In the mood for a long night? Director Wong Kar-Wai’s new film, In the Mood for Love (USA Films), is as slow as it is cryptic. Starring two of China’s leading entertainers, Tony Leung (The Doctor) as Chow Mo-Wan and Maggie Cheung (Sausilito) as Su Li-Zhen, the film tells the tale of two ordinary people who coincidentally move in next to each other while their spouses are away. Unbeknownst to them, by some grand twist of fate, their spouses are having an affair.
Set in Hong Kong in the 1960s before the Cultural Revolution, the film moves back to a time when virtue was everything. When the characters finally catch on to their spouses’ infidelities, they at first turn to each other for companionship and friendship. But their relationship transforms into a love forbidden by their culture.
Prevented by social mores from showing their true emotions, Li-Zhen and Mo-Wan find various other ways to deal with the situation together. They start by having a nice, quiet dinner where they each order the meal their spouses would have had. Sound confusing? It is. Yet another truly bizarre scene comes when Li-Zhen practices with Chow Mo-Wan how she will confront her husband about his affair.
One distinctive choice that the director makes is not to show the cheating spouses, with the exception of a few shots of their backs, choosing to focus on the restraint that Li-Zhen and Mo-Wan show. He confuses the film further by using Leung and Cheung to stand in for the backs of each other’s spouses.
The budding lovers never give in to their love for one another. Nothing happens, and that is precisely what makes this two-hour film so long. Long scenes containing no dialogue and no action that follow a character walking in slow motion to heavy classical music are simply unbearable.
It also is obvious that the translation of the already meager script is hardly bearable, as the characters speak in a wholly unrealistic language. With a thin plot, this movie seems to merely meditate on the lovers’ predicament.
The film’s only redeeming quality is its thoughtful cinematography, for which it won awards at both the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards. Christopher Doyle, the director of photography, does a magnificent job translating the characters’ moods, feelings and cultural pressure into a visual effect. All scenes within their apartments are filmed through a doorway or window, from behind some sort of screen, or in the reflection of a mirror, to give the sense that the audience intrudes into their lives to get a clandestine view of what’s going on.
The apartments the characters live in are claustrophobically small, lending to their inevitable meeting and attraction while also representing their suppressed emotions. They are trapped in a situation they cannot escape and have no control over. The director vividly depicts this aspect of the film by shooting several scenes from behind everyday “bars,” such as vertical blinds and windowpanes.
The smoky focus of many of the scenes, as well as the washing of colors through sections of film – a technique used to great effect in the recent release Traffic – gives the movie multiple textures. Frequent close-ups of normally mundane things, such as a finger tapping a cigarette, mustard being placed on a plate and a lone street lamp, are congruous with the rest of the film. All of the small motions, glances and everyday actions come together to make up the whole.
Unfortunately, the whole is not enough to captivate an audience’s attention for the seemingly never-ending run of this movie. A good film is the product of an interesting script, good acting, thoughtful direction, distinctive cinematography and a significant story to tell.
With only 20 percent of what it takes, In the Mood for Love simply does not make the grade, coming off more as an intelligently filmed documentary of everyday activities rather than a compelling film about love.