In The Mood For Love
When I was compiling one of those lists of favourites films some time ago - as you do - I placed In The Mood For Love in my top ten. Last week we screened it in our "Love Is In The Air" mini-season. I stand by my original judgment. Though his work has moved on in new and heoric directions, notably with 2046, Wong Kar-wai's cinematic essay on unfulfilled love is both moving and deeply affecting and remains, for me, his best film. Its very mood exquisitely captures the tacit tensions between sexual desire and, alternatively, moral restraint and social propriety. The result is the perfect love story in which that love appears never to be consummated.
The storyline is disarmingly simple. Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (played by Maggie Cheung) move into neighbouring apartments on the same day. Their encounters are polite and formal - until a discovery about their respective spouses sparks an intimate bond. The style is at once delicately mannered and visually stunning, a lovely evocation of romantic longing and fleeting moments in time. The exquisite detail in which we witness the growing passion and passing frustrations of the lovers gives Wong ample chances to use weave his signature cinematic magic - his dream-like world - to full effect. And this is very much what Wong sets out to achieve. The encounter between Leung and Cheung is not so much grounded in plot but rather in an almost abstracted sense of intuitions of fate and, in the final analysis, lost opportunity.
Now this is pretty difficult to pull off. In fact it's hard to think of a recent film that offers such atmospheric or associative abstraction as sufficient reason to be totally riveted. But In The Mood For Love succeeds in every way. In fact love is not the only mood that is invoked: there is inevitably also melodrama and pure romance (invoking Chinese soap operas of the 1960s) and, finally, notalgia and yearning for loss. Perhaps this accounts for the different responses of the audience to the film. I wouldn't want to push the generalisation too far but there seemed to me to be a generational gap; that age helped to define the various ways in which the audience watched the unfolding of the story. Perhaps for older viewers the mood of nostalgia and loss were simply that much stronger. For them (us?) the melting away of time (the persistent shots of clocks symbolise this) had become the inevitable corollary of life's memories and, yes, melodramas. Perhaps the younger members of the audience just need time to live that time.
In the end, Tony Leung's character accepts that he has loved and lost. He returns for one final time to the humdrum apartment, the place of his dream-like encounter, observes everything and leaves. The ending takes place among the ruins of Angkor Wat and is a heart-stopping moment. He knows that he must release the secret love for the final time and that it will never be revealed again. He whispers his story and it is gone. He has lived his unconsummated love with an equal measure of regret and magnanimity. It is a story that you should view again and again as you grow older.