Most of the gems of East Asian cinema that I’m familiar with—Seven Samurai, A Touch of Zen, Center Stage, A City of Sadness—are slow, patient, yet no less than savory and invigorating. Wong Kar-Wai’s highly overrated In the Mood for Love, at just over an hour and a half, is too fast for its own good, cramming an epic story that deserves leisure and expansiveness into a minimalist series of rushed vignettes that come off as gaudy TV recaps. In early 1960s Hong Kong, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) survey vacant spots in a boardinghouse, and are then shown hastily moving in next-door to each other. They are introduced going about their day jobs and eating dinner with elderly women who will later play mahjongg. Both are married to spouses who are absent from their apartments at coinciding hours. We only hear Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow and see her with her face turned away or through a blurry surface, and only in the film’s first act at that, but we’re given to understand that they’re having an affair. I cannot elaborate too much on this because across the half-hour between the move-in and the affair’s revelation to both cuckolded spouses, the film zipped by too quickly for me to gain any connection with the boardinghouse’s geography or its occupants’ lives. The story enters its most interesting phase when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan—aware of their partners’ adultery—decide to attempt some sort of subtle catharsis by pantomiming how the affair started and came to be. Chow projects his (ideal) wife onto Chan, and Chan projects her (ideal) husband onto Chow. As the role-playing gets deeper, the distinction between actor and performance—and between, I guess, the two unfaithful couples—starts to wear thin. You can see where this is going, right? Chow and Chan are mature enough to avoid the temptation of revenge sex, and the theme of wary attraction is not invalid. I appreciate seeing a film that knows most people don’t jump into bed with each other as quickly as Hollywood likes to make us think we do. But I’ve seen other films (Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse comes to mind) handle the theme far less predictably than Wong does here. Maybe if the scenes in which we are unsure whether Chan and Chow are acting or being genuine were extended and given more complexity and depth, I would have bought it, but the film can only carry its premise so far. It all culminates in a series of false endings and trite chance encounters that hurtle through the decade, taking us all the way to Singapore and Cambodia, finally wrapping up with an innocuous newsreel and an out-of-place music video at Angkor Wat. Besides depending on two of my least favorite clichés in cinema (adultery plots and excessive juxtapositions), In the Mood for Love turns out as a concept full of potential, executed as if all involved had busy schedules and needed to get everything over with.
Tomorrow: One week down, three and a half to go. The second week kicks off with one of my most anticipated films of the month: Atlantic City.