If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their universal status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human loneliness and the passing moments of connection that counterpoint but only further contour that loneliness. His films reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still-young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love.
The year is 1962, and, wouldn’t you know, we have just about the most darling candidate for my continued belief that simple stories beget the most textured fruits. Chow (Tony Leung) and Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) are neighbors in a Hong Kong apartment complex, and we are silent observers. Their home lives aren’t in tatters. In fact they both seemingly live stable middle-class lives, and no outside contrivance is going to keep them from it. What will, however, is the seeping, overpowering trickle of human connection and disconnection at its most quotidian, and thus most elemental. While both characters discover that their spouses are cheating on them with the other’s spouse, that could hardly be described as an instigating incident in a narrative. Their mutual realization of this cheating does, after a fashion, bring them closer together, but In the Mood for Love is not so much about the personal disfigurement of realizing your partner is having an affair as it is about the wider sigh of human existence, and the chance meetings and fuzzy connections which make that sigh both more bearable and more troublesome.
Watching Chow and Li-Zhen slowly grow closer – without ever formally consummating their relationship or even expressing necessarily romantic feelings for the other – Kar-wai’s style is hushed but never silent, and conversely sensual without being scintillating or lustful. The film unfolds in an unhurried fashion, giving us a long time to soak in the internal confusion of the two principles. The story is of impressionistic feeling, and although I and many other critics are guilty of overusing that word – impressionistic – it really is the only way to describe Kar-wai’s tapestry of abstract concepts and feelings conveyed through head-tilts, sideways glances, and subtle filigrees of human blocking and framing that obfuscate and reveal in equal measure. His camera knows exactly when to sit and wait, to ponder onwards and peer into his characters’ souls, not moving when they don’t move in their chaste stagnancy, and gracefully passing them by as they almost but not quite make physical contact. It is very much a work about stillness, about internal feelings threatening to reveal themselves, but which the two principles must keep inside.
Their relationship never blossoms into romance, and Kar-wai reflects this interpersonal tension by dousing the film in a lush redness he then proceeds to gauze over with a diffuse sense of personal sublimation to location, both temporal and spatial. While other films use red to convey exposures of individual passion from within, here it reflects passion hidden away, surrounding the characters in scenes where they are the only non-red objects in the frame, seemingly fighting to let none of this passion into themselves as it weighs on them like nothing else imaginable. It’s the red of an emotional world they feel as though they cannot fully participate in, or acknowledge. Even when Cheung puts on a piercing red dress, it would seem her passion has finally overtaken her, but the dress only divulges more of her ghostly white pallor. It sucks the energy from her, expressing what she cannot and exposing the aches in her heart that long for expression in any other terms.
While two of the chief strengths of In the Mood for Love are the quietly existential, impossibly longing performances of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the role that Wong Kar-wai’s visuals play in framing their performances, in pressing them into the frame and placing them into their environment that both expresses and constrains them, cannot be overlooked. As the film slowly develops, we’re treated to long, unbroken shots, many of which sway and move around the characters to reflect their internal conflict and the fluidity of their emotions. Almost the entire film, except the quiet tragedy of the conclusion, takes place indoors, mirroring the closeted nature of their relationship. We never even see the two spouses. We are greeted to occasional voiceover from them, but the sense is that this is an intimate two-person play, a mental space where the outside world, however briefly, can temporarily drift into the background. Or, at least, tempt the two characters by pretending to drift away from them, even as they realize the outside world is always shaping them, and they are not ever separate from that world. The relationship detailed is truly between Chow and Li-Zhen, defining them out of time and society, and then vocally placing them back into that time period when we realize that, although they wish to be alone, their internalized conceptions of the outside world still persist even they aren’t shown in the frame.
The film plays around with space as well, moving the two characters closer and further from each other as the relationship changes, and keeping them at a heartbreaking distance even when they are closest to each other. Kar-wai’s form here is intentionally controlled to reflect the content of his camera’s eye, that of emotion that must be controlled, blocking the characters in careful ways to suggest the ways the world smothers them, and the pangs of desire waiting to burst out. Fittingly, it is also a very silent film, for Kar-wai is wont to let his mise-en-scene do the talking as an expression for how the two leads don’t need to share their feelings vocally, and are afraid to, even as those feelings permeate into the air around them. They remain unspoken, but they are spoken for by Kar-wai.
Among 21st century cinema, for pure visual storytelling as a tool for emotional impact, only Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life stands as luminously as In the Mood for Love. Only it feels as intimate, as personal, as unspeakable, and only it seems to look into our soul without obstruction in quite the same way. Both are clearly highly personal affairs, works about small people connected to a big world, and works that float off the screen into the enlightened air around the frame. Kar-wai’s ending is tragic, but it finds a supreme empathy along the way, transcending space and time to a point where tragedy, loss, and hope are all one and the same. It’s easy to reduce it to its aesthetic sensuality, but even then, reducing this film still leaves it as “possibly the most beautiful film made in decades”. That’s all it really needed to be, but it is so much more.