Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong poet of cinema, is best known internationally for his 1997 win at Cannes for "Happy Together." His latest, "In the Mood for Love," which won Tony Leung the best actor award at Cannes this past year, is a love poem to a place and time that no longer exists, a Shanghai community in Hong Kong in 1962.
The movie lovingly re-creates the way people walked and talked, their clothes, the behavior of neighbors, the music and radio programs, the restaurants and street corners. Shanghaiese prided themselves on their refinement and maintained separate enclaves in Hong Kong.
Leung, as Chow Mo-wan, and Maggie Cheung, as Su Li-zhen, called Mrs. Chan in the subtitles, play a couple whose spouses, they discover, are having an affair. Both have rented rooms in neighboring apartments. Leung is a newspaperman and Cheung a secretary for a travel agency, yet he's a man of few words and she's not one to journey far. Neither of their spouses is fully seen onscreen, yet the couple enact scenes playing themselves or their partner's love interest. Sharing the secret of infidelity not only brings them closer but gives them something to hide from their landlords and neighbors.
The early 1960s was the beginning of Hong Kong's three decades of economic growth that would turn the British colony into one of the world's capitalist showcases. But its people faced a housing crunch. It was not unusual for families to share space for eating and socializing. In this confined atmosphere, as the two begin to spend time together, the neighbors notice. Their companionship is considered highly inappropriate -- especially for the woman. The constraints placed upon them are embodied by the film's tight spaces, crowded rooms, empty hallways and narrow stairwells. Leung, in his crisp suit and tie, with slicked-down hair, and Cheung, with her perfect hairdos and beautiful but tight cheongsams, are tellingly restricted in their movements.
Even the camerawork is disciplined, with steady shots. The camera is forced to peer around corners, glimpse down hallways or catch reflections in mirrors, trying to discover, like us, what's happening. The music, featuring a mournful cello-and-violin theme and Latin songs sung by Nat King Cole, is seductive.
By grounding the film in an exile community, Wong provides a larger context. In the early '60s, many Chinese immigrants believed their Hong Kong stay would be temporary. By 1967, however, the year in which the film ends, with the start of the Cultural Revolution and the Hong Kong riots against British imperialism, their dreams were shattered. Significantly Wong changes the story's look and setting, ending it in Cambodia. He uses footage of de Gaulle's official visit to Phnom Penh to remind us of how France colonized and abandoned Indochina just as Britain would Hong Kong. But this film is far from a political tract. Following this scene is a coda at a sacred place, the grounds of Angkor Wat, where time heals and love can finally be told.
What is love? What does it mean to be close to someone? How do couples find each other? Why do they leave? This love without an affair (at least not seen onscreen) raises such questions. This story is about the intimacy of two people. Chinese culture generally is less verbal than Western. Wong's two leads are is quiet. But "you notice things if you pay attention," Mrs. Chan remarks. In an act of pure cinema Wong Kar-wai intimately reveals love, longing and loss, to those who pay attention.