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Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Heartbreak at its finest moment

In the Mood for Love

Rating: * * * * 1/2 Director: Wang Kar-wai Running time: 98 minutes Language: CantoneseNow playing

A man and a woman sit in a coffee shop, the table between them maintaining the proper distance. Neighbors in the same cramped apartment building, they have agreed to meet away from the prying eyes of their landlords. While both know what they wish to discuss -- namely, their suspicion that their respective spouses are having an affair -- they say nothing directly.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in "In the Mood for Love"

A strange bond is formed between them, one of shared betrayal, as they rehearse how they will confront their partners. While the journalist, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), and the secretary, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), assure themselves during their meetings that "we won't be like them" -- their adulterous spouses -- their mutual loneliness gives rise to something.

As Mr. Chow remarks, "Feelings can creep up, just like that."

The ephemeral, momentary nature of attraction has been at the core of every Wong Kar-wai film so far, and his latest, "In the Mood for Love," is no exception. In this film -- Wong's seventh and lauded by many as his best -- he continues to flirt with his recurring themes of missed connections, emotional hesitancy and unfulfilled desire.

In a word: heartbreak. Just try to think of a Wong film where the central couple doesn't end up separated. One of "In the Mood's" most poignant moments comes when Mrs. Chan is stuck in a mah-jongg game with her landlady, staring at the wall separating the communal room from Mr. Chow's apartment. The look in her eyes, a melancholy sip of a drink, a wall -- now that's a Wong Kar-wai moment.

With "In the Mood," Wong marries this romantic longing to nostalgic memories of a lost moment in time: the on-the-cusp-of-modernity Hong Kong of 1962. Wong also covered this milieu in his second film, "Days of Being Wild"; it seems he's digging at a certain sense of impermanency -- born of political turmoil -- that haunted the cultural psyche of Hong Kong and carried over into personal relations (something many expats in Tokyo should have no problem relating to).

"In the Mood" is probably Wong's most overtly romantic film yet, through some magical combination of Leung's smoky charisma, Cheung's slinky cheongsams and the sultry tango soundtrack that urges on their slowly intersecting orbits. His technique -- and that of cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Li Pingbin -- is enough to make Maggie's slo-mo sway through neon-lit puddles and shadow-draped stairwells leave you swooning in ecstasy.

But how many directors would actually cut the affair's climactic sex scene from the final film, instead only hinting at its consummation? Bravo: A very early-'60s approach to an early-'60s piece.

Wong is especially lucky to have stars who are irresistibly sexy and committed to (and capable of) emotionally truthful performances. Leung has become a master of minimalism, of building charm through reticence and making every line, every look count (and he received Best Actor at Cannes for his effort).

It's amazing to see how Cheung has matured as an actress. Her first serious role came with Wong in "Days" back in '91 (a raw performance after a start as just another pretty face), and she hits her peak here. She has to repress her character's desires -- lest the neighbors notice, or lest she act on them -- for almost the entire film. Only twice does she get to smile, and when she does it's heaven, and we're up there with Mr. Chow.

Stylistically, "In the Mood" is the most elliptical film Wong's done so far (with the possible exception of "Fallen Angels"). There's the use of repetition, the routines of work, shopping, eating. Wong has noted that this background repetition is deliberate, used to highlight the gradual change within his characters. Then there's the unusual camerawork, covering scenes from oblique angles, obscured by doorways or corridors. Typical is when Mrs. Chan takes a telephone call from Mr. Chow in her office; the scene is shot with Cheung almost entirely out of frame. We only see her hips.

Now this may seem like a self-consciously arty move, but think about it for a moment. Mrs. Chan -- in this period, in this situation -- has to mask her emotions; focusing on her face in a public situation would (and should) reveal nothing. By thus taking the camera off her face, Wong encourages us to listen more closely to what she says and how she says it. Without the usual visual clues, we become attuned to the rhythms and subtleties of speech, and it's there we find the feelings behind the words.

When Mrs. Chan comments on her boss's new necktie, he says, "You notice things," to which she responds, "You notice things if you pay attention." This is definitely an indirect reference to her discovery of her husband's affair, but it's also Wong's ultimate message to his audience. That's the pact between viewer and filmmaker in serious cinema: that thoughtful viewing will be rewarded with insight. "In the Mood for Love" delivers. Indelibly.

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