In the Mood for Love
dir. Wong Kar-wai
Opens Fri Feb 16 at Harvard Exit.

Nighttime on a city street, one lamp illuminating the scene from above, staring down a flight of steps that leads to a noodle stand: In exquisite slow motion, the sway of her hips synched to the sorrowful cry of the violin on the soundtrack, the woman descends, while the man, his face as always an inadequate mask for his loneliness and pain, rises to the street. They pass, they nod the briefest of greetings, they go their separate ways. Then, after a short shot of the empty stairwell, it begins to rain--torrents, buckets, good old-fashioned movie rain. The man runs back to the shelter of the wall, shakes his suit jacket dry, smokes a cigarette. But the woman does not rush up to join him; she stays down below, twirling and fussing her handkerchief.

How long has it been since a film has remembered to look like this, breathe like this? In the Mood for Love is one of the most passionate and beautiful films I've ever seen, yet it operates entirely from a sense of frustration, of dreams deferred. The mutual attraction of its pair of cuckolded spouses, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung)--tossed together by the coincidence of renting neighboring apartments, bonding over the slow acknowledgment that his wife and her husband are having an affair--will never catch fire, instead remaining merely the crackle of potentiality expressed by a withdrawn hand in the back seat of a taxicab, the quiet sharing of a meal as they're hiding out from the landlord and her guests. Even when the pair has found a remote apartment, it's less a love nest than yet another stage for pained flirtation, shy, discreet peeks in the mirror when the other's not looking.

Wong Kar-wai has danced round such melodramatic conventions in the past, but never with this purity or precision. His florid, expressive style made movies like Fallen Angels and Chungking Express seem volcanic upendings of the rules of melodrama, explosive, anything-goes tragicomedies ruled as much by whim or caprice as by the characters' desires and limitations. In the Mood for Love--a sublime hymn to sublimation, to creatively misquote J. Hoberman--plays it straight. It is 1962, you're married, you're miserable, you're too polite to buck society's strictures: What can you do about it? Not much.

The movie opens and closes with excerpts from Harlequin-style Hong Kong romance novels of the period, which in isolation read like tender imagist poems. Just so, every melodramatic cliché in the film is abstracted till it reaches a nearly serene plateau of longing. (Which is how it avoids both the audience-pleasing sense of entitlement and empowerment of most recent Hollywood melodramas and the shallow, sadistic grimness of a Lars von Trier.) Wong is as attuned to the confining limits of domestic space as Sirk, as compassionate about the irreversible finality of missed opportunities as Ophuls, but he adds his own graceful sense of entrapment. His characters might be just as restricted by their expectations as the heroines of other great melodramas, but within those cages they float. When the film ends as it must, tragically, it still refuses to come crashing down to Earth, but rather flies off to Cambodian ruins; a locale as majestic and sun-bright as the rest of the film has been cramped and nocturnal, but no more or less timelessly, eternally sad.

"I'm in the mood for love/Simply because you're near me." The eponymous song never pops up in the course of the movie, but those lines remain the film's heartbeat. Near me, not "with" or "by," those happiest of romantic prepositions. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, separated only by a wall, constantly hovering about one another, are always close enough to touch, yet so distant they may as well be on separate coasts. Their each glance affirms the profoundest of loves, but torturous civility and fear of inadequacy keep their declarations crammed in their throats ("I couldn't get started so I gave up," as Chow explains when asked why he abandoned writing comics), only expressible through the games and rehearsals they run through with one another of confronting their mates. As the movie cycles gorgeously through its formal repetitions, constantly repeating the same music, shots, gestures, the two never-quite-lovers play out the endless fate of melodramatic movie characters, as beautifully and breathtakingly as any ever have.