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Painterly perfection

In the Mood for Love a bewitching look at an adulterous love affair

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In the Mood for Love is the kind of film to inspire swooning wistfulness and spasms of despair for how poorly real life stacks up against the dream world we call cinema. In director Wong Kar-Wai's hyper-stylish romance of Hong Kong circa the 1960s, heroes exude a quality of tender heartbreak and still call themselves men while women sashay their wasp-like, silk-clad figures through noirish streets clutching cunning handbags and wearing the kind of yearning, disappointed expressions that make love-drunk slaves of men. How paltry and ersatz and aesthetically grim reality seems next to the jewel-box splendor of Wong's luminous, beguiling In the Mood for Love.

Masterfully photographed in muted tones of valentine pinks and reds faded to a poignant shadow of their former carnality by Wong's frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, In the Mood is the kind of film that sinks in and alters consciousness, leaving the viewer feeling transformed and a little drunk on its ambient chemicals.

Set around a claustrophobically bustling Hong Kong apartment shared by three separate families, In the Mood for Love allows this stifling, hothouse atmosphere to bleed into the love affair that develops between neighbors Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung). Chan and Chow are thrown together by the shared circumstance of absent spouses (both of whom are already carrying on affairs). Mrs. Chow who keeps late hours, and Mr. Chan is perpetually abroad on business.

An astonishingly ethereal, understated film, the actual progression of Chan and Chow's relationship from a collusion over their shared jiltedness to love affair is never entirely clear. In this Graham Greene-discrete adulterous intrigue, no kiss is ever exchanged, and neither party ever wriggles out of their gorgeous, elegant slipcovers of tailored suit or clinging dress. Instead, the touch of Chow's hand on Chan's, his spooning sauce onto her plate at dinner and a plume of cigarette smoke that curls around Chow's head like his own heated thoughts are the touchstones of desire. It is the caress of the rain that seems to stand in for all the emotionalism and ardor of their (possibly) sexual union as it pours down in uncharacteristic heaps as the couple pass each night on the wet avenue leading to a noodle shop or duck into doorways to huddle together against the rain.

Wong reveals very few details of Chow and Chan's relationship, focusing instead on its texture. Adultery is not a joyous release but more of a deep pool of melancholy into which the protagonists sink. Cloudy and darkly seductive, Wong's settings often suggest a world viewed through a haze of smoke and perfume and the silky tones of Nat King Cole (to add yet another layer of intrigue, sung in Spanish). The apartment Chan and Chow share is likewise a Lady From Shanghai hall of mirrors: a maze of smoked glass, floral curtains, ornamental lampshades. The space is as frantic and oppressive as the ever-present landlady who monitors the comings and goings of her tenants, and finally warns Chan that she has sniffed out her dalliance.

This sense of diminished opportunities and entrapment seems shared by those outside the electric tether of Chow and Chan's relationship. A whole network of desire is channeled into the consumer goods -- a rice cooker, neck ties, purses (only available abroad) -- that are eagerly coveted by Chan and Chow's neighbors. Happiness in In the Mood seems elusive for many, including its lovers, whose inability to find ecstasy in each other only illustrates that greater, communal frustration.

In the Mood is a bewitching, extraordinary film not only for its understatement but for its excesses. The setting in an impoverished, overcrowded communal apartment looks, in Wong's hands, like the quintessence of chic, a Vogue spread where every surface glows with possibility and promise. Cheung's figure alone, wrapped in skin-tight dresses and stiff collars that graze her chin, may prove to be the most influential extra-filmic fashion statement since Velvet Goldmine.

In Wong's previous films, including Happy Together and Fallen Angels, the director has demonstrated his nonpareil style and finesse, most often defined by elliptical editing, narcotized passages and bursts of action set amidst the die-young-stay-pretty Hong Kong slacker demimonde. But In the Mood for Love trumps its predecessors. Wong has honed his style into even-keeled painterly perfection, and at last found a brooding narrative with which his unique style can coalesce without seeming self-conscious or the slightest bit artificial.

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