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See also Marty Mapes’ review of In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a sweet and sour romance shot through a candied glaze of regret. A soft drizzle of melancholia permeates every frame like the rainy mist that dampens the film’s ill-fated couple at every furtive step. Lacquered and high gloss, In the Mood for Love’s evocation of love, loss, confinement and dislocation sheaths itself in a fragile armor of surface perfection and glamour. Sadness has a beauty all its own to be savored and admired, never to be forgotten.

Remembrance of Flings Past

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are In the MoodHong Kong. 1962. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) begin a tentative, strained dance of coincidence and mutual, unspoken secrets. Each moves into the same apartment building on the very same day. Their lodgings face each other directly across a narrow hallway. Each is a latchkey spouse. Mr. Chow’s wife conveniently swings the night shift at a hotel. Mrs. Chan’s husband is adrift on business travel, spending extended periods “abroad.” Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s respective louses are also engaged in flagrant, yet invisible off-screen adultery. These simple, mirrored occurrences are telling, in that symmetry (either narrative or visual) necessitates a point of separation and opposition. Like thwarted affairs of the heart, parallels may follow the same path, but they never converge.

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are groomed to the nines. Mr. Chow has the dashed good looks of a crestfallen matinee idol; only his slumped, hangdog air of defeat dulls his Brilliantine sheen. Like his shirts, he is crisp, starched and repressed. Mrs. Chan’s outward appearance is more rigid and controlled. Hemmed in by a bursting wardrobe of slinky silk cheongsam dresses (a high-collared, form-fitting sheath with eye-popping pop-art prints), Mrs. Chan is poised and erect with rectitude and anxious restraint. The flower of her frustration is betrayed only by the effusive floral and geometric patterns of her strict, meticulous attire.

Last Tangle in Hong Kong

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan graze each other with increasing frequency in the cramped stairwell of their building, crossing paths as they come and go in search of take-out noodles to feed their solitary, shared hunger. Loneliness and dissolution coalesce to bring them closer together in a faux pas-de-deux of swooning sentiment, lassitude and shame. Vowing never to be like their straying partners, each of them remains faithful more to the bonds and social restrictions of marriage than to their absentee mates. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s delicate entanglement unravels, but never completely unties the knot. Marriage is ownership, and the obligations of property require an unwavering commitment to propriety’s mannered rules of fidelity and life-long bonds. If adultery is to remain chaste, all eroticism must be reticent, resisted, and restrained.

Just as suddenly as it began, the fleeting, tenuous bond between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan comes to an inconclusive end. Years elapse, and Mr. Chow sets off for Southeast Asia as a news reporter to cover the arrival of General Charles de Gaulle in Cambodia. Strolling down the vaulted, mournful corridors of the temple of Angkor Wat, Mr. Chow retraces his memory of Mrs. Chow, who is by now long lost but forever present.

The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing

It’s amazing how a film so seemingly light and ephemeral can bear the emotional gravity and weight of the feelings stirring beneath its glassy, shimmering surface. Passion is alluded to but never revealed, finding oblique expression instead in the dazzling, mute cacophony of clashing wallpaper, graphic lampshades, and the jarring elegance of the heroine’s kaleidoscopic collection of dresses. Narrative events are only hinted at, and are evident only by the emotional aftermath they impart on the lead characters, like a faint trail of faded perfume.

Similar to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, interior states are obscure and seldom voiced. Surface detail and filmic texture are the only correlatives for the characters’ muted distress. Most of the drama is spied through shots of narrow corridors and doorways. Visual clutter, tight framing, and pictorial distortion heighten the cramped sense of frustration, longing, and emotional restriction even further. Visual depth is flattened out, with the screen itself exerting an unbearable pressure upon Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s compressed repression. Tellingly, the film’s most poignant scene takes place outside during a gentle rainstorm as the reluctant lovers are viewed surreptitiously through water streaming down a windowpane. They face each other, but their gaze never meets. Precipitated by the anguished acknowledgment that their love is an impossible one, they figuratively dissolve into a mist of lachrymose resignation.

Picture and Sound

The new digital transfer is luminous, bringing to light the dark, yet incandescent colors of the original release. The film’s murky mood is bathed in a milky, opalescent glow, as if the sorrowful proceedings were photographed through a lens of opaque Depression glass.

The Dolby Digital 5.0 audio track gives amazing depth and spatial resonance to the claustrophobic settings which predominate in the film. Although the visual space of In the Mood for Love is severely constrained, the broader aural sphere amplifies the unseen physical context of the action. Paradoxically, this expansion of the sound field at the expense of the visual one only further emphasizes the characters’ stifling sense of isolation and defeat.

DVD Extras

This Criterion double-disc release is so rich in bonus material that the film itself verges on becoming a supplemental feature to the edition, rather than the main event.

Disc One contains the full-length picture, as well as deleted scenes with director’s commentary, an interactive essay on the music of In the Mood for Love, and Hua Yang De Nian Hua, Wong Kar-wai’s short-film valentine to the vanished stars of China’s golden age of movies.

The extensive selection of deleted scenes is somewhat of a withheld offering. Rather than providing a glimpse of entertaining outtakes for the curious, these excised passages irrevocably alter one’s impression and memory of the film in which they never appeared. Situations that were merely suggested in the final film are made explicit. Expectations of what might have happened or what could have been are fleshed out and concrete, leading one to wonder whether the film as released might better be viewed on the cutting room floor than on the silver screen. In retrospect (indeed, a predominant theme of the film), In the Mood for Love takes on a truncated aspect, as if one had been denied a complete experience of the very film just seen. Yet this omission, while perhaps aggravating, only enhances the movie’s sense of secrecy and loss. In its final form, In the Mood for Love is intoxicating by virtue of its concentrated process of distillation. For what remains of a love that never was is the languid memory of what might have been.

Disc Two features @ In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai’s documentary of the making of the film; interviews with the director; press coverage of the stars at the Toronto International Film Festival; trailers, TV spots, and photo galleries; cast and crew biographies; and even an “electronic press kit.” The crowning glory is an exceptional written essay by film scholar Gina Marchetti, in which the film’s intricate inlay of historic, political, social, cultural, and artistic references are brought into context for the Western viewer who may be unaware of them.