Given the formulas and sources used, the TSPDT? list only contains fourteen movies from the Twenty-First Century on its list of greatest films. Of those fourteen, writer-director Kar Wai Wong's brief 2000 love tale In the Mood for Love is considered the best, ranking at #246 overall. Skillfully filmed and tenderly acted, the movie documents the spatial and emotional confines of love and life in 1960s lower middle class Hong Kong society.
The world presented is a cramped one, where one young married couple lives in a small rented room at the back of a small apartment owned by an elderly couple. Another married couple rents the spare room next door, and so the better part of a dozen people share a few hundred square feet, with rambunctious mahjong players hanging out in the living room drinking until the break of dawn. The world is confined, and the cinematography aptly reflects this with myopic close-up obscured by cramped scenery. The bustle is constant, and the walls are paper thin, so it is surprising that one of the husbands is able to carry out an affair with one of the wives for as long as they do, hiding in the other's room, borrowing their spouses clothing, pretending to be staying late at work.
We never see these adulterers head on, though; walls, furniture, and other bodies always seem to be in the way. The brave lovers, whose deceptions become increasingly blatant, remain disembodied voices, as absent in the film as they are in their respective spouses' lives.
The ruse only lasts so long, though, after their lonely spouses (Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai) strike up a timid friendship. The clues are obvious, but they try to avoid it at first, and when it's obvious that they're deceiving themselves, they try to understand the ins and outs of every angle of the deception. They're too passive to actually confront the liars and too upright to exact revenge. Instead they assume that the solution lies in truth and understanding--that by figuring out everything that must have been said and thought and done during the illicit courtship they will eventually achieve some sort of enlightenment. In a way it's anti-evolutionary--sometimes what we don't know actually hurts us less, and it'd probably best for them to just forget it and move on--but when a deception of that magnitude occurs, the ego yearns for the details. What was he really doing that night he had all that excess paperwork? Who first moved in for the kiss? What did he eat when they went out for dinner together, and how was it different from what I would have eaten? What jokes did she laugh at, and how does her laugh differ from mine?
While the affair continues, they spurned lovers obsess over the details, method acting what they think might be happening on the other side of the wall. She plays his wife, he plays her husband, and they direct each other. My husband would never say such a thing. My wife would definitely drink this type of tea. In the process, they get to pretend to be the people that their spouses love--the confident man, the spontaneous woman. While acting out the roles of their lovers' lovers, they get to become love-worthy people, to learn how to distinguish their own insecure personalities from the seemingly better identities of the cheater.
They lose themselves in the wish-fulfillment of their playacting, and the cinematography tracks this. Multiple days pass in a few minutes of screen time, with them acting and re-acting the various nuances of their extramarital encounters, the camera cutting often with frequent costume changes and only minor shifts in attitude. The lovers obsess over the adultery, and since the truth can never quite be understood, they live out the scenes eternally, fully inhabiting their roles in every possible way.
There's a scene where the spurned wife, Mrs. Chan, confronts her husband at the dinner table. As always, we only see over his shoulder while she finally admits that she knows about the lies. He insists she's crazy, but she insists she knows the truth.
And then he simply confesses: yes, he's having an affair. She shakes her head, and the camera pans to reveal that it's not really her husband but the spurned husband. They've reached the point where they're practicing their confrontations, and the wife refuses to believe that her husband would ever be so outright about his confession. He'd lie, he'd hide it, he'd say how much he loved her, or maybe he'd scream at her and throw things, but he'd never just come out with it so calmly.
The camera cuts, and they repeat the scene word for word. The crucial point of departure comes, and he confesses in exactly the same way. This time, however she accepts it. She seems to forget that she's a director and that he's just acting, and she cries. Maybe he would be so matter-of-fact. After all, it is a matter of fact. Only at that moment does she seem to realize this, does the game transcend playing and become reality.
Although we spend our lives trying to pinpoint the truth, it's a fragile and complicated thing. Our capacity for self-deception is profound, and our propensity for mistakes is great. The spurned lovers spend a very long time trying to dissect the minutiae of what they know almost nothing about--the exact words said, the sidewalks walked, the beverages consumed--while still being able to hide the fundamental truths from themselves--that their lovers are cheaters, that their lovers don't love them, that maybe they don't even love their lovers.
It's heartbreaking: two sweet, shy people who love their disloyal spouses so much that they can't abandon them, can't stop thinking about them, even when it's obvious that they should just hook up with each other. They'd make a wonderful couple (and they play one in Hero), and toward the end they begin to realize that, but they never quite overcome the past. They never commit the others' sin; they never sleep with each other.
In the Mood for Love is a fantastic and bittersweet film with a cinematographic style that perfectly captures the tension, the close confines, the obsession, and the ambiguity of the story it tells. It's a love story between two people who have been brutally stabbed in the back by love yet can't break free from it. The acting (with the added difficulty of actors playing actors) is soul-wrenching, the numerous costumes (Maggie Cheung wears a different cheong-san dress, 46 in all, in each scene) are beautiful, and the symbolic, graceful camerawork by director Kar Wai Wong and cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee is of the utmost caliber. This is an original, artful masterpiece of a film well-worthy of its status as one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.
In the Mood for Love
d/w: Kar Wai Wong
(Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai)