Tension clings like wet rags to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, but nothing visceral actually happens. At the beginning, a title card reads: “It is a restless moment.” Then the director offers another morsel: It's Hong Kong, 1962. You wait, expecting the usual political context that accompanies most foreign films imported here, but what Wong offers in its place is more rewarding: pining hearts who never get together.
Unrequited love is the theme. Anxiety is the natural result. Like the title song, which is never heard, the romance is never consummated, only suggested in gliding camera moves and sideways glances. Red and green neon reflects off rain-slicked pavement. Nat King Cole croons the same four or five lines on the soundtrack, over and over. He watches her. She watches him. They live in cramped adjoining apartments with walls so thin they can rest their heads against their headboards and listen to each other rustle.
Their spouses are referred to - both are out of town on business - and never seen. After a few chance meetings, on the street, on a lone dry patch of concrete during a downpour, at neighborhood noodle stands, a notion dawns on them: Their other halves are having an affair, with each other. Instead of outrage, the realization hits like relief, and with the air already sopped with humidity, the vibe charges with heat.
But the actors, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, two of Asia's biggest stars, not only barely touch for the entire film, they stay buttoned up - way up. They agree: if they act on their feelings, they'll be just as bad.
Leung, who plays Chow Mo-wan, a newspaper reporter, wears gray and black suits, cut to drape off his body. Cheung, as Su Li-zhen, a bored secretary, sports slim dresses of flower patterns that start at her ankles and curl up her body, then open like a straw around her long neck. Wong dwells on the clothes, almost teasingly. Supposedly he shot a sex scene, but in the editing room he went in the opposite direction.
Tales of the Asian production sound intriguingly like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's nearly two-year-long Eyes Wide Shut marathon with Stanley Kubrick: acres of film shot, no ending in sight, no obvious plot. Knowing this parallel history about In the Mood for Love, you see the whittle marks in the film. Wong honed and carved, chopping any steamy moments. In the end, like a novelist who writes and rewrites endlessly, he tossed aside most of the footage, not even paring it down to a story, but, appropriately enough, a mood.
Wong, whose previous works (Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild) include some of the most inventive foreign films of the past decade, works on instinct. He forgoes the rhythms of narrative film, allowing narrow hallways, smoky stares, and a painterly sense of composition to serve as their own reward. This is film for film's sake - pure movie, as it's sometimes called. What's important isn't logic or plot, but that memories of the images and feelings alone are enough to send you into a swoon.