A Restless Moment
It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered, to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.
So begins In the Mood for Love, a film about time, about change, about the past and the future, and the crowning achievement of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Wong, at the time of the film’s release, was the hottest name in world cinema (and, some would argue, the most prophetic). The quote is an excerpt from the piece which inspired its creation, Liu Yi-Chang’s Intersection, a novella which depicts random city-goers of a modern society cross paths and intertwine; and though Wong’s film swims in shallower waters than its source (running less than ninety minutes and featuring very few actors besides the two protagonists), its uncompromising depth often catapults it into discussions of the best films of our very young millenium.
The film is set in Hong Kong, in 1962. Though the story is simple enough to find itself in any place, has any city changed as rapidly or shifted as fundamentally over the last half-century than that of Hong Kong? The metropolitan wonder seems to shift itself inside-out every five or so years, deeming the people who inhabit it confused and lost, beckoning for roots and looking to the recent past for answers. Two of these people are Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan (the effortless Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung), neighbors, new to us and to each other. They pass by each other, their own intrinsic daily intersections, on a small and tucked stairway near their apartment complex. Each of them toil with spatial separation from their spouses. Wong, among many other stylistic traits, has a way of framing characters with geometry and enclosed area clearly defined: actors may stand directly center below a doorway or through a window, their own space of performance. It’s a remarkable quality in a world so distinctly cinematic, but still carrying a feeling that these shapes are the only glue holding it all together.
The two neighbors eventually begin to discover the veiled significance of each other, as they are both pawns to their spouses’ extramarital affair. Their discovery is slow, insignificant; not reactive or nearly as quick to adapt as the shifting city around them, the two begin to grieve with one another by mimicking the affair. Chow plays along as Chan’s husband as Chan postures as Chow’s wife, in a dazzling few sequences wherein they may just be falling in love via the reconstruction of the love they’ve lost. In modern interviews, critics and the filmmaker himself have aptly compared it to Vertigo, Hitchcock’s film about pure desperation to fabricate a lust far removed, though Wong’s version certainly forgoes the manic and permeates the subtler side of the trauma. Are they really in the mood for love, or are they in a crisis to have to envision it?
The loss, ultimately, may not be of their love, but of something else -- their society. When Wong’s career began in the 1980s, he kept his eye in the back of his filmography on one specific year: 1997, the year Hong Kong was to be returned from British rule to Chinese sovereignty. This sudden exchange of cultures (informally known as the Hong Kong Handover) haunted his work, but by In the Mood for Love’s release in 2000, the new expiration date was already in view: 2046, the year most mark as the time China will end its “One Country, Two Systems” principle and fully develop its rule over Hong Kong. Wong’s worries continue on here, as the new lovers’ hotel room is 2-0-4-6. Later, in fact, Wong would make a sci-film with the number as its title.
The working title, before the film played at Cannes and began to etch its own legacy, was Secrets. Watch the film, in its humble runtime. See the most densely-populated city in the world vanish, as a 1962 version of it feels desolate, yearning, incomplete. See the sequences, not possibly longer than thirty or forty seconds, of the two lovers brush their arms as they walk in separate ways. Sometimes they nod to each other. Sometimes not. Sometimes they even speak to each other a little bit. Understanding the title Secrets, we can see that under the small stairway in the cramped urban apartment complex, it’s not about whether to speak, but what could be said.
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comments on the screen by nolan lampson.