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At the turn of the twenty-first century, Wong Kar-wai was the most exciting director in the world, and 2000’s In the Mood for Love is his greatest movie. Like the other Hong Kong directors of his time, Wong imbues everything the West regards as film cliché with a new glamour and fervor; but whereas in the cinema of John Woo and Tsui Hark this romanticism lurks behind an operatic violence, in Wong’s films love is never merely a distraction or a motivation or a fleeting promise of redemption but the dominating conflict. Even at their most melodramatic, Wong’s love stories are sometimes funny but rarely ironic, played out against a psychically adrift cityscape where lovers don’t have the luxury of irony.
Praising a particular work in an ever-growing oeuvre as “mature” is as condescending as it is meaningless, so let’s say that, Wong’s psychedelic noirs having peaked with Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), In the Mood for Love is distinctive for its quieter classicism and looming sense of history. Occupying next-door apartments, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a newspaperman, and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), an executive secretary, notice that their respective spouses are always out of town at the same time, and soon these forsaken partners of two adulterers flirt with the possibility of their own affair. “We won’t be like them,” they vow to each other, even as they take a hotel room—not to consummate anything but to collaborate on scenes they imagine from the other affair, as well as a series Chow is writing for his newspaper. Rehearsing illicit overtures and responses in the winding streets and throbbing corridors and pulsing stairways of a cloistered Hong Kong—as ravishingly shot by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin—the two remain no more sure than we are of whose desire is being expressed; they’re compelled by the constraints they’ve imposed on themselves out of both a fragile honor and moral vanity, and they waver but not to the point of succumbing. Of course, this only turns up the temperature between them; sometimes nothing is more erotic than repression. Like many who’ve been cheated on, Chow and Su blame themselves, and deny themselves what they’re confident they don’t deserve.
There’s a devastating scene a third of the way into the film, when Su is so lonely that she reaches out to the woman next door, not yet suspecting that this neighbor is taking her husband from her. Or does Su sense this after all? Once the door closes, a passing comment by the other woman suggests that Su’s husband may be in that very room at that very moment, feet away from the conversation that’s just taken place; in some part of her mind she hasn’t yet registered, has Su subconsciously recognized one of the muffled voices through the wall? Like the emotions that flicker across the exquisite mask of Cheung’s face, scenes in In the Mood for Love surface and then submerge back into the murk of memory and fate called coincidence. The couples move into their respective apartments on the same day; their belongings become mixed up in a way that anticipates how their lives will intermingle—or, we might wonder later, is it the other way around? Have their lives already intermingled before the moves ever take place, before the movie even starts? This is a film where all our initial assumptions circle back on themselves, where the crisscrossing hallways mark the coordinates of destinies already mapped. Is it, in fact, Chow and Su who were fated all along to be lovers, and out of fear and rectitude defy and lose one of the rare chances for happiness that life offers?
In retrospect, it seems unfathomable that Wong at one point planned to set In the Mood for Love in Beijing, or anywhere other than Hong Kong—an example of how sometimes fate knows better. Beginning with his debut feature, As Tears Go By, in 1988, Wong’s movies are about nothing if not this City of the Betwixt and Between, lost amid West and East, capitalism and communism, freedom and oppression, the vortex of a dying century draining into one being born, to which a displaced filmmaker moved as a child and grew to adolescence unable to speak Cantonese. Its mash-up culture engendering his obsessions with pop imagery, magical realism, and, finally, obsession itself, Hong Kong is an entropic city untethered in time and space, through which Wong’s characters float from film to film. Cheung’s Su first appears in Days of Being Wild (1990), which takes place just a year or two before In the Mood for Love and where she seems so much another woman that we can’t help wondering if she’s really a female of dual incarnations, not unlike Brigitte Lin’s literally named Yin and Yang in Wong’s Ashes of Time (1994).
The number of the hotel room where the two would-be lovers meet, 2046, is the year when the arrangement promised by China at the time of the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong, allowing the island to maintain its capitalist economy, is supposed to end. It’s also the title of Wong’s follow-up to In the Mood for Love, in which Leung returns as a Chow who’s become as detached as he is debauched, making a game of the same luck that’s treated his heart so capriciously. Sporadically involved with another woman who’s also named Su (played by Gong Li) and an escort played by Zhang Ziyi, who is now the occupant of room 2046 and whose powers of bewitching men are lost on the one man she wants, Chow wanders from conquest to conquest with a premeditated aimlessness, unable to lose his heart no matter how recklessly he gambles it. Taken together, Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046 are a triptych, but In the Mood is the trilogy’s heart and the most autonomous of the three. Nothing Wong has made before or since (including 2007’s My Blueberry Nights) matches its hushed rapture.
For much of its filming, what would become In the Mood for Love was called Secrets, and without divulging too much to those who haven’t seen it yet, the movie ends with a secret, whispered into a hole in a wall and then, with the mud of the earth, sealed off from what we can hear or know. In the Mood’s two lovers are bound by the conviction that what divides them is the same sensual inertia that drove their spouses into each other’s arms. But watch Cheung walk to and from the noodle shop and you know this isn’t possible. There is nothing sensually inert about that walk. It would be lascivious, that walk, were it by any actress other than Cheung, or from any director other than Wong Kar-wai. Su’s body may keep a secret from Su but not from anyone who watches her, and long after the wounds of betrayal pretend to heal, long after she and her coconspirator in an eluded passion have separated, long after this serenely delirious movie is over, the secret of that walk haunts us as much as whatever it is that Chow has murmured in the dark.
Steve Erickson is the author of nine novels, including 2012’s These Dreams of You. He writes about film for Los Angeles magazine and is the editor of the national literary journal Black Clock, published by the California Institute of the Arts.