Thursday, August 26, 2021

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

In the Mode for Love

In Wong Kar Wai's latest In the Mood for Love Tony Leung plays Mr. Chow, Maggie Cheung plays Mrs. Chan. He's a newspaper reporter; she's a secretary. They're both married and suspect their respective spouses are having affairs; it's when they learn that Mrs. Chow is having an affair with Mr. Chan that their eyes finally turn to each other, in mutual hurt and longingA neat premise, neat enough to make you sit up and want to know what happens next. 

What happens is some of the most rapturously hypnotic images in recent years, a feast for eye and ear. Every time Tony Leung stands in a hallway or gazes out a window the screen throbs with longing; every time Maggie Cheung steps out with her thermos to buy noodle soup soft mammal shapes struggle for air under her impossibly tight cheung sam. The soundtrack, sounding as if from a '60s record player, croons selections from Nat King Cole and Michael Galasso's insistent, repetitive score. If beauty of surface and subtlety of mood are what you want this film is most definitely for you.

Unfortunately, I was looking for something a little more well substantial. Mr. Chow stares moodily out the window for the umpteenth time; for the umpteenth time, Mrs. Chan steps out to buy noodle soup--all glamorously lit and impeccably framed, in a gorgeous array of colors (Wong successfully evokes the unrealistically lush Technicolor of the period). Everything looks and sounds and even feels so damned romantic it's hard to notice something missing from the picture--like maybe something actually romantic going on. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan gaze at each other with longing, but it's an uneventful kind of longing; their costumes (Chow's severe gray suits, Chan's ravishing floral cheung sams shifting color with every scene) make more passionate declarations than they ever do. Their moment of human warmth happens when Mr. Chow touches Mrs. Chan's hand but unlike say in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence there's no thrill to the contact, no sense of violation, of having done something forbidden. It just happens--impeccably photographed in shadows of course--then the moment (and hand) is dropped; nothing comes out of it, either greater reluctance on the part of Mrs. Chan or greater ardor on the part of Mr. Chow. It's as if Mrs. Chan's cheung sam had merely snagged on a doorknob.

I think I can appreciate a romance where nothing happens--no sex not even a kiss--as much as the next person; sexual contact is often replaced by sexual tension and the film succeeds or fails according to the degree and skill with which the tension is depicted. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan sit and stand and stare--handsomely always handsomely--but do little else; no sudden insights into their characters hinting at the psychic pain suffered (if they're suffering at all). That, Wong seems to say, you must read from the textures and textiles on display (though how unhappy can you be when you're as beautiful with as apparently vast a wardrobe as Maggie Cheung?).

The film fritters away in a series of inconclusive (but always lovely) images--and that should be fine too; Wong made it work in Happy Together, my favorite of his films. But Happy Together starts with intense breathless sex between its two lovers; you could see what they had while the rest of the running time chronicles how they lost it all. That film's attenuated ending serves the same function as the pause a torturer takes before driving home the hot poker, it prolongs and intensifies the suffering. Here, well, you have to feel something--anything--first before you suffer; the most Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan get out of their near-relationship is the martial-arts novel she helps him write. If we had seen more of that process, of the two developing the novel like some adopted child they're raising together, maybe there would be more point to the movie.

Wong has been described as "the most avant-garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa)" and for the most part I appreciate what he tries to do--take popular genres like romances comedies martial-arts epics and subvert them, through filmmaking technique and oblique storytelling. Other filmmakers do this: Takeshi Kitano shoots himself with outstretched fist, shoots a man with bloodied nose, leaves out the moment of impact. Tsai Ming Liang doesn't put his lovers in the same room (The Hole) or even the same country (What Time is it There?). Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang shoot almost exclusively in long shot, their narratives taking on a sweeping quality they otherwise wouldn't have.

Also helps to use starkly contrasting backgrounds. Scorsese again, in Age of Innocence, has his would-be lovers posed against a cast of precisely sketched supporting characters in Whartonland--a supremely courteous intricately mannered ultimately rigid realm that punishes its transgressors as viciously as Tommy DeVito on a bad day. Ozu pulls off an even neater trick, employing small intimate canvases against which he unfolds dramas so quotidian, so small-scale in their effects the moments of hilarity or high tragedy burst like firecrackers across a dim sky. 

All these filmmakers keep their distance from the audience, at the same time presenting a narrative puzzle the viewer must piece together. Each has his compensating pleasures--Kitano his precise wit, Tsai his absurdist humor, Hou and Yang their rich historical roots, Scorsese his filmmaking arsenal, Ozu his sublimely simple palette. Wong can be lighthearted (Chungking Express) can miraculously depict gay passion with authenticity (Happy Together) but, in this movie at least, the most he apparently offers is an empty shell, beautifully photographed. In the Mood for Love is the reverse of that classic story about the Emperor's New Clothes--the clothes are gloriously, brilliantly there, in all their color and finery; what's missing is the Emperor himself.

First published in Businessworld 10.1.02

No comments: