Four years after Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Maggie Cheung once again starred as half of a not quite-romantic couple, whose lives would be symbolized by romantic pop music. Unfortunately, Sinatra’s “Change Partners” was not on either Su Li-zhen or Chow Mo-wan’s playlists when they discover their respective spouses have been carrying on a secret affair. As they struggle with this realization, they start to develop feelings for each other. However, everything will conspire against a turnaround-is-fair-play affair, most especially themselves in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (trailer here), one of the first straight-up classics of the 2000s, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s retrospective series Maggie Cheung:Center Stage.
Both Su (or Mrs. Chan, depending on the custom of those addressing her) and Chow move into spare rooms in adjacent flats on the same day. Coincidentally, both have been left by their partners to handle the move on their own. Renting rooms in strangers’ flats might sound grim, but this is 1962 Hong Kong. Real estate is just as scarce as it is now, but there was less wealth to drive development. Nevertheless, many look back on this time with nostalgia, as a uniquely social period in their lives, but for Su and Chow, it will be far more complicated.
Both Su’s husband and Chow’s wife travel abroad, which affords them ready alibis, but also means their exclusive gifts for each other are tell-tale signs. Since both betrayed spouses are intelligent professionals, they pick up on the clues rather quickly, but they are unsure what to do about it. Meeting secretly, they “rehearse” confrontations with their unfaithful partners are try to simulate key moments in the affair, for the sake of their own understanding. They also discover shared interests, including a fondness for wuxia novels. The audience can tell they would be perfect together, but reserved early 1960s HK society would not see it that way.
Wong never directly shows us Mr. Chan or Mrs. Chow, only affording them voiceovers and back-of-the-head shots, like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels and Robin Masters in Magnum P.I. It is a very effective strategy for controlling viewers’ perceptions and emotions, but we can’t help wondering what do these people look like that they could tempt their lovers into cheating on Maggie Cheung and “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai? Seriously, together they make one undeniably photogenic couple.
Regardless, Mood is an achingly romantic film, but it has a decidedly dark edge. Su and Chow are the aggrieved parties, but they do not necessarily always act with the best of intentions. They are both inclined to brood, yet we still cannot help wanting to see finally consummate their yearnings.
Wong always makes it clear how the confined spaces and nosy neighbors constantly undermine their forbidden feelings for each other. He regularly frames his co-leads through cramped passage ways and narrow doorways, powerfully evoking a sense of claustrophobia. He also crafts some arresting images in the process. Frankly, Mood is one of a precious few films, whose dazzling auteurist style actually brings us into the hearts and head-spaces of its characters, rather than keeping viewers on the outside looking in.
In terms of chemistry, Cheung and Leung are just stunning together. Reportedly, Mood and Comrades are two of a handful of films that really mean something personal to Cheung, which will make perfect sense to viewers judging from what is on the screen. They both give career-defining performances, but Rebecca Pan humanizes the messy situation even further as Mrs. Suen, Su’s well-intentioned but conservative mahjong-playing land lady.