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. Hong Kong’s shining light, he is one of the few Chinese directors to escape the essentialism of international demands for a career in chop sockeying (although even then talented minds like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have essentially transformed that genre into humanist poetry of color and geometry, so there’s to the talent of Chinese filmmakers to turn pigeonholing into a subversive strength).
Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their international status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human drama. They seem like they could have come right off the boat from 1950, but they also know a breathier modern quality, a sense of liveliness never lost to Kar-wai’s all-seeing eye. They 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 with spur-of-the-moment zest, 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 pangs of humanity at their most primed and quieted. They both long for more, something only complicated by their discovery that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Initially, the film details their friendship as they come to learn about their spouses’ affairs. Soon enough their relationship blossoms into something far more complicated and difficult to reconcile.
Kar-wai’s style is hushed, but never taciturn. 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 impressionist feeling, and although I and many other critics are guilty of overusing the word, its really the only way to describe Kar-wai’s tapestry of abstract concepts and feelings conveyed through head-tilts, sideways glances, human blocking, composed framing to obfuscate and reveal, and lusty, hushed color. His camera knows exactly when to sit and wait, to ponder onwards and peer into his characters’ souls, not moving for they don’t move in their chaste stagnancy. 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 their tension by dousing the film in a lush redness he then proceeds to reduce and gauze over. While other films use red to convey exposure of passion, here it reflects passion hidden away, surrounding them in scenes where they are the only non-red objects in the frame, for they let none of this passion into themselves and it weighs on them like nothing else imaginable. 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, leaving her with nothing.
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 Wong Kar-wai’s visual filmmaking plays in framing their performances, in pressing them into the frame and their environment to cripple them with it, 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, excepting 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, but the sense is that this is an intimate two-person play and a place where the outside world, however briefly, can temporarily drift into the background, or at tempt the two characters by pretending to drift away from them). 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 on 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. The film bleeds emotion but in a subdued, controlled way. It’s all about passion, but the kind which no one acknowledges and must be ruthlessly controlled at the expense of all else. 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 in spite of their potential for passion. 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 about in the air around them. They remain unspoken, but they are spoken for by Kar-wai. The lack of dialogue reflects an absence, within which Kar-wai lets his camera do the talking.
Fifteen years later, 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 (thus, if it is impossibly mournful, it is also a wonderfully sensuous, personal, fiery film of raw emotion always fought back by its two principles who can’t give in and find themselves torn apart by it). It’s easy to reduce it, but even then, reducing this film still leaves it “the most beautiful film made in decades”. That’s all it really needed to be, but it is so much more.