In what must surely be one of the most iconic scenes in Hong Kong cinema ever, Wong Kar-Wai lovingly pans the camera across as Maggie Cheung, wrapped lovingly in a vibrant silk qipao, swings her thermos on the way back from the steam-filled noodle stall she visits every evening, across the grimy alleyways of Hong Kong in the sixties. It is the very essence of arthouse. Then the slow-motion stops, Cheung trudges up the stairs to her lodgings, politely but firmly rejecting her landlady’s kind offer to have dinner with the family, and pulls the shut between the rowdy comfort of the flat and her secluded room within. It’s a lonely life.
This is a movie about loneliness, and human connection lost and found and lost again. In the socially conservative era that constitutes Hong Kong in the 1960s, Mr Chow (played by am impeccably suave Tony Leung, he of the cheap suits and perpetually-furrowed brow) rents a room in an apartment the same day Mrs Su (Maggie Cheung) does. They are each married to absent spouses, never seen onscreen, who work overtime. As a result, Mr Chow and Mrs Su spend much of their time, initially, staying in their respective room, alone, nursing their solitude like fine wine. Eventually, when they discuss the matter, they come to the conclusion that their spouses have been unfaithful, and that they have been seeing each other. In a continuation of the film’s meta-fictional affectations (you did notice that the aforementioned camera panning was too knowing to be entirely in earnest, didn’t you?), they re-enact what they imagine might have happened. Yet the actuality of their relationship remains platonic. “Can a man and a woman ever just be friends?”
As any classicist might tell you, the Platonic (to make a cheap pun), is far from boring. Of course Mr Chow and Mrs Su have feelings for each other that they do not admit. Much of the film is given over to exploring the Foucauldian tension between knowing and confessing; feeling and acknowledging.
In The Mood For Love is not a romantic film. Premised on mutual infidelity, disappointed love, and the jadedness of urban institutions, it is too knowing, too jaded. It questions its own musical effects; it makes metafictional references. Whether that makes its inevitable segue into sincerity jarring or striking, is subject to the personal sensibility of the viewer. I should rather say the latter.