"In the Mood for Love" is all about mood, and not one bit about action - which explains why it's at once both the most passionate film of the year so far, and the most determinedly inert.
Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) are two unremarkable characters in the overpopulated maelstrom that is 1962 Hong Kong. He's a journalist who's rapidly losing interest in his job; she's secretary to the head of a shipping company. Other than being married to workaholics who are never home, the only thing they share is a common address: a cramped apartment building run by the grandmotherly Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan).
They discover each other by unavoidable accident; in such tight quarters, it's almost impossible not to know your neighbor. To outward appearances, their relationship consists of little more than an occasional greeting. But fate demands more.
As much by inference as by accident, Chow discovers that his wife and Li-zhen's husband are having an affair. He breaks the news to her, and they don't react in the expected way. She accepts the news with a look that suggests she always suspected as much. He's more curious than hurt; what would it feel like, he wonders, to carry on such a clandestine relationship?
In most movies, the next scene would show these two lonely souls ripping each other's clothes to shreds and making passionate love. Instead, Chow and Li-zhen treat their passion as cerebral, rather than physical. What makes people cheat, they wonder? What makes passion so great that it becomes irresistible? What would it be like to do the very thing their spouses are doing?
So the two begin to role play, and maybe even fall in love. Walking down a street at night, he pretends to be her husband, she pretends to be his wife, and they keep stopping and starting their pretend seductions. It's a scene both humorous and heartbreaking - and one that best captures the film's provocatively understated tone.
Director Wong Kar-wai makes films that infiltrate his characters' souls, that are intensely personal looks at what makes people tick. Here, he keeps the cameras trained tightly on the actors, and primarily uses close-ups and two-shots. Rarely does the frame betray much of what's going on around them. The central question raised by the film - is there a difference between betraying a spouse in our minds and betraying them by our actions - plays out almost entirely across the actors' faces.
Of course, that puts a heavy burden on those actors. Leung, who won a best actor award at Cannes, keeps Chow in check throughout the film, but barely. One word from Li-zhen, one appropriate glance, and his passion will break free.
But Cheung never lets that happen. Poured into cheongsams, garments as seductive as they are restrictive, she's the picture of control. (The film's poster, which depicts Cheung and Leung in a passionate and erotic embrace, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens on screen.)
Like the relationship it depicts, "In the Mood for Love" is not without its frustrations. Wong Kar-wai's narrative tends to wander - he shot the film over two years, and the struggle to keep it together sometimes shows. And some audiences will doubtless find the film's lack of visible passion as frustrating as its characters doubtless do.
As a study of people determined to remain more true to their values than to their emotions, "In the Mood for Love" offers an experience like few other films of recent memory. The mood, it suggests, can sometimes be as important as the act.
'In the Mood for Love'
Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Released by USA Films
Rated PG (adult themes). With English subtitles
Running time 94 minutes
Sun score: ***