Written by dorrk
In the Mood for Love was the movie I was dreading the most this month, as my two previous experiences with Wong Kar-Wai have been less than invigorating. However, this is supposedly his masterpiece — even sneaking into spot #24 on the 2012 Sight and Sound critics' poll of the greatest movies of all time — so I suspected it may be my best shot at discovering why he is so highly regarded.
I did, as it turns out, like In the Mood for Love far better than either Ashes of Time or The Grandmaster, and, unlike those others, it provided ample evidence of Kar-Wai's vaunted skill as a visual artist, but I'm still not enamored of his half-hearted storytelling.
In the Mood for Love is about (sort of) a man and a woman, new neighbors whose frequently absent spouses are most likely having an affair with each other. They form an intimate bond out of their shared neglect, betrayal and despondence. At first, they act as uneasy surrogates for each other's proper partners, they share their lonely meals, and, later, flirt in their own forlorn way, but while they need each other deeply, they are loathe to become adulterers themselves.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are appealing as the couple, even though Kar-Wai keeps his camera locked mostly on the backs of their heads. Actually, very little is required of Leung: he adopts a somber countenance, smokes ruefully, and strikes some soulful poses in the rain; Cheung is the one who really gets to shine. I've gushed about her before, and she's as good here as ever, but the material is not always deserving of her delicate, emotional performance.
For the most part, In the Mood for Love plays like one of those old Guess fashion ads set in the mid-1960s. It is mesmerizingly beautiful, with an elegant pace and dreamy tone. the lush colors are off-the-charts gorgeous, and the period costumes are so perfect that a fashion magazine could print nothing but 80 pages of stills from In the Mood for Love and produce one of their best-ever issues. Neither Cheung nor Leung have ever looked better. Visually, it might be a masterpiece, but there's a fair chance that Kar-Wai concocted this story to fit the style, and not the other way around, which is backwards for my tastes. In each of his movies that I've seen, I've suspected that Kar-Wai either lacks faith in his characters and their narratives, or is completely bored by them, and compensates by replacing development and continuity with a thick style that obscures rather than elevates his movies.
Ultimately, Kar-Wai treats his characters with the same inattention that provokes their on-screen crises. He throws out chunks of story to focus instead on redundant visual motifs. His fetishistic attention to the backs of heads, blurry reflections, obscuring objects in foreground, and consistent depersonalization of the spouses all repeatedly suggest the dissociative state of the main characters, but with no valuable effect or as part of a noticeable thematic arc. It's like Kar-Wai knows that images have meaning, and formulates some half-assed thoughts on the matter, but he doesn't have anything to say.