Our review of In The Mood For Love, published January 19th, 2002, is also available.
He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
Director Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express) proves once again there's more to Hong Kong cinema than gunplay and wire-fu.
Facts of the Case
Neighbors Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Shanghai émigré living in Hong Kong in 1962, and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a native Cantonese, take comfort in each other's company when they discover her husband is having an affair with his wife. Though they decide early on that allowing a sexual relationship to develop would be stooping to the level of their spouses and is therefore out of the question, they scuttle about secretly in order to assuage their loneliness while avoiding the spread of rumor among their friends and neighbors. What unfolds is a story about building passion, personal restraint, secret selves, sorrow, and regret.
In The Mood For Love is everything I love in art, and a superb demonstration of film's expressive potential. It's a bit like well-written fiction, a beautiful series of paintings, an intimate stage performance, and jazz…yes, jazz…all rolled into one. Mostly, it's undeniably human.
If I had to compare Wong Kar-wai's film to any other single piece of art, it would be the Miles Davis record, Kind of Blue. Sounds odd, I know, but here's why: Davis made the record in two days in 1959, entering the studio with nothing more than five rough sketches of songs—very rudimentary structures to use as guidelines, really—and a group of extremely talented musicians including John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. The result was improvisation of such sophistication it's difficult to imagine it wasn't all precisely orchestrated from the beginning. Kind of Blue is a high-water mark in terms of artistic potential—incredibly gifted musicians put their souls into the work and walked away with a record much bigger than the sum of their individual selves. Wong Kar-wai works in much the same way. He comes at films with a group of rough ideas, thematically related, nothing in the way of a script, and he works intimately with his actors and his crew, shaping the film, letting each day's shoot influence what will happen tomorrow. But it's inconceivable that that could be the methodology behind In the Mood for Love because everything about it seems deliberate, resonant, necessary. In that way, it's just like Kind of Blue, an honest to goodness piece of art.
The film's brilliance begins with Wong Kar-wai, who chooses to make his movie not about adultery, but about the implications of adultery. The faces of the adulterers, as a matter of fact, are never seen because they themselves aren't consequential to the story; the ramifications of their behavior are. Marital infidelity is at the center of In the Mood for Love, but the sex itself is absent; only the idea of the sex remains. What Wong is concerned with is the consequences of the infidelity. Not typically dramatic cinematic consequences like flung dishes and screaming rages and divorce, but consequences inside the emotional landscape of the two wronged parties. This approach of dealing not with an act, but with the implications of an act is no mean feat in a film. It's typically the special province of literature to deal with such things because, since literature is a language-centered artistic medium, it is the best suited of all the arts to explore the minutiae of concepts and feelings, like peeling back the layers of an onion. Wong's brilliance is that he doesn't cheat, creating a film that acts as though it's a piece of literature, which would only have resulted in a dry, pretentious, and overly-verbose mess. What do I mean? When filmmakers want to tear into the human psyche, they typically throw together excruciatingly self-aware postmodern characters who explain to the audience what's going on inside their own heads through their dialogue—this poor attempt at co-opting something that vaguely resembles literary technique generally results in overly expository crap. In the Mood for Love is a film that explores territories difficult to access with film, and it does so in a very filmic (meaning visual) way.
The bedrock of the film's success is the performances of its stars, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Remains Of The Day, each is simultaneously expressive and reserved. These are quiet performances, but passionate and emotionally charged nonetheless. That's no easy feat for an actor to pull off, let alone two actors in the same film. Cheung and Leung deliver, but not on their own. The work of the entire crew is focused on underpinning their performances, adding beauty, lyricism, richness, and nuance. Production designer William Chang provides Hong Kong settings that are cramped and overrun with occupants, while also luxuriously decorated with vividly colored wallpaper and rich furniture betraying the wealth of the Shanghai émigrés, but also serving as a metaphor for the restrained sensuality of the main characters. Chang, who also did the costume design, dresses Cheung in cheong sam, form-fitting dresses popular in 1960s Hong Kong and Shanghai, that combine both eastern and western influences. The dresses are richly patterned and exploding with color. Their tightness is sensual in the way it displays the character's figure, but it's also physically restrictive, again mirroring her internal conflict.
Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee, along with the director, do their part by boxing the characters in the frame, sometimes partially obscuring them from our sight so that we're like the neighbors from whom Li-zhen and Mo-wan wish to hide their meetings. We're shown the characters through windows and door frames, gauzy curtains, and down hallways. We see their reflections in mirrors. This has multiple effects. First, it confines the characters. Almost every time we see them, they're squeezed inside some sort of frame, never free to move about as they wish. Secondly, it heightens the sense of secrecy, the clandestine behavior of would-be lovers. Lastly, it exudes some of the quality of a remembered event, which becomes important at the film's end. It helps create the sense that what we've seen are the reflections and hazy confabulations of a mind regretful of and longing for a faded past.
Finally, Wong and (jack-of-all-trades) William Chang did a masterful job in the editing room. Out of hours and hours of footage (the shoot lasted 15 months), they selected the right moments, giving us everything we need as an audience to be able to make sense of and feel the film, while avoiding the trap of giving us too much. With all the footage they had at their disposal, they could have made any number of choices about the emotional dynamic between the two lead characters—they made the right choices. While emotionally reserved, the film is not unemotional; there are two scenes in which Maggie Cheung Man-yuk gets to let loose, and numerous others in which both stars express wells of emotion in their faces, eyes, postures, and gestures. It's all there, but none of it is over the top. Wong and Chang's master stroke in editing, though, is limiting the film to its 98-minute running time. In the Mood for Love is slowly and deliberately paced but it never drags, in large part because it's poetic in how lean it is and how each of its parts contributes in an essential way to the whole. Wong, in other words, gets done in just over an hour-and-a-half what some filmmakers (the Merchant-Ivory team comes to mind) might've taken two-and-a-half or three hours to accomplish. And that makes all the difference.
Criterion brings In the Mood for Love to DVD in an anamorphic transfer created from the 35mm interpositive (I love that Criterion gives such detailed information about their source materials) at the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. If there's a flaw anywhere in the transfer, it can't be discerned on my display. I kid you not, this is simply one of the best transfers I've ever seen.
On the audio front, we have the option of Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or 5.0 Surround, in a mix of Cantonese and Shanghainese. They're both strong soundtracks, equally clean, with the 5.0 track providing, of course, a more enveloping experience. In the Mood for Love is a quiet film with a very naturalistic soundtrack, so surrounds are never used aggressively, but they are active throughout the film. Dialogue is always clear and all of it was recorded during the shoot so there are shifts in ambiance when, for instance, a speaking character is shot from down a hallway and is further away from the boom. The resulting shifts in volume aren't dramatic enough to affect one's ability to hear what's going on, and the overall effect is to imbue the soundtrack with a sense of naturalism. There are two instances of slight distortion when a particular character is speaking loudly close to the microphone. It's very brief and very slight and, since it's present on both the 2.0 and 5.0 mixes, it seems to be inherent in the source recording, a result of a spike in the volume of the actor's voice.
This new Criterion edition of In the Mood for Love is a two-disc set jam-packed with extras. Much of the supplemental material is text-based, which I'm normally not fond of, but the stuff here is the exception that proves the rule. The great thing about the extensive extras in this set is that they're focused primarily on exploring Wong Kar-wai's extraordinary filmmaking methodology. There's much ground to cover with regard to how the final version of In the Mood for Love came to be, and Criterion does a fine, fine job acting as our tour guide. Beginning with Disc One, we have:
Deleted Scenes—There are four scenes, each running between eight and nine minutes in length: "Room 2046," "Postcards," "The '70s," and "A Last Encounter." The scenes are presented in the film's 1.66:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen from very clean elements. They're not as lush as the film itself because they haven't been processed to completion, but they're a much higher quality than the grainy, nicked, and dirty clips that so often appear as DVD extras. The first three scenes contain optional commentary from Wong Kar-wai, but his (subtitled) comments are sparse and not all that enlightening. The scenes do provide insight into Wong's methods of filmmaking, demonstrating in a very real way how the subtlety of the final film evolved during the shoot and was dependent upon the actors' abilities to deliver stirring but muted performances. Some of the moments in the deleted scenes are more emotionally direct than anything in the final cut. There's even a brief sexual encounter in one of the scenes that, though the couple is largely obscured from our sight, plays as grossly out of step with Wong's final vision.
About the Music—This text-based feature, an essay by Joanna Lee, discusses the music of the film as well as the important role music and the radio played in the lives of the Shanghainese who relocated to Hong Kong in the 1960s. There are links within the essay to musical cues in the film for the love theme, written by Umebayashi Shigeru for the Japanese film Yumeji and borrowed by Wong for his film; a number of pingtan, traditional Chinese operas that appear very quietly in the backgrounds of scenes, more like ambient noise than traditional musical cues; three Spanish language Nat King Cole recordings including "Green Eyes"; an English language recording of Chinese recording artist Rebecca Pan (who also appears in the film as Su Li-zhen's landlady) singing "Bengawan Solo"; and "Angkor Wat Theme," composed by Michael Galasso for the film's coda.
In additon to Lee's essay, there are two more text-based entries in the About the Music supplement. First is a statement by Galasso describing how he met Wong and became the composer for the film. Second is "Director's Note: From Summer In Beijing to In the Mood for Love," an interesting little blurb that describes how the seed for the film was planted when Wong heard a Coltrane song playing as he walked through Tiananmen Square. He also discusses his first attempt at wrestling with the film's themes, a failed production called Summer In Beijing, which he tried to shoot before his film Happy Together.
Hua Yang De Nian Hua—This short film by Wong is a montage of famous Chinese film actresses of the '50s and '60s set to the song "Hua De Nian Hua" or "In Full Bloom," which also appears as a musical interlude in In the Mood for Love. There are also press notes that detail the discovery in California of the nitrate films from which Wong collected the images.
Despite how packed Disc One is, the lion's share of supplements are on Disc Two:
@ In the Mood for Love—This is Wong's 51-minute making-of documentary. It's divided into 12 chapters that can be played individually or together. The documentary was shot on video and the picture quality is good overall, although scenes from the movie are grainy and cropped to around 1.85:1. In terms of substance, this is no electronic press kit fluff piece, instead offering fascinating insight into the evolution of the film, including unused material (distinct from the deleted scenes on Disc One) that is tonally out of step with the final product.
Interviews with Wong Kar-wai—This feature consists of two interviews with the director from the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Both are conducted in English. The first runs 22 minutes, the second 16. Together they use In the Mood for Love to provide insight into Wong's general approaches to filmmaking. The director speaks in some depth about the financial challenges of working in the Hong Kong film industry and concrete ways in which that influences his work methods. For instance, he often shoots two films simultaneously. We learn Ashes of Time and Chungking Express were filmed at the same time and that while filming In the Mood for Love he also shot 2046, a film as yet incomplete. Because Wong develops three or more plotlines and simply begins filming until he has enough material to constitute a finished film, sometimes abandoning an entire plotline for the time being, only to use it in a later film, the films he shoots together are often closely linked in terms of theme, but different in terms of sensibility. 2046, for instance, is the number of a hotel room in which Li-zhen and Mo-wan meet in In the Mood for Love, but based on the deleted material in some of the supplements, one can imagine 2046 might be a very different film than its sister, perhaps more emotionally direct.
Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference—This 43-minute question and answer session with stars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai is divided into seven different parts which are indexed and can be accessed individually via a menu. A play-all option is also available.
Hong Kong, 1960s—This essay by film critic Gina Marchetti, with illustrative photographs, is indexed in eight parts. It explores Hong Kong of the '60s and its role as a refuge for Chinese fleeing from Mao Tse-tung's cultural revolution. It provides excellent detail about the rise of Hong Kong's economic strength, and why it was attractive to the Shanghainese whose home city was more cosmopolitan with a greater mix of eastern and western influences than other cities in mainland China.
Promotional Material—This section is divided into four parts: "Unused Art and Concepts" is a photo gallery with preliminary artwork designs, early poster concepts, an early Korean banner concept, and early French poster concepts; "Posters" is a gallery of one-sheets for Japan, the U.S., Korea, Italy, Germany, the U.K., and Russia; "TV Spots and Trailers" includes two Hong Kong television spots, a U.S. TV spot, the U.S. trailer, a French TV spot, and the French trailer; and finally there's the official electronic press kit which runs 18 minutes and is presented full screen with stereo sound—it's pretty stylish for an e.p.k.
Photo Gallery—The gallery is indexed into three parts: "Anticipation" which contains 26 photos of the two stars individually; "Intersection" which contains 29 photos of the two stars together; and "Memories" which contains seven shots from the end of the film, focusing on the dissolution of the relationship between the two leads.
The Searcher: Wong Kar-wai—This is an essay with photographs, indexed in seven parts. It provides biographical information as well as a fairly comprehensive run-down of Wong's work so far, including clips from Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love.
About the Cast and About the Crew are brief bios and filmographies for both major and minor players.
Rounding out the set's extras is a 48-page insert booklet that contains, film and DVD credits, a director's statement, liner notes written by Li Cheuk-to, General Manager of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and Intersection, a short story written by Liu Yi-chang that was one of the inspirations for the film.
Unless you've skipped all the way down to this section and haven't read the rest of the review, you know what I'm going to say here. Is it a great DVD, worth your money? Yes! But you know what? Buy it…don't buy it…I couldn't care less. Call me selfish but all I know is I've found a little world I'm going to savor revisiting periodically for the rest of my life. You do whatever you want.
Thank you Wong Kar-wai. Thank you Criterion.
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Scales of Justice
• The Music of In The Mood For Love, Presented In an Interactive Essay
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