An exquisitely fashioned melodrama about love and regret, Wong Kar-wai’s latest feature, like much of the preeminent Hong Kong hipster’s previous work, is a seductive mood piece with more style than substance. “In the Mood for Love” dazzles with a heady atmosphere of romantic melancholy and ravishing visuals straight out of a ’60s Vogue spread but neglects to construct the kind of dramatic complexity to provide any lasting emotional resonance. Audiences in the U.S. in particular — where USA Films acquired rights on the strength of a three-minute promo — may crave more narrative muscle, while the Euro arthouse flock should prove more faithful.
Rushed to completion to make the final slot in the Cannes competition, the film screened with a provisional mono sound mix but will be finessed in Dolby for release. Wong reportedly was still shooting the closing scenes in Cambodia a week prior to the festival.
While the operation is no less polished than the aesthetic stylist’s other work — in fact, it picked up Cannes’ technical achievement award — the tale’s conclusion shows signs of a hasty wrap-up, with the writer-director seemingly grasping for a quick, simple way to end.
Wong’s script was partly developed during shooting and the doleful story of impossible love is little more than an outline.
Set in the Shanghai community of Hong Kong in 1962, as one era draws to a close and another begins, the drama unfolds mainly in the tight corridors and confined spaces of a building in which two young couples rent rooms and become neighbors.
Leggy beauty Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) is a secretary in an export office whose husband’s job with a Japanese firm often keeps him away on business. Across the hall, Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is a newspaper editor married to a woman who is also frequently out of town.
Spending a good deal of time alone in the noisy house — bustling with visitors and presided over by good-naturedly invasive landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan) — Li-zhen and Chow strike up a timid but cordial friendship. Their respective spouses are never shown in full, either glimpsed from behind or partially obscured by obstacles.
Chow is the first to suspect that his wife’s absences may not be entirely legitimate when he plans to surprise her at work one night but finds she left early. Soon after, his newspaper colleague (Siu Ping-Lam) says he saw Chow’s wife with another man.
Chow cautiously inquires about a handbag of Li-zhen’s, which is identical to his wife’s. Informing him it was a gift from her husband, Li-zhen then reveals that Chow’s tie is the same as one her husband often wears. Naturally, Chow received the tie from his wife. Neither one has to be a genius to deduce that their partners are an item.
Drawn closer together by their sense of humiliation and abandonment, Li-zhen and Chow say nothing to their spouses but wait for signs of change. In the meantime, they begin a chaste courtship, trying to imagine the nature of their errant partners’ first encounters while determining to behave more decorously.
Li-zhen even rehearses interrogation of her husband, using Chow as a stand-in, with his admission of guilt cutting her deeply. But despite their reserve, feelings of love creep up on both of them, prompting Chow to ask Li-zhen to leave with him for Singapore.
Wong establishes a dreamy mood and rhythm through fluidly edited scenes showing the unrequieted lovers at work or stopping to chat in the corridors at home, and hypnotic sequences trailing Li-zhen as she slinks out to the noodle bar for her solitary supper, often in bucketing rain.
Repetitive use of slow motion and of Michael Galasso’s lovely string compositions and a Spanish-language Nat “King” Cole vocal give a richly sensual feel to the film but underline the insubstantial development of the drama.
The feeling of missed opportunities and of love that might have been is conveyed with a certain quiet potency when Li-zhen returns to Mrs. Suen’s house years later while Chow reignites his memories in a Cambodian temple. But the film fails to conjure the depth or heartbreaking emotional charge of the classic melodramas to which it aspires.
Those aspirations are evident in the gorgeous look of the production, which echoes the work of Douglas Sirk, abandoning the edgy, experimental visuals and fast cutting of Wong’s previous films like “Chungking Express” and “Happy Together” that earned him a reputation as the Godard of the East.
Using regular d.p. Christopher Doyle and Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborator Mark Li Ping-bing, Wong returns to a classic shooting style closest to that of his 1991 feature “Days of Being Wild,” which also starred Cheung and Leung.
The camera frequently lingers outside rooms, fracturing images by observing the thwarted lovers’ exchanges through doorways, grates and windows or reflected in mirrors.
“In the Mood for Love” perhaps could be accused of being over-art directed, its visual embellishments almost seeming like an anti-Dogma statement. But one of the film’s chief pleasures is the attention to detail in the production design by William Chang Suk-ping (who also edited), with evocative period interiors, retro colors and knockout wardrobe.
Cheung has more costume changes than a Vegas act, slipping into a new slinky, floral-print number every few minutes and summoning thoughts of a harried seamstress working full-time somewhere to keep her closet stocked.
Given very little in the way of concrete characters to play, Cheung and especially Leung — who won the Cannes fest’s best actor Palme for his role — both give cool, controlled performances, keeping a tight lid on but nonetheless revealing feelings first of pain then of longing and sorrow.