Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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In the Mood for Love 花樣年華 (2000) - Roxie, BAM/PFA virtual retrospective in 4K restorations.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu-wai Leung in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE

Adultery repression; or lust, caution: Wong's "achingly sensual exploration of thwarted desire"*

After all the outrageous fun Wong Kar-wai had in his earlier movies he accepts punishment in In the Mood for Love, a straight jacket of impeccable cinema about an uptight couple, thrown together (in adjoining apartments!) by their spouses' adultery (apparently, with each other, though this is only evidential surmise, due to coincidental purchases in Japan). For me, there is the additional punishment that this exquisite, grown up film, which is so tedious and repetitious to watch, is heralded as Wong's greatest masterpiece. More than that perhaps it's simply what came along after the wider international public had finally noticed Wong. It's another period film of the early sixties like Days of Being Wild, but much less "wild," the Chinese title alluding to Wong's nostalgia for the "golden years" or good old days when his family first came to Hong Kong from China. This time it's about married couples, a man and woman from two different couples, and oh so repressed and romantic. It appealed to the kind of middle-aged arthouse audience that rushed to see it. It's impeccable rather than brilliant; correct, without boldness or flair, like its protagonists. Admittedly, watching this movie with an adoring lock-step arthouse audience was no fun compared to seeing my first two Wong films in a Chinatown cinema without a middle class white person in sight. It wasn't as cool.

This was another instance, like the making of his costume-martial arts extravaganza Ashes of Time, when a Wong Kar-wai production dragged out. It took 15 months to make and ran over budget, and this is why the cinematography of Christopher Boyle had to be supplemented by the work of Mark Lee Ping-bin and the Vietnamese cameraman Trần Anh Hùng. It's possible to see a pattern here of free, improvisational work like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, and more highly wrought efforts like this and Ashes of Time,, the latter time-consuming originally, and then elaborately done over in a Redux version.

Okay, In the Mood for Love is a masterpiece. All his films are up to here. This is also Wong's best role for Maggie Cheung, who as the professional secretary, Su Li-zhen - Mrs. Chan, displays a succession of exquisite expressions of subtly repressed emotional pain - and a long succession of [url=""]no less than 20[/url] different beautiful cheongsams (or quipaos) high-necked Chinese-style dresses in which she looks stunning, every inch the movie star. Even the movie admits her outfits are a bit much. "She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?" asks the chatty, mahjong-playing landlady, Mrs. Suen.

As Su's fellow-sufferer, the newspaper writer Chow Mo-wan, Tony Leung Chiu-fai also gets to put on a refined display of noble suffering and restraint. Pertly it's a repressed almost-affair and partly a two-person adultery victims support group. And as Mike D'Angelo points out, describing several sequences in this film that show off Wong's artistry, Wong and his two stars can make anything, even fetching noodles or walking back and forth, good to watch. But I'm not going to pretend to enjoy it.

We get a sort of progression of couples relationships in Wong's films. He starts out with the slight, cut-short romance between the small-time triad thug and the simple country girl in As Tears Go By. Then he rolls out the flamboyant doomed playboy-seducer in Days of Being Wild (which, for my money, is the real masterpiece). Chungking Express gives us a couple of jilted young men seeking new relationships. Who knows what's going on in Ashes of Time, but various strange couples pass by, while there is one central pair who remain in love and should have gotten together but never do (and the women is Maggie Cheung). Then, there is Happy Together,[/I a foray into the world of a gay couple who have been linked for a while, but are having trouble. Finally, with [I]In the Mood for Love, we arrive at a regular, heterosexual couple - a man and a woman who are being two-timed by their respective spouses.

You're attracted, you flirt, you have sex, you break up, you look for new partners. Finally, you get married. And this is what happens. Adultery is the ultimate couples relationship.

But this new cheated-on pair who drift together make a very uptight pair. We get little for some time for back-and-forth walks to and from work or to bring takeout food. When Su and Chow finally eat out at a restaurant, tht's painfully restricted too. The little booth, the anemic-looking, semi-transparent light green glass plates, the unappetizing looking dark blobs of western food they pick at with forks: it's all an icky affair. But this film is respectful toward its repressive world. The people are always polite. The bossy, nosy Mrs. Suen (played by Yuddy's foster mother from Days of Being Wild, Rebecca Pan) tells Su she is "too polite." Later she tells her she's having too much fun, causing her to curtail her enjoyable evening meetings with Chow.

The repression causes this couple of fellow-sufferers to have the very complicated experience depicted in In the Mood for Love. Wong Kar-wai has made a film about hiding and deception. Even though Chow and Su risk scandal by starting to meet secretly, they never even kiss. They get all the danger without the fun. Instead, they talk about wuxia comics for his work - she helps him with ideas, but we don't get any details. And we see Mrs. Chen walking back and forth so often with a food thermos this starts to seem like "The Lunchbox - Hong Kong version."

Things get more emotional, partly through several enactments Su and Chow carry out in which she practices how she will confront her husband with his adultery, in which she realizes she's much more deeply affected by this than she realized. There is also the tragic back-and-forth when Chow goes to work for a paper in Shanghai and they nearly go together, ending later in another sad, maddening almost. The movie's two musical refrains (something always memorable in Wong), the sweeping strings of the theme from Seijun Suzuki's Yumeji** so full of energy and hope and the teasing strains of[url=""]Nat King Cole's version[/url] of Osvaldo Farrés' "Quizás, quizás, quizás," perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perfectly embody the hope and frustration of the story (Mike D'Angelo talks knowlegeably about this and much more in his AV Club [url=""]"Scenic Routes" analysis[/url] of this film). Equally perfect is journalist Chow's eccentric ritual, already spoken of, whispering his secret longing in a hole at Angkor Wat, sealing it with mud, one of Wong's totally sui generis fantasies.

What maybe doesn't work so well, is a clash between Wong's typically improvisational working method and his narrative here, which involves two elegantly restrained people making tiny adjustments to easy out hints of desires they can never gratify. It's questionable whether the working method is right to convey the nuances of such an incremental piece. The film winds up feeling overbearingly aesthetic and visual, without the counterweight of youthful verve and physicality that anchored Wong's earlier films. But this is no doubt a labor of love, and its refinements satisfy many enthusiastic cinephiles.

In the Mood for Love 花樣年華 (Fa yeung nin wah, "The Flowering Years"), 98 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2000, featured at numerous international festivals including Edinburgh, Toronto, San Sebastián, Reykjavik, Pusan, Tokyo, opening in the US Feb. 2001. Metascore 85.
*Phrase used by Mike D'Angelo in his AV Club piece.
**Composed and performed by Umebayashi Shigeru.

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