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18 September 2005

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Tony Leung & Maggie Cheung
Directed by Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express)
Cantonese title: Fa yeung nin wa

From Hollywood Video: "Romantic period drama about a Cantonese journalist's unusual relationship with a married mainland Chinese immigrant in early 1960s Hong Kong."

That is a strange summary, because the movie (as I saw it, in Cantonese with English subtitles) does not provide any clue as to the characters' origins. They arrive in Hong Kong with no back story. Maybe something lost in translation?

So I'll elaborate on the plot: Neighbor man (Leung) finds out through a series of coincidences that his wife is having an affair with the husband of his neighbor (Cheung). Slowly, they begin a friendship built on consolation as they struggle with the inevitable questions: how did it begin, who made the first move, will they come back home? In numerous scenes, they even play-act the roles of their spouses. She eats hot mustard because his wife liked it that way, despite the grimace of dislike on her face. They practiced how they would confront their spouses, how they would break up with each other - and these scenes were sneaky little double-takes. Very innovative and entertaining. All the time, they swore they would not become like their unfaithful spouses. Their relationship, because of their intention to remain platonic, becomes something more powerful and emotionally devastating because of their repressed desires.

Circumstances separate the couples, the mismatched lovers, until years pass. Leung's character goes to a sacred place and whispers his darkest secret into a tree for safe-keeping. Cheung's character returns to Hong Kong without her husband but with a young boy in tow. What happened? How far did they go? Nothing is ever explicitly explained, but they emerge from this era of mingled, bittersweet emotion as if awaking from a dream. The uncertainties of what took place and how it affected them makes for a beautifully quiet and ambiguous finale.

It's a shame that this is only the second film I've seen starring Maggie Cheung, the first being her English-language role opposite Gong Li and Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box in which she was so charismatic and engaging. Here, her flamboyant energy was subdued by her role as a jilted 1962 housewife, but her sexy, smoldering power was still very much apparent opposite a darkly despairing Tony Leung. Her wide, mesmerizing eyes turned toward the object of her interest before she moved her head or body - deliberate and seductive without being flashy. Director Wong Kar Wai must have been equally fascinated with the way she walks. He composed dozens of slow-motion poems dedicated to the look of her body in those lush Mandarin-style dresses as she kept the rhythm of the sometimes whimsical, sometimes melancholy soundtrack.

This film reminded me of old-fashioned movies in which a look, a sigh, and a pair of hands reaching out mean more than words or kisses. The subtlety of their affection reinforced the clandestine, respectful nature of their relationship, as if (in the end) what happened between them was really none of our business. I like that they had their privacy.

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