One of my all-time favorite filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai, has been on my mind recently for some reason. Maybe it’s the effortlessly slick world in which the characters in CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) inhabit. Even the half heartfelt, half heartbreaking romance in HAPPY TOGETHER (1997) to revisit just to, as the kids say, “feel something” in times where we all feel a bit numb. Wong Kar-Wai, along with others like Sofia Coppola, all have in an everlasting interest with loneliness and attraction towards misunderstood outsiders. So instead, I sought out his masterpiece IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) for its 20th Anniversary and it just ages beautifully, unsurprisingly.
It begins with two couples, moving into the same apartment complex, on the same day. After some time of awkwardly bumping into each other in the confined spaces and making meaningless small talk, the women in one of the couples, Su (Maggie Cheung) suspects her husband of cheating on her with the wife to the husband, Chow, (Tony Leung) in the other couple. Su and Chow’s spouses have become largely absent in their relationships, so much so Wong Kar-Wai never eve shows there faces to the audience. In the 1960’s Hong Kong, the population is at an all-time high, and Su and Chow’s apartment is becoming cramped as ever, they’re lonely. Even with people all around them, its now the fantasizing that overtakes them. Something cinematographer Christopher Doyle continually communicates with the visual language of showing Su and Chow through a window or in a doorframe.
So now not only are they literally confined to space in ever-growing Hong Kong, but now it’s a constant reminder. Eventually, the two begin to act out how they imagine their spouses would have gotten together, but then begin to develop feelings for each other. It’s only there prior marriage and social norms that keep them together, even if Chow comes to the realization he may have been happier before getting married. It’s this yearning for one another that’s at the core of the movie that’s partially responsible for its longevity. Su only tells Chow for revenge but starts hanging out together for the need for human connection. They know they can’t be as romantically involved as their spouses because they’d be just as sinful.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE never fails to hypnotize me ever since I saw it in 2016, I’ve seen it three times and each is as rewarding as the first. Partially due Wong Kar Wai’s idiosyncratic style, infusing an effortless cool with a romance that’s never quick to blossom into something permanent. Because we know Su and Chow aren’t going to live happily ever after, Wai can take his time with the relationship between the two, even with the natural chemistry with Maggie Chung and Tony Leung built into the core of the movie. Even with the methodical sexual tension, we are still hooked by the track “Yumeji’s Theme” from Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi’s soundtrack, dispersed throughout to have us lean closer in with every needle-drop. Even with using every other technical tool to the best of his ability, Wai still utilizes the soundtrack to his advantage, acting like a poetic sonnet instead of a soundtrack telling you how to feel. It’s a stylistic decision Wong Kar Wai has used before, most famously in CHUNGKING EXPRESS, with “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown and “California Dreaming” by The Mamas and The Papas being repeated in their respected halves to create the illusion that the song is something that is important as a camera or an actor. An essential that never grows tired, thus only working as a distinct way to weaponize a soundtrack.
Wong Kar-Wai just gets at a certain shade of melancholy that can be found in Todd Haynes’ CAROL (2015) or CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017), the movie knows a relationship is bound to be broken as quickly as it was built. Such traditional romances like SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) and YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998) suffer here given our pre-set expectations that the two leads are destined to end up together with comedy ensuing and it giving us the feeling those who seem mismatched are the best match in reality. But that’s not reality, we witness the other side to the typical coin in the bitter sweetness that’s only able to be communicated in cinema. The energy of regret and yearning from when we had it so good and didn’t know it and or the restriction of a happy life together. Human beings want to forget that finality is out there and something so precious is not permanent and Wong Kar-Wai is delicate with the spark that forms with Su and Chow, thus savors every moment with the pacing.
Calling this one of the best films of the 21st century (or at least of the 2000s) isn’t as hyperbolic as it may first seem, with such maturity and subtly on display here that’s ultimately found so rare. With MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) and THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) up in the conversation for the 00s best to offer (as well as being in my personal favorites) IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE isn’t tied down to 2000’s trends, fashions or haircuts, resulting in that never feels dated or a time capsule of the early 21st century. Instead, opting for something timeless, just as the idea of love’s power to manipulate and discourage is timeless. The movie just hurts, it hurts for Su and Chow, hurts for Maggie Chung and Tony Leung, for Wong Kar-Wai and for the viewer. Even with the weather reflecting this with how much its shown raining and hardly any sunshine. Yet, that pain is universal, not repulsive, so much so that maybe that’s where its longevity comes from.