Dir Wong Kar-wai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung)
“I believed we wouldn’t be like them. I was wrong.”
“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
And so our greatest Hong Kong film concludes with a quotation from writer Liu Yi-Chang’s stream-of-consciousness novella, Intersection, which loosely inspired Wong Kar-wai into capturing the tentative affair between two would-be lovers who cross paths briefly before parting forever.
The same destiny, ironically, could be said to apply to the diverging receptions of this rapturous film itself: just as it had stormed the global arthouse market and propelled its director into the league of the world’s greatest living auteurs, the multiple-award-winning drama looks set to be perpetually overshadowed by its canonised prequel, Days of Being Wild, in its home city – thanks partly to the 1990 film’s matchless feat in gathering six major stars for one elaborate narrative experiment. For any self-respecting Hong Kong critic who has witnessed the phenomenon first hand, it must feel a little sacrilegious not to love the Leslie Cheung-fronted heartbreaker.
Unlike Days of Being Wild – or in fact, 2046, which again charts the crisscrossing relationships among an ensemble cast and neatly rounded up Wong’s unofficial 1960s trilogy – In the Mood for Love is essentially a romantic two-hander which characteristically shuns the overt emotional wrestling of its two bookending films. The result is a film so simple in its premise – and so chaste and subtle in its expression – that the slightest turns of heads are bound to give an ecstatically poignant impression.
The year is 1962, and as next-door neighbours living in a crowded apartment complex, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung in a cheongsam showcase) gradually discover their spouses are having a clandestine affair. Alternately finding solace by spending time with each other, and masochistically toying with the other’s emotions by rehearsing imaginary breakups, the two soon consummate their mutual longing by role-playing as their cheating partners.
Drenched in sumptuous colours and a hypnotic soundtrack that swings from Nat King Cole to Latin melody, the film is ably fashioned by William Chang and unfailingly photographed by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin, two of the very best cinematographers in world cinema. Beneath the entrancing visual palette is a repressed romance which finds its apt denouement among the Angkor Wat ruins – a sublime touch of storytelling that renders In the Mood for Love as close to perfection as a Hong Kong film has ever attempted to be.
Mr Chow and Mrs Chan are in the mood for love but little more than that. All they can share are furtive glances, weightless words and a concrete reassurance that history forgets.