Writer-director Wong Kar-Wai hails from Hong Kong, now technically (if not psychically) a part of China. But he's really a citizen of cinema?a nation whose passport is welcome pretty much everywhere. The game he plays in films like Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, Happy Together and his newest, the melancholy 1960s romantic drama In the Mood for Love, is a tricky one: he wants to have as much technical fun as he can without derailing his narrative and dishonoring his characters. Most of the time, he gets what he wants; his films consistently manage to be slick and honest, intelligent and fun?sets of adjectives most filmmakers today are incapable of combining.
Though his characters' feelings are complex and sometimes opaque, his style is brazen, showy. He switches film stocks, whips the camera around, shifts into slow and fast motion to draw out a feeling, stages whole sequences as dialogue-free music videos; you can't help being aware of the storyteller's hand because it's always gripping the top of your head and swiveling it in whatever direction he thinks you should look. He jacks up your adrenaline level from frame one and keeps it there. Even wordless, music-free scenes where the camera is nailed to the floor somehow feel show-offy, as if he's saying, "Now watch me be quiet?didn't think I could do it, did you?" He's not always on the top of his game; for every two good ideas, there's one that backfires or just lies there on the screen like a drugged-out vamp begging for attention. And yet, inexplicably, when you watch Wong's films, you don't feel as though you're being jerked around for no good reason. He lets his actors act, and he sincerely cares about his characters. They're people to him, not pawns, even though the worlds he constructs often treats them as pawns.
With In the Mood for Love, a lush yet spare melodrama set in early 1960s Hong Kong, you can clearly see Wong building a body of work in the way that a serious novelist builds a body of work. By this stage of his career, his home video distributor, Kino, could probably release his last three or four movies in a boxed set, with a title like Love for Sale. His theme is the romantic ideal and the real-world obstacles that prevent real people from achieving it. Like his other movies?most notably Chungking Express and Happy Together?this one has a couple of good-looking yet touchingly ordinary lovers at its center: Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), a married journalist, and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), a married secretary.
They rent rooms next door to each other in a crowded boarding house. Their landlords and their landlords' families play extended games of mahjongg, which necessitates opening doors that separate the two apartments?and the symbolic doors that separate Chow and Chan. They're powerfully attracted to each other, but they flirt the way cool people flirt?with tremendous control and attention to the rules of etiquette. The sexual protocol of middle-class, pre-sexual-revolution Hong Kong serves as an additional constraint; adultery happens here, just as it happens everywhere, and everyone knows it; Mrs. Chan even makes dinner reservations for her boss and his mistress without passing judgment. Still, a dignified, independent young professional doesn't gossip about adultery, doesn't encourage it and certainly doesn't indulge in it.
The film is about an act of adultery that's more emotional than physical. Mrs. Chan barely sees her importer husband, who's always out of the country on business. Mr. Chow rarely sees his wife because?well, she always has some cockamamie excuse. It takes a while?probably too long a while?for them to discover that their spouses are having an affair. But rather than causing them to fall directly into bed, the revelation prompts introspection, hesitancy and quite a few uncomfortable dinners. Neither Chan nor Chow is much of a talker; the director treats them primarily as educated, classy yet inarticulate vessels of desire. He feasts on their beauty?droll, reactive Leung in his sharp suits, cigarette smoldering; prim, guitar-backed Cheung in her high-necked, sleeveless, Audrey Hepburn-style dresses. In the scene where they pass each other in the stairwell of a noodle shop and have to twist to avoid colliding with each other, I gasped?not because of the image's sexual energy (the cinematography, by longtime Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle, shimmers with coiled carnal heat), but out of fear that these two fine pieces of living sculpture might be damaged.
In the Mood for Love is the perfect title for this story, because it describes a state of emotional preparation that doesn't necessarily guarantee action. Then again, perhaps "story" is too concrete a word. To paraphrase the description of Peter Fonda's character in The Limey, this film doesn't really have a story as much as a vibe. The relative absence of dialogue, the reserved nature of two main characters, the frequent substitution of music montages for dramatic exchanges, the genuinely baffling and pretentious ending, all underline the extremely elliptical style Wong has chosen for this feature. In fact, In the Mood for Love is so elliptical that at times it's frustrating; there are several points during the movie where you find yourself wishing for more nouns and verbs, and asking yourself questions that Wong isn't prepared to answer because he doesn't make question-answering movies. Questions like, "What do these two people see in each other? Is it merely chemical attraction, or the attraction of geographical proximity?"
The elliptical style doesn't just keep character information to a minimum; it forcibly?and therefore unfairly?prevents moral judgments from being considered. To give just one obvious example, we never see the faces of Chow and Chan's spouses; when they interact with the hero and heroine, we usually hear a disembodied voice from somewhere offscreen. It's like a grown-up, sexualized version of Peanuts. One could be charitable and say that Wong is just trying to tell an old story of cheating spouses in a reasonably fresh way; but it seems more likely that he's trying to enforce sympathy for his two beautiful leads by preventing us from seeing their spouses as people.
As is always the case with this director, the film's faults and virtues are intertwined, at times fused, and you have to either accept and embrace the whole package or be condemned to 90 minutes of coughing, watch-glancing and eye-rolling. Wong falls into that subclass of contemporary directors whose works are as much about movies (and the director's love of moviemaking) as they are about plot, characterization or theme. On the fine end of the scale, that subclass includes Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and Brian DePalma (when they're honoring and improving their material instead of smugly riffing on it). On the more problematic end, you have directors like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson (Rushmore), Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), John Woo and, on the lowest rungs, the Madison Avenue/MTV brats like Michael Bay (Armageddon) and Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) who are so concerned with paying homage to their favorite movies, and buffing every frame to a ready-for-prime-time sheen, that they overlook narrative sense, spatial logic and the fact that their characters have the depth and charm of audio-animatronic puppets. The great-grandfather of all these directors is, of course, Jean-Luc Godard, who has spent his entire career turning movies into playful theoretical experiments; for better or worse, that tradition has gone beyond provocation, becoming received wisdom.
In a wonderful review of In the Mood for Love published by The Independent of London, Gilbert Adair described the aforementioned school of directors as a deeply troublesome breed. They are, he wrote, artists who don't create images based on the world, but images based on images of the world. "The films they make tend to be peculiarly appealing to the kind of fanatical buffs whose secret craving is to enter the screen and become participants in, not mere spectators of, the action; the kind of buffs who actually wish the world were a movie." There are days when I fit this definition; I saw In the Mood for Love on one of those days, which explains as well as anything why I enjoyed it. A different kind of viewer in a different frame of mind?a viewer who prefers movies that are about life, rather than movies that reimagine life as movies?will find nothing of interest here.
Fever Directed by Alex Winter
Fans of movie-movies will enjoy Fever, a lean and absorbing thriller from writer-director Alex Winter. If his name is familiar, it's probably because he was Bill in the Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure movies. That's too bad, because he's also an audacious and intriguing filmmaker; his last feature, Freaked?a fantasy about a South American genetic mutant freak show, co-directed with Tom Stern?was one of the stupidest and funniest comedies of the 90s. (Bob Goldthwait provides the voice of a human sock puppet; if that doesn't make you want to rent it, then you definitely don't want to rent it.)
His latest, about a disturbed young painter (Henry Thomas) who fears his tenement apartment building may house a murderer, is much darker and more serious, yet unmistakably pop. The deep-green and dark gray color scheme suggests a Franz Kafka story illustrated by Edward Hopper; but the story line fits squarely into the proud tradition of "Is the hero crazy or isn't he?" movies.
As with Panic, another fine, small movie, you don't go to Fever hoping to see big production values; you go to see a superficially familiar story told in an unexpected, sometimes very successful way?and to see talented actors stretch themselves. Thomas is one of them. As Nick the painter, the emotionally damaged son of a rich Brooklyn Heights family, he seems too young somehow, even though he's just about the right age. Yet his unaffected performance, showcased in nearly every scene, grounds this highly stylized movie in psychological reality. He truly does seem like a man who could be losing his mind without knowing it. He gets fine backup from Bill Duke as a detective investigating the murder of Nick's landlord, Teri Hatcher as Nick's gallery owner sister and Scottish actor David O'Hara as a nihilist dockhand neighbor who lives beneath the authorities' radar.
The film is ultimately too emotionally slight to support the arsenal of technical devices laid on top of it, but as a virtuoso display of how big ambitions can be realized on a tiny budget, Fever is damned hard to beat. Joe DeSalvo's photography, Mark Ricker's production design, Azan Kung's costumes and Coll Anderson's sound effects work in eerily perfect accord, creating a world that seems to be breaking down in fear, paranoia and disgust as we watch. It was said of Kafka that only a man who lived in apartments his whole life could have written stories so uniquely disturbing. Winter has clearly done his share of renting.
"Critical Passions," a series of screenings unfolding Feb. 3-Mar. 4 at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, features a diverse array of movies introduced by members of the New York Film Critics Circle. The only criteria for selection: the film had to have had a profound personal impact on the critic who selected it. Armond White and I have films in the series, as does former New York Press film editor Godfrey Cheshire. Armond's pick, Brian De Palma's telekinetic love story The Fury, screens Feb. 11 at 4:30 p.m. Godfrey's selection, Joseph Losey's 1971 turn-of-the-century drama The Go-Between, screens Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. My pick, Cameron Crowe's teen romance Say Anything, screens March 4 at 2 p.m. For the complete lineup, visit http://www. ammi.org/site/screenings/mainpage/ critics.html, or call 718-784-0077.