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In the Mood for LoveDirector Wong Kar-Wai tells a revealing anecdote in the Criterion Collectionís DVD release of In the Mood for Love. Gilles Jacob, then president of the Cannes Film Festival, invited Wong to premiere his as-yet unfinished movie at the 2000 festival. Wong accepted the invitation not so much for the prestige but because the festival provided a hard date by which the film must be completed. Otherwise, Wong says half-jokingly, he could have gone on filming forever. Those of us familiar with the shooting style of Wong Kar-Wai know just how serious that statement is. Without a written script of any kind, his shoots are more like improvisations during which the director and his actors come up with story and characters through trial and error. In the Mood for Love took 15 months to shoot, in places as varied as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and the wilds of Cambodia. By the time of its world premiere on the final day of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, the movie had only completed principal photography the week before. The actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, had only the vaguest idea what the movie was about. Wong, who had been cutting the film throughout the shoot, worked up to the last minute preparing a print for the premiere at the festivalís Grand Palais.

The irony of course is that In the Mood for Love feels like anything but a film rushed from production to release. A tightly orchestrated pas-de-deux of romantic repression, the movie seems meticulously planned and executed. Maggie Cheung plays Mrs. Chan, a young secretary who has just moved into a new apartment with her husband. Tony Leung plays their neighbor Mr. Chow, a newspaper reporter who occupies the adjacent unit with his wife. Through circumstance and intuition, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow learn that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Stunned but not entirely surprised, the betrayed couple take comfort in each other, sharing each otherís loneliness but never quite crossing over to make contact. They are kindred spirits, sharing a revulsion for their spousesí indiscretion. But once their disbelief dissipates, they find themselves gravitating towards each other. The movie chronicles their evolving relationship as it moves from friendship to romance to something altogether enigmatic. Though we assume that theirs is a chaste romance, we can never be entirely sure and this becomes the movieís teasing premise. How can these two gorgeous characters, who seem to have all the time in the world, not take a sexual interest in each other?

Set in 1960ís Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love recreates a world that no longer exists. For Asian audiences, it is a recognizable world filled with pop culture relics and period fashion. Western audiences will naturally have a more difficult time contextualizing the abundance of detail that Wong and his gifted designer William Chang throw our way. The DVD release from the Criterion Collection is particularly helpful in this respect. It is a two-disc set filled with extras that give social and historical context to the story. The more knowledge you bring about recent Hong Kong social history, the richer the movie will seem in its evocation of life at this specific time and place.

Perhaps the defining linguistic trait of 1960ís Hong Kong was its polyglot of dialects. Non-Chinese speaking viewers wonít be able to discern the Shanghainese dialect used by Mrs. Chan and her landlady from the dominant Cantonese dialect used by Mr. Chow. As Wong explains in an interview conducted at the Cannes Film Festival, there was a large influx of people from Shanghai to Hong Kong during this period. They retained their own language and culture and tended to socialize within their own ethnic group. Wong himself is of Shanghainese descent and would have been a child at the time the movie takes place. With its low camera angles emulating a childís vantage point, the movie becomes his personal recollection of a vanished culture.

A significant part of that culture was its obsession with Latin music. Wong recalls how his mother used to listen to Spanish-language Nat King Cole songs over the radio in restaurants and bars. Because many of the musicians in Hong Kong were Filipino, the Latin American influence was strong. Among the songs which Wong has chosen are Coleís Spanish renditions of "Green Eyes" ("Aquellos Ojos Verdes"), "Magic is the Moonlight" ("Te Quiero Dijiste"), and "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" ("Quizas, Quizas, Quizas"). These songs arenít just ambient noise; they take the foreground, infusing the scenes with a sense of melancholy. As period detail, they suggest the exotic, hedonistic nightlife that dominated Hong Kong, the kind of life that the two lead characters deny themselves. Itís fitting that the Nat King Cole song from which the movie takes its name is never once played. A deliberate omission, its absence rebukes the romance between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, and mocks their inability to acknowledge, let alone consummate, their love.

The music from the film is presented in an interactive essay allowing the viewer to jump to specific scenes featuring a particular musical selection. Included in the essay are the filmís only orchestral pieces, which can be found near the beginning and at the end of the movie. The haunting waltz that introduces the two lead characters is borrowed from the Seijun Suzuki film Yumeji, and its repetition underlies the approach-avoidance nature of the two leads. Contrast that with the final selection, a lush serenade by composer Michael Galasso, which is mournful and tragic, and suggests a taming of romantic impulses.

The extent to which Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow have controlled their passions by the movieís end is open to speculation. Are they still in love? Or have time and distance allowed them to forget each other? The deleted scenes provided on the DVD take us beyond the movieís conclusion and into the 1970s. We see a changed Hong Kong, one where the young women have traded in their vibrant cheong-sam dresses for fur-lined jackets and bell bottoms. Mrs. Chan, now the proprietress of the apartment building, and still married to her unfaithful husband, learns that Mr. Chow has returned to Hong Kong from assignment in Singapore. Though they try to avoid one another, they have a chance encounter at the noodle stand where they first noticed each other ten years before. The scene is played as an elongated heartbeat: their eyes meet, they tense up, and like a flash itís all over. Another deleted scene shows them meeting by chance at the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This time they do speak to each other, though itís clear that they have moved on with their lives. As they stroll through the ruins of the temple, itís as if they are touring the remains of their own abandoned passion.

Maybe, and this is wishful thinking, these two characters will meet again and again at different stages in their lives. We will see them have children, grow old, and experience all of the pains that come with a compromised life. In this respect, the deleted scenes are like abandoned tunnels: they make us want to explore where the movie might have taken us if Wong had indeed filmed forever. They make the movie feel bigger and more ambitious, as if the final cut were but a snapshot of the story in mid-development. They also provide a clue as to the origin of the story: some early footage included on the DVD shows that the movie was intended to be about a pair of immature, obnoxious lovers. But Wong latched onto something tragic in their story, some unacknowledged emptiness, and gradually turned the movie into something infinitely more contemplative and restrained.

This evolution is told, in part, in a documentary Wong made about the filming of the movie. Though impressively detailed, the documentary only hints at Wongís creative process. Part of the problem is Wong himself who seems either reluctant or unable to explain many of his impulses. As a director he seems closed off from his actors, frequently going off to his dark place to await inspiration. It was clearly an ordeal for Maggie Cheung, who isnít shy about discussing her on-set clashes with the director. The cinematographer and long-time Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle had to leave the movie when production went over schedule and was replaced by Mark Li, who is known for his work with Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. To further complicate matters, Wong was filming another feature at the same time, a political drama entitled 2046.

What we know with any certainty about Wongís creative process is that production time plays a crucial role in determining the ultimate shape of his movies, whether itís a quickie like Chungking Express or a longer project along the lines of Happy Together. In the Mood for Love is barely 98 minutes long, but it has the feel of a much longer movie left on slow boil. What remains after heat and pressure have taken their toll is the essence of the story, a quick glance here, a brush of the fingers there. While the movie takes place over several years, it feels strangely compacted, as if it were unfolding in its own space-time continuum. Scenes are paused, rewound, or told out of order. Years can pass in an instant, while a look or a smile can occupy an eternity.

Working in his own universe that is neither Asian nor European in origin, Wong has created something truly strange: an incomplete movie that, if completed, would be an inferior work. Perhaps, then, it is good that we do not know everything behind the making of the film or about what makes Wong Kar-Wai tick. The less we know, actor Tony Leung says in an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, the more open we are to new ideas. By this logic, the less we know about these characters, where they came from, where theyíre going, the better we can immerse ourselves in the now. And though their world is gone forever, it persists in their memory, and now ours, extending into the past and into the future.

In the Mood for Love is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer. The two-disc set includes several extras: an interactive essay about the music of In the Mood for Love; alternate ending and deleted scenes, featuring director's commentary; biography/filmography of director Wong Kar-wai; interview with Wong Kar-wai; trailers; a photo gallery; and more. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.

Photo credits: © 2001 USA Films. All rights reserved.