Set in Hong Kong in 1962, this new film by writer-director Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, Happy Together) is a variation on the David Lean-Noel Coward classic Brief Encounter (1945), the story of two people, each married to someone else, who slowly drift together for a tenuous romance. It’s a simple tale of loneliness and yearning — and where Lean amplified its already bittersweet atmosphere with ample helpings of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2”; Wong deepens the impact of the couple’s dilemma by dint of his signature visual style, an expressive use of color coordination-saturation and camera angles which unifies the characters with the decor.
The sad couple are Chow Mowan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both move into the same Shanghai apartment building on the same day; both have spouses who always seem to be away. Being neighbors they constantly run into each other and, as one thing leads to another, soon discover that their respective partners are having an affair. At that point their initial attraction develops into a ritual of commiseration, their mutual cuckolding allowing them to draw together without feeling they are being blatantly unfaithful. (Wong was wise in setting this in a fairly recent but seemingly more puritan past, or else we would be wondering why they didn’t just jump into the sack.)
Of course, they can’t hold love at arm’s length forever, but being principled, married people they can’t quite bring themselves to commit to each other either. The film becomes a slow study in frustration and, despite its surface of lovely detail, one can’t help but detect the threadbare soap opera percolating underneath. Not that story has ever been director Wong’s strong suit. What makes In the Mood for Love worth seeing is the way he’s taken this repressed scenario and filled it with dramatic and eroticized visuals. Examples include the exquisite Cheung, in yet another of her high-collared Suzie Wong dresses, leaning against a wall on a dark rainy night, the repeated close-ups of Leung, sickly colored and staring into some personal abyss, a shot of a pair of woman’s slippers in an unhappy bedroom.
As the story proceeds in its mute and intentionally unsatisfying way, the images smolder and roil with emotion. And while one may be less than happy with the film’s narrative turns, Wong Kai-war remains one of those intrinsically visual directors whose work needs to be seen, not described.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.