BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
Sex is great, but have you seen IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE? WKW makes the physical act of sex pale to the art of foreplay, that slow, repressive fuse that burns with the heat of a thousand suns, yet remains titillatingly untouched, untapped, thrust back into a bottle where lightening waits to explode.
Every detail in this film is sexy without being sexual. Every look, every glance, feels like an eternal itch that never gets scratched. When characters share a small, pregnant gaze, a universe of impossible longing bursts at the seams. When gestures, locations and musical patterns repeat themselves over and over, a steamy spell is being cast.
No, this isn't style-over-substance cinema.
The style *is* the substance.
The style informs the substance.
And the style forever makes love to the substance, and vice versa, to contrast the hidden feelings of its punch drunk characters who can neither inform, nor make love, without bursting the moral balloon that moors their code of honor.
WKW's intoxicating style-is-substance method pushes itself "so far that it often feels like a musical or even a dance film," says John Powers. The whole film works as an unfulfilled tease, like being tickled with a feather, or getting a lap dance where you're allowed to look but never touch. It turns invisible, suppressed emotion into visible, expressed passion, luxuriating in sumptuous colors and hypothetical fantasies that excite the feelings but never acts on them. What WKW's characters lack in their proximity to make the first move, his sensuous production design makes up with emotional style. Which is to say, these restless lovers might be holding back, but WKW's chimeric imagery does anything but. Powers continues: "Wong's evocation of Hong Kong bathes us in an aching beauty that, at times, seems to suffocate the very passion it adorns; those cheongsams can squeeze the life out of you."
Long, slow, languorous shots of a woman descending stairs, and a man ascending the same set, over and over, feels like the kind of sex that only WKW could render into such poetic terms. There's also a startling amount of surprise we get to experience through the lovers' performative rehearsals, which take on a kind of CERTIFIED COPY intimacy. These role-playing moments are some of the most exquisite scenes the film has to offer, as they not only summon the romance between these characters, they also reveal the power of make-believe to produce real, genuine emotion.
There's a reticence to their intentions we never fully learn: Are they choosing to avoid a scandalous hookup ("We will never be like them") to protect their cultural respectability? Or are they both too scared to make the first move, that play-acting is the only cover to give them confidence? The longer WKW lets these questions simmer on low-heat intensity, the more double, even triple fakes he reveals, always in the service of closing the emotional distance between them.
As one lover admits: "I was only curious to know how it started, and now I know. Feelings can creep up just like that." I'm dead. ❤️💔❤️
The structure of the film follows an elliptical form that ensnares time and space, and while that sounds like pseudo-intellectual nonsense, it's because the perspective we occupy is always obscured through windows, door frames and crammed hallways, almost like we're meant to assume the position of the prying neighbors, who always seem to be eavesdropping on these very secret, well-guarded characters. Space is always claustrophobic, and time is always passing. This only helps visually support the erotic yearning between our coded lovers, as both cramped interiors (space) and fleeting moments (time) internalize just how elusively trapped their romantic appetites really are.
I love how visually stunning (and frustrating) this film is. WKW's use of confined interior space is subjectively arresting, recalling Antonioni's obsession with exterior space as a form of imprisonment. He's using film language to suggest not only how space and time works in his film, but what space and time says about the inner lives of his unfulfilled characters.
Also, the structure of the film almost seems to function as a recollection, or a memory, something rooted in the playback of emotion, as we're never quite sure if events are occurring in the past or the present. All we have is this lyrical imagery organized like a jazz composition, caught within the repetitious memory space of these lovers' fractured encounters. It's so hot! 🔥🔥🔥
Though WKW is in no way a political or ideological filmmaker, his imagery does lend itself to particular cultural reflections. After all, what could such an elusive, ever-shifting romance caught between the real and the performed say about the identity of a displaced, post-colonial Hong Kong?
The story is set in the conservative 60s when "adultery was not accepted as today," says WKW. Neighbors living in such close corridors were constantly in everybody's business, he says, they had rumors, they had secrets, and were basically the kind of people "who shared your toilet!" Woah. Imagine living in this kind of hog-tied neighborhood, there couldn't be secrets of any kind, let alone room for a shameful romance to blossom. This is what actually makes the Goldfinch restaurant such a sacred place for Mo-wan and Li-zhen. It's the one protected space where they can speak candidly, confidently, and unclothe, so to speak, the myriad layers of desire.
The interiors of their apartment are too pinched, the exteriors in the rain too imprisoning, but the Goldfinch provides a kind of emotional constant to the ever-spying, ever-shifting world around them. All of this holds true to WKW's cinematic philosophy. In nearly all his films, there's always an unchanging sanctuary in the midst of the characters' changing surroundings, whether it's the tropical forest from DAYS OF BEING WILD, the expansive desert from ASHES OF TIME, or the overwhelming falls from HAPPY TOGETHER.
In the WKW cinematic universe, the eternal and the ephemeral find ways to coalesce, make love, and exist side by side.
What's interesting about Mo-wan and Li-zhen romantic longing is that it resists permanence, form and finality. It's not fixed, like many of his film's surrounding environments, but instead it takes on the form of perpetual quicksand. The formal, rigid community around them has intensified the suppression of their emotions, causing them to engage in a kind of phantom foreplay that chances them to come closer but never touch. It's sensual to the max, but also profoundly alienating.
So alienating, so frustrating, in fact, that it eventually leads to a shrewd metaphysical act of whispering their heavy secret into the hollow of a ruined wall. What a brilliant, perplexing image this is, on par with Antonioni's perspective shift in the final 10 minutes of L'ECLISSE. WKW switches from loose-narrative to full-blown avant-garde in these final moments, a borderline surreal dreamscape where the relationship we've been following becomes as ancient and crumbling as the ruins we're now asked to interpret.
Whatever WKW means to suggest about their failed relationship, its repressed fibers get dealt with almost religiously in Cambodia; they get prayed, not just whispered, into the cracks of a crumbling temple, which of itself is perhaps the most sublime image in all of his films.
"That era is past," a title card reads. "Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore." How a ruined relationship that started in room 2046 ended with its sanctification in Angkor Wat, a ruined holy space, is a poetic mystery, but there's a sense of history to it, much like the pre-97 Hong Kong. The old has passed away and taken on new form. On a narrative level, it feels like burying a wound that could never heal. On a political level, you almost need the majestic falls from HAPPY TOGETHER (and what they suggest about the Handover) to welcome what it means to sigh away an old, colonial world by covering it with mud and straw for all time.
In Mo-wan and Li-zhen's detached relationship, each who feel they never belong to each other, there is the wider cultural detachment of the Chinese diaspora who’ve never known who they belonged to, or what to call "home" during colonial times. Tony Rayns describes IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE as a "requiem for the end of the colonial period." WKW himself has said that "ending the film in Cambodia, which used to be a French colony, was my farewell to our colonial days." While these interpretations enliven the text, they're still unable to dispel its ravishing mysteries that coil like cigarette smoke around this deeply felt world. The imagery is too haunting, the character relationships too slippery. If anything, these interpretations reinforce the yearning of both characters and country, two groups poetically tangled by their frustration to belong, connect and converge.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE demands to be seen more than once. I saw it once well over 15 years ago, and I wasn't ready for it. I'm still not ready for it, but I am learning to approach it from different perspectives. It's difficult to articulate how sensual and devastating this film is, and I guess that goes to prove Ebert's point that "whole continents of emotions go unexplored" each time we watch it. I like how my friend Andrew put it: "You have to sit through, peel back the layers, and see if you can find out. You probably won't, but you will revel in the pure beauty as you try." Amen.
It's a film that’s whispered into existence, something you try to consummate into words, but no matter how hard you try, it keeps slipping through your fingers.