It is always more interesting to observe lovers desperately held in restraint and hesitation, and Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love”, whose recent 4K restoration version happened to be re-released in South Korea a few days ago, is a definite example of that. The two lead characters in the film are surely well aware of the growing mutual feelings between them, but these two lonely people still hesitate to get closer to each other while never directly expressing their secret love to each other. Along with the lush and poetic style and mood of the film, their complicated romantic situation certainly elevates their story far above many simple-minded romance films out there, and we are both touched and saddened by the inevitable end of their graceful affair.
At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes how Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who is also known as Mrs. Chan, and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) happen to be accidental neighbors in one old neighborhood of Hong Kong, 1962. While both of them are fairly affluent middle-class people, they can only afford to rent a small apartment room due to the rising value of real estate in Hong Kong (It is still quite expensive to live in Hong Kong, you know), and we soon see them moving into their respective apartment rooms shortly after visiting their respective landlords.
While Mr. Chow works as a journalist, Mrs. Chan has been employed as the secretary of some company executive, and both of them are married without having any child, so both of them can freely work without much interference from their respective spouses, who are incidentally not shown to us a lot throughout the film. While Mrs. Chan’s husband is frequently absent due to running his business outside, Mr. Chow’s wife usually works late at her workplace, and both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan often find themselves alone in their respective current residences.
As Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan slowly get accustomed to their new neighborhood, the movie presents a series of poetic repetitive moments to be absorbed and savored. We see them often individually walking up or down the shabby concrete stair of their apartment building. We see them separately walking down to an old noodle shop for buying a dinner for themselves at times. We also see them passing by each other during these and other daily routines. Nothing significant seems to be happening between them on the surface, but we cannot help but look at them closer as cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin’s camera intensely focuses on these two beautiful people from time to time, and, whenever the gorgeous main theme by Shigeru Umebayashi is played on the soundtrack, we cannot help but wonder whether they are simply recognizing each other as new neighbors.
And then they happen to meet together at a restaurant during one evening. Recently becoming more aware of their respective spouses’ glaring daily absence, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen have suspected that their respective spouses have been cheating on them, and they soon find themselves confiding a bit of their doubts and concerns to each other. As they tentatively talk more and more, it does not take much time for them to confirm their respective spouses’ infidelity, and they also come to realize that their respective spouses have actually been having an affair together behind their back.
However, while not so surprised by this revelation, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen are not that upset to learn of their respective spouses’ affair. Showing more sympathy and compassion to each other, they gradually come to sense the romantic feeling grown between them, but they also know well that they should be discreet about this romantic feeling of theirs as much as they can because of not only those busybody neighbors of theirs but also their own high moral standard. At one point, Mrs. Chen says, “For us to do the same thing would mean we are no better than they are.”
Although they let themselves mired more in this exquisite romantic agony of theirs while admitting almost nothing to each other, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen cannot help but enjoy being with each other. When they happen to be stuck together in Mr. Chow’s room as their neighbors are boisterously playing ma-jong outside the room, their mood is a bit awkward at first, but it becomes more apparent to us that they are slyly savoring this extending private moment of theirs. Later in the story, they decide to go to a hotel for avoiding getting noticed by their neighbors, but they still maintain the distance between themselves because, well, they are simply content with being alone together.
Of course, there fatefully comes a point where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen will have to make each own decision on their adamantly unrequited romance, and then the movie accordingly hops from one bittersweet moment to another without never losing any of its grace and beauty. Although the last scene unfolded in Cambodia several years later feels a bit jarring at first, it eventually fits to the overall narrative arch of our two lead characters, and the movie is also held well together by its two charismatic lead performers, who effortlessly embody the deep sense of affection and yearning as sensitively revolving around each other throughout the film.
I must confess that I am still not that enthusiastic about many of Wong’s works such as “Chungking Express” (1994) and “The Grandmaster” (2013), but I admire his distinctive mood and style at least, and I can assure you that “In the Mood for Love” is the culmination of what he has steadily attempted to do during last 33 years since his first feature film “As Tears Go By” (1988). In my humble opinion, the movie is deceptively simple but undeniably sublime in its haunting romantic tale, and it was really a pleasure for me to see it on a big screen at last.