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A Smoldering 'Mood for Love'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2001


    'In the Mood for Love' Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung battle their mutual attraction in "In the Mood for Love."
(USA Films)
The sexiest movie of the year, it turns out, is PG-rated.

That's because Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai knows how to make a meal out of suggestion, how to light a passionate fire without wood or matches. Of course, the effect of "In the Mood for Love" depends on your own sensibilities. Either you'll find a soft-spoken, devastatingly handsome man smoking in the rain and pining for the woman of his dreams unbearably sexy, or you won't.

I think you will, especially after watching this couple: The man is played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung (also known as Chiu-wai), whose debonair, understated manner suggests a combination of Alain Delon, Bryan Ferry and Edward R. Murrow.

The woman of his moody infatuation is played by Maggie Cheung (a k a Man-yuk), whose intelligence, beauty and poise go together like gin, dry vermouth and a twist of lemon.

In Wong's deft, achingly frustrating fantasy, what happens between these two – or more accurately, what doesn't – is all mood. Although there's a definite story here, the plot line devolves into an abstracted symphony of rain-swept streets, billowy curtains and foggy cab windows.

It takes a simple story, the restraint and growing passion between two people whose spouses are cheating on them, and plays endless blue notes into the steamy morning hours. "In the Mood for Love," which won an actor's prize (for Leung) at Cannes, and a technical prize, which includes editing, cinematography and production design, is more than a romance. It's about the jazz of the heart.

In Hong Kong, 1962, a city where indigenous Cantonese mingle with immigrants from mainland China, newspaper editor Chow Mo-wan (Leung) moves into a modest apartment, next to Su Li-zhen (Cheung), another new renter.

Both are married and live in a fairly cramped building dominated by its hearty, chatty landlady, Mrs. Suen (Chinese pop star Rebecca Pan). Yet, they often find themselves alone. Li-zhen's husband, who works for a Japanese company, and Mo-wan's wife, a hotel receptionist, always seem to be away from home.

It doesn't take long before Mo-wan and Li-zhen both realize, simultaneously, their spouses have become romantically involved with each other.

Their common situation draws them together, although they maintain an almost painful politeness. But as they spend more time with each other, sharing their feelings of betrayal and anguish, they slip into an indefinable intimacy.

All of a sudden, there's a dangerous closeness between them. Although there's technically nothing between them, they're forced to tiptoe around their landlady and her mah-jongg cronies to avoid gossip. Admit it or not, Mo-wan and Li-zhen seem to be slipping into an affair.

"We can't be like them," says Li-zhen, referring to their dishonorable spouses. And that utterance flutters like a defiant banner – but also a romantic jinx – between them.

While these determinedly chaste lovers hover around each other, Wong Kar-wai, whose seven extraordinary films include "Ashes of Time," "As Tears Go By" and "Chungking Express," goes about his visually brilliant business.

Two of his crew – cinematographer Christopher Doyle and production designer-costumer-editor William Chang – have worked with Wong for most of his career; and Leung and Cheung have appeared, separately or together, in most of his films. There's a creative family at work here, forging an inimitable Wong style with unforgettable sets, ingenious cinematography (including a wonderfully playful dinner scene that makes us consider the romantic symbolism in two plates of meat and potatoes) and, of course, the pent-up relationship between two vulnerable souls. And if all this doesn't put you in the mood, then I can write no more.

"In the Mood for Love" (PG, 97 minutes) – In Cantonese and Shanghainese with subtitles. Contains smoking, mild sexual situations and that's about it. (Check out the movie's imaginative Web site, too, at wkw-inthemoodforlove.com.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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