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  • Wong Kar-Wai – In the Mood for Love

    Wong Kar-Wai creates art for one medium: film. His are not the kind of movies that could be adapted to any other format, be it book, television, or theater. He paints with the lens, flashes of color slashing across the celluloid. He extracts the best from his actors, beckoning feelings of incredible depth and meaning in a single look. Wong is, to put it simply, a filmic genius crafting masterworks of mood and light for an audience that’s just now coming to appreciate the extent of his oeuvre.

    Fotograma "In the mood for love"
    The excellent cinematography of Christopher Doyler.
    Photo by C.D via IMDB

    Wong Kar-Wai creates art for one medium: film. His are not the kind of movies that could be adapted to any other format, be it book, television, or theater. He paints with the lens, flashes of color slashing across the celluloid. He extracts the best from his actors, beckoning feelings of incredible depth and meaning in a single look. Wong is, to put it simply, a filmic genius crafting masterworks of mood and light for an audience that’s just now coming to appreciate the extent of his oeuvre.

    In the Mood for Love
    by Wong Kar Wai
    [Cinema 4, 1998]

    The crowning achievement of Wong’s filmography is undoubtedly his subtly passionate romance In the Mood for Love, released in 2000. The plot is spare. A man and woman, brought together in a cramped apartment building, discover their respective partners are having an affair. Joined together by circumstance, the pair becomes close while refusing to be “like them” and act on their growing feelings. It’s a plot that operates as much by the unseen as the seen. The partners are never shown. The entire filmed is carried almost entirely by the two leads’ performances.

    Wong uses a stable of actors and technical crew on each film, and he follows that model with his leads yet again with In the Mood. Tony Leung exhibits a quiet, almost despondent cool, looking and acting every bit the part of a classic Hollywood leading man, a Clark Cable or Cary Grant. Maggie Cheung positively glows, capturing a haunted air with her character as she struggles between breaking her vow to her husband or acting on a smoldering romance.

    The characters cannot be together, yet they’re more intimate than almost every on screen romance ever filmed.

    And smolder the romance does. As depicted in quick, unsteady camera flashes by the first cinematographer Christopher Doyle or in long takes of picturesque rooms by the second, Mark Lee Ping Bin, the leads’ relationship is characterized by the type of hungry, longing glances that Hollywood has long since forsworn for tawdry sex scenes and nudity. Which isn’t to say that In the Mood won’t make you blush. The walls practically drip with sensuality. Hotel rooms, starkly painted red, become cages of forbidden love. The characters, so close and intimate, but so restrained and far at the same time, is Shakespearean in the depth of its romance and its tragedy.

    It’s this use of negative space, of showing us only what we need, that really drives home the film’s messages of missed chances, loneliness, and sorrow. The characters cannot be together, yet they’re more intimate than almost every on screen romance ever filmed. The dialogue is spare, but their eyes speak a million words. Its conclusion, in another movie silly and melodramatic, here, devastating in its impact. A whisper, spoken into stone, never to be heard, including by the audience.

     

    Untouchable intimacy
    Untouchable intimacy

    In the Mood hearkens back to classic Hollywood gems where the cerebral natures of the camera and the performances are matched by the story itself. Most commonly, In the Mood is compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as Leung’s character attempts to recreate how his partner may have met her paramour, using Cheung’s character as a stand-in. They perform, act out the secret lives of others, but the line between recreation and action becomes blurred, much like in the final act of Vertigo. However, In the Mood hearkens back to another American masterpiece, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Much like in that film, the director began filming with only the most basic outlines of a script on hand, allowing the actors to, in their own way, “find the story.” Combined with the brilliant cinematography of some of the best in the business, both films are testaments to the power of the medium.

    https://youtu.be/pabypfyqdnQ

    And smolder the romance does. As depicted in quick, unsteady camera flashes by the first cinematographer Christopher Doyle or in long takes of picturesque rooms by the second, Mark Lee Ping Bin, the leads’ relationship is characterized by the type of hungry, longing glances that Hollywood has long since forsworn for tawdry sex scenes and nudity. Which isn’t to say that In the Mood won’t make you blush. The walls practically drip with sensuality. Hotel rooms, starkly painted red, become cages of forbidden love. The characters, so close and intimate, but so restrained and far at the same time, is Shakespearean in the depth of its romance and its tragedy.

    In sum, without question, In the Mood for Love is one of my favorite films, and I hope it becomes one of yours. Its balance of beauty, sorrow, dark, light, passion, and distance combine into a moving combination. Wong continues to make films, some incredible in their spontaneity, like Chungking Express, haunting in their effervescence, like Days of Being Wild, or daunting in their scope, like 2046, but none combine the whole package like In the Mood for Love.

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    John Bradley

    John Bradley is a federal prosecutor, former writing instructor, avid book lover, vinyl collector, green tea connoisseur, and The Wild Detectives regular living in Oak Cliff. Follow him on Twitter @_johnbradley.

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