In the Mood for Love Review

It's almost impossible to find a review of Wong Kar-Wai's latest film that doesn't use one or more of the words "exquisite", "gorgeous", "ravishing", "subtle" and "hypnotic" so let's get those out of the way right at the start.

In the Mood for Love is one of the most extraordinarily delicate, fragile films I've ever seen - and one of the most erotic. Yes, I know it only has a PG certificate (in fact, if it hadn't been for a couple of throwaway references to brothels it would almost certainly have got a U), but this is the kind of eroticism that thrives on absence rather than presence: the film is perpetually suffused with an often unbearably aching longing for something that can never be.

The longing in question is between Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) who live in neighbouring flats in a cramped block in Hong Kong in 1962. They gradually discover that both their spouses (whom we never see on screen) are having an affair with each other - but this makes them all the more determined not to copy them, quite apart from the stifling conformity of the society they live in, where even the merest infraction is met with social ostracism.

So their own romance, intense though it undoubtedly is (and how!), is restricted to almost imperceptible sidelong glances, the momentary touching of hands, and attempts to hide their own feelings through verbal re-enactments of imaginary versions of their partners' infidelities - and the haunting, inexpressibly lonely conclusion among the ruined temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia brings the film's other major theme to the fore: the preciousness of memory, and the impossibility of recapturing the past once it's gone.

This is not, to put it mildly, for people who like fast-paced story-driven films - Wong's work is so unlike that of virtually all his Hong Kong contemporaries that it's hard to believe he's working in the same industry with actors who have appeared in Jackie Chan and John Woo films! I've just described pretty much the entire plot above, but there's no danger of any spoilers - because what I can't possibly put into words is, to cite a key word in a perfectly-chosen title, the mood: this film has done more to renew my faith in cinema as a rich, complex and uniquely suggestive art form than almost anything else over the last few years.

Working with his regular team of designer/editor William Chang and cinematographer Chris Doyle (who together create the kind of cinematic alchemy not seen since the great Bertolucci/Scarfiotti/Storaro partnership that made The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris), this is above all a lesson in how space, lighting, colour and music can not only intensify conventional narrative but also come close to replacing it: virtuoso set-pieces such as the uncannily sensual scene where Mrs Chan goes to buy noodles and is passed on the stairs by Mr Chow at precisely the point when it starts to drizzle lightly, tell us more about them and their feelings for each other than any amount of expository dialogue.

They're consciously dodging the subject, but everything else gives them away, and the film is so subtly nuanced that even the most trivial gesture - the brushing of one hand against another, a pause as Mrs Chan walks down a corridor, the dipping of a piece of steak into some mustard, a slight turn of the head, cigarette smoke drifting towards the ceiling, a recently discarded slipper by the side of the bed, rain breaking up a reflection in a puddle - becomes the equivalent of the notes in a piece of chamber music by Schubert or Chopin: inexplicable in their own right, but indisputably essential to the overall feel.

Talking of which, Wong's ear for music hasn't deserted him, and In the Mood for Love is scored with a mixture of traditional Chinese songs, Spanish ballads by Nat 'King' Cole and Michael Galasso's lovely string mazurkas that were composed especially for the film and which envelop the images like a well-tailored glove. As with Chungking Express, there's a lot of repetition of the same pieces - but that merely adds to the hypnotic effect.

Comparisons? Well, everyone keeps trotting out Brief Encounter, and I have no quarrel with that whatsoever - but I'd also like to throw in The Seventh Seal, Paths of Glory, The Decalogue, Bicycle Thieves, M*A*S*H, Annie Hall, Mean Streets, Andrei Rublev, The Diary of a Country Priest and the above-mentioned The Conformist.

And what on earth can these films possibly have in common? They all mark the point where their creators crossed the line from promising newcomer to world-class talent - and that's what Wong Kar-Wai now unquestionably is. And while I felt a little unsure about making such a sweeping claim after just one viewing, now that I've seen it three times I have no doubt whatsoever: this film is pretty damn close to perfection.

Although this is a conspicuous improvement on the other Wong Kar-Wai DVDs I've come across (World Video's abysmal Ashes of Time being one of the worst transfers I've ever seen, and Ocean Shores' Chungking Express not much better) this disc, sadly, is still slightly disappointing.

I don't know what it is about Mei Ah DVDs, but they always seem to have somewhat pasty-looking, slightly smeary transfers that don't do anything like justice to the original film, though this is comfortably the best transfer I've come across on this label to date. The biggest problem is that it suffers badly from excessive edge enhancement, giving the picture a somewhat two-dimensional look that doesn't match my memories of the big-screen version - and there's also some conspicuous artefacting. It's a bit like one of Fox Lorber's early, rather slapdash foreign-language DVDs - certainly very watchable, but about the absolute bare minimum that one should expect.

The print is in very good rather than perfect physical condition - there is a small but noticeable number of tiny white spots and scratches, which I'd happily overlook in an older film but which is far less acceptable for something that had its world premiere in 2000. The transfer is non-anamorphic, but that's understandable given the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the fact that Hong Kong doesn't seem to have embraced 16:9 sets to any great extent - though it's framed somewhat awkwardly for 14:9 zoom mode: I had to shave a tiny amount off the top of the frame, though this didn't affect appreciation. Thankfully, though, the subtitles are 16:9 friendly, and I had no complaints about the quality of the English, which makes a nice change! (I do have one minor gripe: some - though not all - of the time-passing titles towards the end aren't subtitled).

Even more thankfully, the sound is conspicuously better, a Dolby Digital 5.1 transfer that for once seems to be genuine multi-channel surround as opposed to the all too common remixed-from-mono versions that plague Hong Kong DVDs (just listen to any of the various rainstorms that Mr Chow and Mrs Chan get caught up in!).

Although it's not quite up to the standard of a state-of-the-art Hollywood digital transfer in terms of dynamic range or tonal colour, it's certainly one of the best soundtracks I've encountered on a Hong Kong film: the music in particular comes across especially well. Note that you have a choice of Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue - but unless you speak or prefer the latter, you should go for the Cantonese option, as it's the version originale. There are just nine chapter stops accessible from the menu (though twelve in practice on the film itself), which is absolutely typical for a Hong Kong label, so I can't say it came as a surprise.

There are no real extras to speak of - "Data Bank" merely reproduces the plot summary and credits that are already printed on the back of the box. Although the film can more than stand up for itself, I was sorry Mei Ah didn't include any of the superbly atmospheric and suggestive trailers (which can be found on the film's official website) - not least because they're the only things associated with the film that actually feature the song that gives it its title!

All in all - well, it could have been better, but bitter experience with other Wong Kar-Wai titles on DVD tells me that it could have been a lot worse as well! On the evidence of this disc I'd probably advise waiting until it comes out on a Western label (I'd love a pristine anamorphic version with the trailer(s) thrown in) unless, like me, you absolutely have to have it now - but I don't have any major regrets. Unless I'm in for a rather implausible surprise over the next ten days or so, this is easily my favourite film of 2000, and I'd rather have it in a slightly less than perfect form than not at all.

[How times change in just under a year! I've left the text of the review up unaltered so you can see what the situation was like in December 2000 - but since then there have been numerous DVD alternatives: a mediocre single-disc effort from Tartan and a truly gorgeous double-disc set originating from France that has been distributed there by TF1, in Britain by Tartan and will probably form the basis of a just-announced Criterion edition. Whichever label you go for, the treatment is stunning - in fact, it might just be the best all-round DVD package I've ever encountered.]

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 18:22:20

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