Romance out of Reach
The sustained and surprising nationwide success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the past six months has, however briefly, heightened hopes that a sizable American movie audience exists that may be willing to consume foreign language films with subtitles. Even if the film's Matrix-style action choreography is responsible for a good deal of the stateside interest, just as important is the central plot presence of that most aching of emotional states, unfulfilled love. Certainly part of the film's appeal lies in the heartbreaking way Crouching Tiger insists that romantic affection is subordinate to a larger moral code based on honor, selflessness and deference to tradition. After all, not every romantic impulse results in lifelong bliss and contentment; other factors in this mess called life - from other people to other priorities - have a habit of asserting themselves.
Hong Kong writer-director Wong Kar-wai has remained in the Far East for the duration of his career, which is now entering its third decade. Most of his films during the nineties focused to varying degrees on the pleasures and pains of romance, from the lovelorn quartet in 1994's Chungking Express (probably Wong's widest-seen film in the States, due to a rousing endorsement and distribution push from the then super-hip Quentin Tarantino) to the gay Hong Kong couple living in Argentina in 1997's Happy Together. In the Mood for Love casts off much of the excess stylistic flash of Wong's previous pictures in order to express the pervasive melancholy that occurs when two intensely lonely people betrayed by their spouses refuse to connect due to societal - and self-imposed - reasons.
Set in Hong Kong during the early sixties, In the Mood for Love focuses on the growing attraction between two new neighbors in a claustrophobic apartment building for transplanted Shanghainese. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is a chain-smoking journalist working the night beat, and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is a well-dressed and demure executive assistant. Su Li-zhen's husband is constantly away on business trips, and Chow Mo-wan's wife is similarly scarce, leaving each of them little else to do but spend the majority of their time alone. The initial conversations between Chow and Su Li-zhen are cordial small talk, but the accompanying furtive glances exchanged between them signal a gaping absence of companionship that both are desperate to fill.
Wong Kar-wai presents their budding passion tentatively, and it unfolds slowly against the backdrop of infidelity; although Chow's wife and Su Li-zhen's husband are never seen, their voices are heard in conversation and it becomes apparent to the audience as well as the principal characters that they are having an affair. The scene in which Chow and Su Li-zhen finally admit their spouses' affair has enough tension to foreshadow an even greater revelation: that Chow and Su Li-zhen are meant to be together. Both of them are clearly falling in love, but something keeps them apart.
In the Mood for Love agonizes over this perpetual disconnect between Chow Mo-Wan and Su Li-zhen, as each of them alternate moments of vulnerability and willingness with subsequent withdrawals as they refrain from submitting to their desires. More than anything, it is the adultery that initially brought the two together that prevents them from going any further: Su Li-zhen in particular sees that the same ardor that caused her husband to stray is at the heart of her and Chow's desperate longing for each other. If she submits as her husband did, and violates the sanctity of marriage, is she any better? Chow Mo-Wan soon comes to realize as well that there is no way for he and Su Li-zhen to escape their situation without becoming stigmatized. The film's visually gripping coda takes place in the ancient Khmer ruins of Angkor, Cambodia, and suggests rather depressingly that perhaps true love is really nothing more than a "mood," one that has no chance of enduring.
Alternately frustrating and captivating, In the Mood for Love is light years removed from the typical Hollywood romance (like, say, Julia Roberts in Love is Good, to steal a satirical jibe from a recent Simpsons episode). Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon afforded its two tragic-heroic couples a moment or two of transcendence before they sacrificed love for nobility, but here Wong's detachment overrules all hope for a breakthrough. Despite the presence of two of Hong Kong cinema's biggest stars in leading roles, graceful, intimate cinematography, and the ubiquitous background crooning of Nat King Cole (in Spanish), Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love cynically (or is that realistically?) recasts the romantic ideal as a basis for inner turmoil, where the prospect for eternal love is glimpsed but never grasped.
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