Picked Flick #58: In the Mood for Love
You know, as many times as I have defied the old homily and, indeed, tried this at home, it never quite works out. I rocked a lot of ramen noodles in my years of graduate-student penury, but even with Michael Galasso's indelible theme surging through the kitchen and all the lights turned down low, trying to keep my elbow straight and my neck proud and my hips in a perfect pendulum, wouldn't you know that the elusive spark of sad, swollen Romanticism, of rue dans la rue, never came close to igniting. The only part I successfully conjured was "sad," and not even in the way I intended. Oh, but don't be laughing. Y'all know you tried, too.
As with The Crying Game, but working in an opposite direction, I have experienced a pretty notable swerve in my repsonse to In the Mood for Love. In this case, I have grown almost habituated, if such a thing is possible, to Love's rapturous mise-en-scène and its intricately woven sound elements, hypnotized and transported as I am by the miracle that is Maggie Cheung. I love the word "equipoise," but I wonder if it describes any single thing in the universe so well as it does Cheung's absolute and yet sensationally un-fussy control over the line of her body, the most minute calibrations of every feature, every lash. Sitting in a chair, casting her eyes over a newspaper, her posture is not an I or an S or an L, but some kind of sublime, pristine character missing from our alphabet. Her playing of scenes like Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow's evening out at a restaurant is suffused with an emotional urgency that is almost chemical, nowhere manifest and yet everywhere felt; by comparison, even such an accomplished telepath as Julianne Moore seems like she's doing handstands and flagging out semaphores in the somewhat analogous scenes in The End of the Affair. Other actors have dazzled in Wong's movies, though usually by sculpting themselves into ravishing emblems of cool like Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express or Carina Lau in Days of Being Wild, or black holes of devouring need like Leslie Cheung in Happy Together, or plaintive alter egos like Tony Leung in almost everything. But Cheung in In the Mood for Love exhibits an utter, respectful reverence for the art-object that Wong is creating around her, without ever seeming merely ornamental or rooting herself into any one attitude or affect. She is sad, resigned, perceptive, aroused, a good neighbor, a rattled wife, a creature of new and sudden impulse, a pilgrim returned to former haunts, and in every one of these guises, she has the clarity and soft color of blown glass, but also the veins and arteries of a human person.
As for the film, I must admit to wishing that the coda at Angkor Wat didn't feel quite so monumentalizing of what is, at heart, a gorgeous empherality. In general, I sometimes feel about Wong that, if this makes any sense, he makes movies for people who read magazines that I wouldn't likethe shimmering sheen, the insistent motifs (both visual and sonic), the lingering sense of a fold-out centerfold spread are all, at times, a little much. In short, I do love Wong, but I do have to be in the mood. Happy Together is my favorite of his films, partially because it's the most willing to rip itself open and trace some real edges in the material, without losing the power to stun us with unexpected elegance, artful caesuras. Still, even more than that film, In the Mood for Love concocts such a potent aura of feeling, deepening and darkening its flavors with each re-viewing, that my lingering disputes with Wong's aesthetic all but float away while I'm watching. It's cinema as absinthe. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)