Director: Wong Kar-Wai
The fourth watch from the Sight and Sound 2022 poll is at number 5. I am a bit of a Wong Kar-Wai fan – Chungking Express and 2046 are both very fine films, while In the Mood for Love is one of my very favourite films.
Set in Hong Kong in the early sixties it is first and foremost a stunning exercise in visual style. Outrageously beautiful HK film stars Tony Leung and Maggie Chung play a pair of neighbours in a crowded apartment block. Both are married to often-away spouses we never see(in one of the film’s many bravura touches), and whom each suspects the other’s better half of being unfaithful. Chung works in an shipping business, Leung as a journalist. Leung asks her to help him with a martial arts serial and gradually their loneliness and familiarity grows into a mutual attraction.
Like Chungking Express, this film takes place almost exclusively indoors or at night. Kar-Wai is a poet of the pool of light cast by a streetlamp, the overhead lighting of a late-night restaurant or the jumbled claustrophobia of a bedsit. Maggie Cheung’s staggering array of patterned silk dresses are worth the price of admission alone: the super-saturated colour palette pops off the screen. Leung likewise is probably the best suit wearer since Cary Grant.
Every shot is perfectly composed, and it’s a completely engrossing visual world. What it’s about is less clearly defined. Portions of the film are revealed in flash forwards from two or three years after the main sequence of events – and the passage of time is a key theme, as is attraction, and all the reasons why we don’t act on our feelings, as well as why we do. Tiny actions and moments in which the two characters circle each other, sometimes moving closer, sometimes drifting apart, build up to a profound commentary on how the choices not taken, the moments not seized, are as big a part of life as those that are.
This film is a technical marvel – the central corridor of Mrs Suen’s apartment, which separates the rooms of the two protagonists, is as expertly choreographed as any bullet-time sequence. The story – with its will they/won’t they dynamic – is expertly constructed and on first viewing will engross you.
But ultimately Wong Kar-Wai’s film resists a quick and definitive analysis. Like any great work of art the viewer is an active participant in the construction of its meaning. What does the jump-cut ending in Cambodia contribute to the film? Do we really think that Cheung’s character would follow him to Singapore, visit his apartment when he is out, and then leave without saying a word?
In its depiction of individual desire pushing against social restraint it recalls Brief Encounter, in its manipulation of the passage of time La Jetee, but ultimately it creates a seductive and melancholic world all of its own.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Tokyo Story, the aforementioned Brief Encounter.