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In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) 2001
Wong Kar-Wai's (Chunking Express, Happy Together) In the Mood for Love, is an opaque romance that stars Tony Leung & Maggie Cheung as neighbors in Hong Kong during the early 1960's. The 96 min. film begins with a series of vignettes that run about 1/2 hour. These scenes show how a man and woman who live next door to each other meet, and slowly learn about each other's lives. Each scene is short (most are less that 1 minute long), and each presents a sliver of the characters' daily lives. We see each of them interacting only superficially with their coworkers, their landlords, and each other. They pass each other as they enter and exit their house and a restaurant. They return borrowed items. They exchange pleasantries in the hallway. For the 1st 1/3 of the film, they never stop to talk to each other for anything other than a practical reason. We never are shown either spouse, as they are both away on frequent business trips, but that's usually the topic of discussion, since that's almost everything the two know about each other at that point.
This is the most incredible sequence of the film, because the characters never stop and talk to each other about anything related to the eventual plot which grows organically from these incidents. The film is almost Hitchcockian in the way it presents clues about their lives, and we put together the pieces about what is going behind their backs at the same time as they do. Soon, both are suspicious their spouses are sleeping together. They eventually confront the issue, and through each others' suspicions confirm their fears. Until this point, we are privy to the benefits of Wong's style (he shoots without a definite script, and usually pieces together what his film is actually about in the editing room.)
The film is really amazing in that it allows these two characters to lead fully believable lives, but creates a compelling plot from them. Before I compared it to Hitchcock, but the movie it's most like is Chabrol's La Ceromonie, another film that escalated everyday tensions until they became much more realized and pointed feelings. After the first third of the film, they begin talking on a normal basis. They openly discuss their situation, and begin to retrace the steps of their respective spouses in an attempt to understand how such a thing could happen. The movie becomes less cinematically dazzling, but more emotionally compelling at this point. I don't want to give away the plot to those who haven't seen it, but the love story contained within is executed wonderfully. That this is accomplished without showing two major players in the plot only further shows us how adept a director Wong is.
The film gives a small amount of comfort, and definitely does not qualify as a typical romantic film. I found its restraint to be amazingly touching, though I could easily imagine some would find it unbearable. In addition to the film's emotional values, the film is top-notch aesthetically. It is drop-dead gorgeous. I doubt I'll see a more elegant looking film this year. The score is heavenly and goes a great deal toward establishing a hypnotic feel. The film's use of costuming is particularly noteworthy, as the costume changes of Cheung's character are often used to show us the passage of time (which the film's episodically structure sometimes obscures.) Leung & Cheung both give fantastic performances, though I am surprised Leung was able to scoop up a Best Actor prize at Cannes for such an understated performance. Cheung gets the most "big" scenes (in a film with relatively few). It's probably a film that thrives too much on nuance to ever be fully appreciated, but it's nuance is precisely what makes me recognize it as a great work.