Movie Reviews from the Film Gang

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March 11, 2001
In the Mood for Love, Dir. By Wong Kar-wai - Review by Cathy Soussloff

In this age of digitization, and manipulation, it is becoming less and less easy to remember what a pure celluloid movie looks like.  These days, Hollywood, and even many independent, films incorporate the new technologies as a matter of course.  When we see a film that is purely film it jolts us out of our current visual expectations.  It gives us a charge of pure cinematic delight.  In the Mood for Love, directed by Wong Kar-wai, does this and more.  The director, known for his stylishness in films such as Chung King Express, gives us a film about filmishness masquerading as a story about unrequited love.

The movie is set in Hong Kong in 1963.  Most of Wong Kar-wai’s images and particularly his fetishization of offbeat colors and dark tonalities come straight out of French Film of that period.  Jacques’ Demi’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg revels in patterns of saturated pinks, greens and reds set against the slick grays and blacks of rain soaked Parisian streets.  In the Mood for Love uses the color contrasts and the bold floral patterns of silk Chinese dresses as a foil for the gritty lower middle class life in 1960’s Hong Kong, the same period when the director’s family settled in the city.

There is something in the film that recalls a pre-pubescent dream world where sounds, as well as colors, take on the quality of a slow motion dream.  The tapping of spike heels on the cobblestones, or conversations between adults, are both magnified and slowed to a rate at complete odds with reality.  In this dream world of impossibly high heels, super steamy colors, and numerous furtive glances, emotions are suppressed to a most unnatural extreme in a medium better known as the place where hyperbolic affects accompany frantic actions.

The story of an impossible love takes place between two attractive, but married office workers.  Handsome Tony Leung plays Mr. Chow opposite Maggie Cheung as Mrs. Chan.  Spouses who are most improbably having an affair with each other have deserted them.  These fugitive spouses from the marriages are never seen in the film, only heard in sporadic dialogues.  What we do see, and from every angle including over the shoulder shots that swing lyrically from upswept coiffure to pouty lipstick lips, is the camera’s fixation on Maggie Cheung—her absent and distant perfection portrayed in saturated tones.  Like Demy’s fascination with the young Deneuve in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Wong Kar-wai adores the overly dressed form of his star muse.  She is like a polychrome statue, with a tiny head set on an impossibly long neck heightened and restricted in its movements by an exaggeratedly stiff mandarin collar.  Her garish yet confining dresses convey the unnatural state of physical repression involved in her character.  When she is offered food she consistently refuses, and she picks at her rice, except when she is with Mr. Chow.  Consumption of food remains a metaphor for the denial of sexuality in this self-protecting wife.    Remaining loyal to their marriage vows, the two refrain from consuming a passion that finds expression, instead, in the camera’s incessant swing and in the beautiful and lyrical music of the strings in the lush soundtrack.

The story of unrequited love never ends, and we follow its traces in the final minutes of the film through a short history of the French influence in Indochina.  But what remains most vivid in In the Mood for Love is the sense that pure film has itself become a fetishized form in a world where new technologies have overtaken the older possibilities of the medium--- except in rare instances like this one, where the director has slowed things down in order to surpass the new.  The shock of the old carries the day in this wonderful tribute to Sixties filmmaking by Wong Kar-wai.

In the Mood for Love plays at the Riverfront Stadium Twin in Santa Cruz.  For KUSP and the film gang this is Cathy Soussloff, having fun at the movies.

 c Cathy Soussloff 2001