Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

In the Mood for Love (China, 2000) ***

Written, produced and directed by Wong Kar-wei. Photography, Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin. Editing, William Chang Suk-ping. Production design, Chang Suk-ping. Music, Mike Galasso, Umebayashi Shigeru. Cast: Lai Chin (Mr. Ho), Maggie Cheung (Su Li-zhen), Tony Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Rebecca Pan (Mrs. Suen), Siu Ping-lam (Ah Ping), Chin Tsi-ang (The Amah). A USA Films release. In Cantonese and Shanghainese, with English subtitles. 97 minutes. PG. A the New Art Theater.

"I'm in the mood for love/ simply because you're near me/ funny, but when you're near me/ I'm in the mood for love."

Earlier generations certainly know this famous Dorothy Fields/ Jimmy McHugh song, launched when Frances Langford sang it in her feature debut "Every Night at Eight" (1935) --which is about a musical trio ( Alice Faye, Patsy Kelly and Langford) singing at a radio station. It became a staple in World War II when diminutive Frances, a major fixture of Bob Hope's USO show, warbled it to the military all over the map.

Cleverly, while the movie has many tunes, it uses only the title and not the song itself. It was chosen late in the film's development. From its initial idea to the end of production, In the Mood for Love underwent many metamorphoses and its making was interrupted several times (with a gap of almost a year). Among the reasons for this: the Asian financial crisis; the almost simultaneous filming of another feature (the futuristic "2046"); the fact that the two pictures had some mutually influencing elements which resulted in a kind of ping pong of changes; director Wong Kar-wei's constant re-thinking the film; and last but not least, his working without a script.

In 1962 the British crown colony of Hong Kong was 35 years away from reverting to China. Around that time there was a major influx of people from mainland China, notably Shanghai. It put a huge strain on housing the newcomers.

The movie opens with Mr.Chow renting a room for himself and his wife in a cheerful, crowded and dilapidated house. At the same time, Mrs.Su does the same for herself and her husband. The new tenants have adjoining rooms. We do not see their spouses, who both incessantly take business trips. The movie spells out few facts, so that the audience has to be on its toes and infer a great deal.

The beautiful Mrs. Su wears a succession of gorgeous dresses, craftily color-coded. Handsome Mr. Chow is elegant in his many changes of impeccable suits. When I first saw the movie there were raised eyebrows about the contrast between chic apparel and shabby dwellings, but this is explained by Hong Kong's huge housing shortage in the early 60s.

It is inevitable that during the absence of their peripatetic mates, Su and Chow will meet, chat in restaurants or noodle shops (noodlerias?), feel mutual attraction. Su works in the office of businessman Mr. Ho as his secretary as well as something like a general manager. (We only see briefly just one other employee, an errand boy). I repeat, the movie skimps on traditional orientations and explanations in favor of its overwhelming subject, "A Man and a Woman."

Mr. Ho has a wife and a mistress. Su is not only aware of this but imperturbably sets up appointments for Ho and the younger woman, covers for him, and has her husband bring back from his trips abroad duplicate gifts for Ho's two ladies.

Chow is a journalist. The film's minimal information and parsimonious clues reveal this to us slowly. Only much later do we learn that Chow is a newspaper's editor.

Over a restaurant the new twosome realize that his wife and her husband are lovers. In most scenarios this would give our couple carte blanche for carnal knowledge, but here neither the man nor the woman "wants to be like them." So the movie intensifies its ballet of hesitancies. That's the film's core. It is done with sympathy, exemplary delicacy and discretion and underplayed micro-changes. The principals meet and meet and meet while repeating "we should not be seen together."

This unusual love story goes hand in hand with the acute estheticism of its director and its ace cinematographers. Comings and goings, in contrast to the protagonists' sartorial elegance, are set in often chiaroscuro interiors, in narrow streets with picturesque rain, with a stress on walls that have the beauty of decay. The cautious symbolism here is reinforced by the soundtrack. Nat King Cole is heard doing a number of Latin versions of familiar love songs. (His Spanish is fine, a tad Argentinean. Clue: he says Jo for Yo). There are other songs, as well as a too repetitious theme for meowing strings.

The terms "Mood" and "Love" are in this work's bloodstream. They are expressed without the need for running dialogue. Understatement is the order of the day along with major pauses and silences. The director made many cuts in the original footage shot, so as to weed out and "purify" the movie. This is minimalism as well as an unusual form of film asceticism that recalls the strategies of some great filmmakers, such as Ozu and Robert Bresson.

At age 5, Wong Kar-wei had moved with his parents from Shanghai to Hong-Kong. The recreation of the times is both economical and precise. As the old houses exist no longer, the shooting was mostly done in Bangkok.

The director says that he was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave of the 60s. (But certainly not by the anything goes, hippie 60s in the USA as well as Europe). Among his Godardian techniques is the avoidance of shot -reverse shot in conversations; not always showing one of the interlocutors; platitudes spoken by some older people; the absence of a script. But contrary to Godard, this bittersweet story never ventures outside its one and only subject, does not go from the inner self to the outside, but instead keeps the camera rock-steady to lead us from out to in, from the images to the soul of the characters.

Is this an Asian "Brief Encounter?" Is there closure? I won't let the cat out of the bag.

The actors are perfect. Maggie Chung's and Tony Leung's careers began in the early 1980s. They are mega-stars in Asia, and have made a huge number of films. (Ms. Chung did 12 features in 1988!) "In the Mood" is their fifth feature directed by Wong Kar-wei.

At the Cannes Film Festival (2000) Tony Leung won for Best Actor. The two cinematographers and the production designer were awarded the Grand Technical Prize.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel