Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love Is a Gorgeous, Heartbreaking Masterpiece (Review)

Wong Kar-Wai’s ode to unrequited love and passion has an uncanny way of sticking with you long after the credits.

Several hours after viewing In the Mood for Love, there’s a good chance that you’ll still find yourself haunted by it. Wong Kar-Wai’s slowly unfolding ode to unrequited love and passion has an uncanny way of sticking with you long after the credits finish rolling. Be it the haunting cinematography, the lush production values, or the painfully restrained performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love resonates inside your heart and mind. It’s not without its flaws, but its strength and depth is sufficient enough to make you want to experience it again and again, if only to try and peel back the layers of emotions it possesses.

Mr. Chow (Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Cheung) move into the same building on the same day. Their spouses are always absent; Mrs. Chow works late and Mr. Chan works abroad much of the time. Being neighbors, the two constantly encounter eachother and strike up a minor friendship. However, their relationship becomes more than tangential when they discover their spouses are having an affair together. This revelation leaves them shocked and hurt, and unable to confide in anyone else, they confide in eachother.

Soon, they’re spending much of their free time together, trying to figure out how to confront their spouses. Naturally, they discover something within eachother that was missing from their marriages. However, bound by tradition and their own sense of honor, they’re reluctant to act upon it. As such, their entire relationship develops in silence and half-shared glances. Rather than lapse into a passionate affair, their relationship is expressed in the slightest of terms; a glance or a simple brushing of hands conveys as much emotion, hurt, and longing as any passionate embrace.

And even when it appears as if things might intensify between them, the reality of the infidelity in their lives sets in. It could be a sudden memory of their spouse, or a moment spent practicing for the inevitable confrontation. And it is painful to watch; as wrong as it might be, there is a part of you that wishes they would get together, if only to ease their loneliness. It’s hinted at in the final moments that, perhaps, they did just that. But the core of the film is this awkward intimacy of their’s, which they fan and try to smother at the same time.

Even though they rarely talk to eachother, and rarely let their gazes meet, the longing in each scene is thick enough to cut with a knife. And Wong’s direction lets the viewer experience it as well. Much of the movie is shot through doorways, hallways, windows, or with the couple obscured in some way. By distancing the viewer from the characters, it mirrors, in some way, the distance that exists between Chow and Chan. He lets the characters express their longing by gazing at eachother in the mirror. The fact that they can only smile at eachother’s reflections, when captured by Wong, speaks volumes about their stifled love. At certain moments, he literally freezes the characters, and lets the camera drift over their faces, their bodies, and slowly through the room. Any sudden motion suddenly feels out of place, even wrong, in those preserved moments.

As beautiful as Wong’s direction can be, it’s matched stride for stride by the performances of Leung and Cheung. Their character’s chemistry is palpable and intense, even though they can never express it. Leung is able to make something as small as a vacant stare and fill it with frustration and longing. Cheung is simply radiant. Although most might recognize her name from manic action films, her performance is refined and repressed. As tightly wound as she is, it makes any emotional outburst devastating.

In the Mood for Love is a trying picture to watch, and it does feel like it goes slightly longer than it should. And in keeping faithful to the story, and to his character’s lives, there is no “happily ever after,” no running into each other’s arms. Even though it’s hinted that they finally consummate their passion, it’s still treated as chastely as possible. For them, there really can be no real resolution. As deep and real as their love was, it doesn’t fix their lives or heal their hearts. The final moments make it feel like the whole movie was more of a memory than anything else, a memory filtered through years of regret.

And If you’ve ever experienced unrequited love or ever wanted a relationship to exist so badly and yet knew that it never could, the feelings splashed across the screen hit remarkably close to the heart.

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