One Life to Live

Quizás, baby: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love

Like life, a movie represents a series of choices made according to what's available: There's the crucial question of what to shoot, of course, but also how to shoot it, where to shoot it, whether to move the camera (and how), when to cut, what to put on the soundtrack, and what to call it when it's done. In a way, any piece of film is most alive in the editing, before it's strapped to the movie's final structure--because then, seemingly, anything is possible. (Even the industry's utilitarian terminology can't fail to convey the freedom and confinement involved in the different stages of post-production: The miles of raw footage are known as "rushes" while a fully edited picture is regarded as "locked.") If a finished movie lives--and lives differently--in the minds of all who see it, there's an equal sense in which the final product is utterly dead to its creator.

Then there's the ordinary person who, as the saying goes, "lives his life like he's in a movie": the performing "artist" (or "drama queen") who has a thing for soap opera, an acute awareness, perhaps, of the gravity of all those choices. And let me tell you, it's a tough way to live. Yet one could argue that the decisions one makes in the act of artistic creation are infinitely more profound--and painful--than those one makes in life, because art lives forever. (Whereas no one--except maybe the judge in Defending Your Life--is apt to remember that you pitched a rock through that car window in second grade.) The much-abused privilege of the "director's cut" notwithstanding, the completed movie endures long past the life of its maker, and once "locked" can never be altered. To a director, that's a heavy thought indeed--and I haven't even mentioned love. Unbridled passion would seem an essential element of anything worth making (love included), although the paradox of both love and movies is that to "consummate" an affair or a film is to bring it to fruition--and thereby, as the word suggests, to use it up.

All of which is a long way of saying that Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is a movie about art and life and love, because it's explicitly about choices: the seemingly infinite number of them, and the weight of each. And the romance of putting them off until later. And the lament for all that's lost once one of them is made. (Not for nothing is one scholarly essay on Wong's films titled "The Erotics of Disappointment.") Where Wong's Happy Together concerned a couple who were anything but, In the Mood for Love follows two would-be lovers who are unhappy apart: a journalist (Tony Leung) and a secretary (Maggie Cheung), both married to other people, who masochistically ponder their mutual attraction after bumping into one another in a cramped Hong Kong apartment building circa 1962. Aside from this initially divine meeting of souls, fate doesn't much enter into it: Rather, Wong's is a film about love in the absence of destiny--in the face, that is, of endless longing, limited options, and impossible decisions.

Throughout, the director's precisely measured deployment of light, color, movement, sound, and music--so many choices, so little time--makes his own deliberations palpable. (That shot of Cheung's forlorn beauty swaying her hips and swinging a thermos full of noodles looks even more gorgeous in slow-mo, yes?) In turn, we come to see that courtship, too, is an art. About a half-hour into Mood, Chow Mo-wan (Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Cheung) are walking home together after drinking tea in a café, having just confirmed their suspicions that their spouses are having an affair. "I wonder how it began," Li-zhen muses, setting another affair in (slow-)
motion. Mo-wan gently reaches for her wrist and, cradling it in his hand, asks, "Shall we stay out tonight?"--replaying what her husband might have said to Mo-wan's wife. Then, a moment later, in Li-zhen's (or Wong's?) hypothetical variation on the earlier proposal, she playfully twirls a finger in the general direction of where Mo-wan's belt meets the bottom of his tie, and blushes. Are the two seeking to discover how they were first cheated upon? Are they getting revenge? Falling for each other? All of the above? Besides performing their spouses' roles, the betrayed spouses--themselves played by two of the most beautiful stars in the known universe--are likely enacting their own desires, and ours.

In the Mood for Love is, hands down, the sexiest movie I've ever seen--and there's not a single sex scene in it. Whether it's Wong or the protagonists who keep the affair unconsummated onscreen (we'll never know), the director nonetheless relishes its sensual minutiae: Li-zhen's alluring wardrobe of high-collared, tight-fitting floral print cheongsams (her person, like her passion, pushing the bounds of societal stricture); a lush, lilting Nat King Cole tune ("Quizás, Quizás, Quizás"--meaning maybe, maybe, maybe) that literally teases with possibility; a piece of rare steak dipped in a spicy mustard sauce, its yellow as hot as the kind of kiss you taste for days. As in the deepest love, the film's true feelings are communicated without words: Just after the secret admirers have brushed past each other on a narrow stairway, the image of rain falling beneath a street lamp comes like a tiny orgasm or a drizzle of tears. The overripe array of reds, golds, greens, purples, and pinks in the mise en scène--sometimes all in a single shot--is enough to make you swoon.  

And yet, leaving little to chance, the filmmaker's hyperexpressive style is about control as well. Like the mournful violin that wails against the rigid 3/4 beat of Michael Galasso's score (lust locked in a waltz with convention, once again), In the Mood for Love seems to grieve the passing of each and every moment in time--while Wong's unusually stationary camera holds itself in check, awaiting every unlikely outcome of the lovers' platonic tryst. Here, in a way, abstinence is a virtue: Because the characters rarely touch, the possibility that they might at any moment is almost unbearably intense, and so it remains. Quizás, quizás, quizás, as Nat King Cole would say. An impossible love it is, but, at least for the film's 98 minutes, Wong sees fit to leave everything open.


Given the film's subject and style, even newcomers to Wong's adventurously melancholy oeuvre needn't be surprised to learn that the director's methods of working are obsessive in the extreme. Essentially the Eyes Wide Shut of Hong Kong cinema, In the Mood for Love--shot entirely without a script--was more than two years in the making, including a short eternity in the cutting room. This owed in part to the Asian economic crisis that temporarily crippled the film's funding, but even more to the auteur's rather romantic reluctance to limit his artistic options. Only a week before the movie's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Wong was rumored to be reshooting his finale in the Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat; days later, he was still tweaking the subtitles in a Paris lab; and at the start of the fest, the English name of the film remained Untitled, as it was known in the Cannes program. (Wong claims he chose In the Mood for Love while listening to Bryan Ferry--and in light of his willingness to borrow other people's titles, I'll mention that One Life to Live would have worked magnificently as well.)

Wong's torturous m.o. may be trying to his collaborators, too: His longtime director of photography Christopher Doyle quit the fold only a third of the way through the epic shoot, replaced by Mark Li, a veteran of works by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien. But what better approach to a film about the agony of putting things to a close, about the endless regret over all the other Moods that, despite the mountainous "rushes," must be left unmade? At Cannes, Wong admitted to having made the characters' excruciating sexual indecision his own, opting only at the 11th hour to excise a sequence of Li-zhen and Mo-wan engaged in, as he put it, "hanky-panky." (My press book from the festival contains a single image of the two in bed together--which, in the context of the finished film, is almost too haunting to behold.) When one journalist at the fest asked the director whether there were, as reports had suggested, literally hundreds of hours of footage not included in the film, his typically droll reply seemed to find him scheming to keep the affair alive: "Not at this moment, no."

Hypothetical bliss and the inevitable expiration of love likewise factor into Wong's half-dozen other films--particularly the kiss kiss bang bang double-header of Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995). Still, those intoxicating pop masterpieces are set within video arcade dreamscapes of slurred neon, loud rock 'n' roll, frenzied camera moves, and Godardian jump cuts--reflecting a young artist's sensibility on the one hand, and a hyperkinetic, anything's-for-sale contemporary milieu on the other. In the Mood for Love may retain the quality of a private hallucination, but the titular mood is somber and pensive--partly on account of the repression of the time (1962, if not 2001), but also of the fact that Wong, now 43 years old, finally has a story whose poignancy equals that of his images. Here, the weight of decisions in the heat of passion presses even upon what Wong and his characters can permit themselves to fantasize: How to represent something that's too beautiful for words--too beautiful for pictures, even? Especially in the final scenes, the film's elliptical editing suggests that what appears unfulfilled perhaps isn't--at least not in some other universe, maybe, or some other movie.  

And yet the movie we're watching must come to an end. Without giving it away, In the Mood for Love moves from an intimate, fleeting, immaculate little realm to a sacred monument--from what Casablanca's Rick Blaine would call the personal woes that "don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" to the whole of human civilization. Here, amid ancient columns of stone and lumps of mud, a secret is whispered into eternity, as quizás turns, painfully, to memory.

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