My name’s Devin R Bruce, and I love movies. And I love lists. (I also love other things, hence the confusing name of the website.) Eleven years ago I made a list of my One Hundred Favourite Movies, and I’ve seen about a thousand movies since then, so I decided to make an update. The previous entries can be found here, and today I’m going to share about a movie that took fifteen months to shoot, had no script, and had to replace a cinematographer because it was taking so long. It’s also a masterpiece. (Spoilers, obviously.)
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7. In The Mood For Love (2000, Hong Kong/France)
Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) are neighbours in 1961 Hong Kong. They live in an apartment complex, renting spare rooms in adjacent units and with spouses that are often spoken about but rarely seen. They often pass in the hallway, or on the stairs, but rarely speak until they each discover his wife is having an affair with her husband. Alone and adrift in a city that is unfamiliar to them, they form a strong bond based on their common interests: a love of martial arts stories and their confusion about how they have been betrayed. They agree that they won’t be like their spouses, that they’ll never sleep with each other, but instead engage in strange games of make-pretend as they try to navigate this new chapter in their lives.
There is a strange and beautiful story here, but it’s in service of the aesthetic. This movie is all about aesthetics. At the risk of ignoring the wonderful musical choices in this movie, I’m just going to focus on the look. The set design is amazing, with vivid colours and era-appropriate artifacts that feel like real places lifted from forty years before. There are hundreds of beautiful shots, from a hand carrying a green translucent teacup, to close-ups of old telephones and clocks, to the opulence and emptiness of a hotel corridor. Tendrils of grey and blue cigarette smoke rising into overhead lights. Tony Leung leaning against a swath of gorgeous purple wallpaper. Wong Kar-Wai and his two cinematographers have mastered the use of cinematic language to tell the story, employing slow motion and close-ups to highlight an emotional story beat, or using foreground objects to obscure or cover part of the frame and put the audience in the role of the voyeur. Maggie Cheung is constantly dressed in gorgeous and perfectly-fitted cheongsams, dozens of them, and she’s a goddess. Earlier in this list I said Desperado featured two of the most attractive people who have ever been photographed. This movie has two more of them in Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
I love how In The Mood For Love plays with audience expectations. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are the “good” people, they’re the betrayed. They might be engaged in a strange pseudo-relationship that fills a gaping emotional hole in their souls, but at least they’re not cheating. Their emotional connection is strong and their chemistry instantaneous. And they’re so sweet, and they both love martial arts stories; they’re clearly nerds who are meant for each other, right? But the way that they sneak around shows that there’s more. Might there be something slightly off about these two people that they have to get together and sublimate their desires by acting out scenes where they play each other’s spouses? The first time I watched the movie I was entirely on their side, but with repeated viewings, I see hints of something harder. This movie deftly plays with identity: who are we watching in this scene? Are they them or are they someone else? And who are they when they’re alone?
Let’s get back to Maggie Cheung for a second. She is much more than just a goddess in gorgeous costumes. Her control of her body and her expressions is masterful in an actor, but the way that transfers to a character can turn her emotions on and off while playing a role is unsettling. My heart breaks for her during scenes where she knowingly assists her boss in having an affair. When we last see her in the movie, she’s on her own, living with a young boy and owning the apartment she used to rent a room in. She might have a hard life as a single mother in 1960s Hong Kong, but at least she’s escaped that awful time. Tony Leung tries to leave his past behind at Angkor Wat, but I feel like it’s going to be much harder for him than her.
Fun Fact: Like most people I know, I first fell head-over-heels for Maggie Cheung as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in Police Story. One of my white whale movies is The Heroic Trio, a martial arts adventure that she co-stars in with Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh. If I ever see it, I had better have smelling salts and a good friend standing by, because that combination of actresses might be too much for me to handle.
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Next time: “Haven’t you heard? She’s irresistible. She told me so herself.”