In the Mood for Love ★★★★

Part of my Double Feature Challenge

This unconventional love story is the second installment of director Wong Kar-wai's "informal trilogy." It starts off in Hong Kong in 1962, when two married couples with seemingly no connection move into neighboring apartments on the same day. As Mr. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) and Mrs. Chan aka Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) gradually get to know each other, they discover that their spouses are having an affair.

It's quite novel how they react. In seeking to understand how their respective partners might have met and initiated their trysts, the two neighbors role play their opposite mates and rehearse ways of confronting each other. This process allows them to explore their own feelings about how they've been hurt, but in the process they also begin to develop real affection for one another, which threatens to make them no better than the cheaters.

Interestingly enough, both main actors appeared in the first film in the trilogy, Days of Being Wild. Cheung played a woman by the same name, Su Li-zhen, and this could be taken as her life two years later, married and more mature. Leung had a minor part as a gambler in the earlier film, which does not seem to connect with this role at all. And Rebecca Pan here plays the Chans' mahjong-addicted landlady Mrs. Suen, who is a far cry from her previous part as a prostitute cum runaway mother.

The overall tone of this film is moody and melancholy, well suited to its primary themes of forbidden love and regret. The soundtrack is excellent, reflecting the radio culture of Sixties Hong Kong, including opera, waltzes and Nat King Cole singing in Spanish.

Of special note is the outstanding costume design, too. Some 26 different cheongsam dresses were worn by Cheung, beautifully displaying the knee-length, high-collar style of the 1960s. And as for set design, it's amazing how well the locations suit the period without resorting to studio mock-ups. You can really feel the cramped spaces and imposed closeness of apartment life in the island colony.

Director Wong is famous for working without a script, which can be both good and bad. The spontenaiety of the acting is excellent, but there's a meandering feel to many of the longer scenes, and lots of short takes means it is necessary to pay full attention to realize when hours, days or months have passed. Fewer dark, rainy scenes might have helped, too.

I want to mention that some negative aspects of the earlier film were alleviated in this follow-up. Specifically, the sense of family I felt was missing is adequately developed in the relationship of Mrs. Suen to her tenants, fellow landlords Mr. & Mrs. Ho, and her amah (Szu-Ying Chien). Also, newsreel footage from Hong Kong riots and Cambodia circa 1966 help place the romance within a broader context of political change.

Now, it's straight on to the trilogy's concluding installment, which I've been told takes a turn toward sci-fi. Can't wait.

#236 on The IMDb Top 250 (June 2014)

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