as the infidelity of belonging to both at once.

Extrapolated from a planned triptych that Wong had intended to call “A Story of Food,” “In the Mood for Love” is nothing if not a gratuitous feast for the eyes. The most indelible aspects of the film’s visual resplendence — the transportive wizardry of William Chang’s cluttered production design, the 20 different cheongsam dresses that Cheung wears like mirages to obscure her underlying desire, the chiaroscuro halos that cinematographers Mark Lee Ping Bing and Christopher Doyle carve from the darkness of a rainswept alleyway where Leung waits for her under a streetlamp — are so effective because of what they hide from us.

This is a movie about a potential affair between two neighbors who learn that their respective spouses are sleeping together. But it’s also, and perhaps more pointedly, a movie about the afterimage of an affair that’s already happened, and continues to happen off-screen (where Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan’s partners are confined at all times, sometimes hovering just out of frame like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon). We don’t need to see them to trust that they’re real. Likewise, Li-zhen and Mo-wan don’t need to fuck in order for it to feel like they’re cheating. Some cab rides can be more intimate than entire marriages; a lipstick-stained cigarette butt left behind by an unseen intruder can say more than a kiss; a shared desire can be more transgressive than any tryst.

Touch is finite. Scientific. Touch is fleeting, and there’s no present tense in the world of Wong Kar Wai — the only valuable currency in his movies is the memory of what might have been. Like amateur videographer Ho Chi-mo in “Fallen Angels” or so many of Wong’s other characters in less literal ways, Mo-wan collects images and slivers and song cues that he can cut together in his mind. He whispers them into the hole of a temple wall at Angkor Wat for safekeeping. “The past is something he could see, but not touch,” reads the closing title card. “In the Mood for Love” tells us that Mo-wan is a writer of fiction — Wong Kar Wai shows us that Mo-wan is a filmmaker. Here, his past is so vividly projected that it can feel more <ireal to us than some parts of our own lives.

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