Smoke and Mirrors

In the Mood for Love, the new film from Hong Kong writer-director Wong Kar-wai, is like a fashion show of images; the camera placements and color coordinations come to us right off the runway. Wong is best known in this country for Chungking Express, which turned contemporary Hong Kong into an oscillation of glittery shards, and his new film is stylistically at just about the opposite extreme – it’s as languorous as the earlier film was frenetic. But beneath it all, Wong is still essentially the same artist who places a higher premium on showoffy technique than on content. His movies have a high decadence quotient; we always feel as if we’re marinating in a gorgeous insubstantiality.

In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong, but almost all of it is shot indoors, in apartments and noodle shops and office buildings. It’s possible to discern a faint outline of social observation in the way the film’s characters separate out into indigenous Cantonese Chinese and immigrants from the mainland, but such subtleties will be lost on most Westerners. Wong really isn’t interested in sociology anyway. His Hong Kong is basically a mood-memory realm drawing on old-fashioned Hollywood romance. Wong is a bit like Fassbinder in the way he burnishes and fetishizes kitsch. He’s unlike Fassbinder in that his films don’t pull you into a great big Teutonic funk; there’s nothing punishing in his approach. But trying to gorge on the visuals of In the Mood for Love is a bit like trying to make a banquet of cotton candy. That Wong frames his confection in an art-gallery window doesn’t make it any less candied.

Tony Leung’s Mr. Chow is a journalist who has moved with his wife into a rented room in an apartment occupied by Shanghai immigrants; his new next-door neighbors are Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and her businessman husband. Both Chow and Chan are often left by themselves; their respective spouses, working late or away on business, are virtually absent from the film. The revelation that they are having an affair draws Chow and Chan together in a casual, platonic way at first – they rehearse with each other what they will say when they confront their mates – but it is only with the passage of time, and many changes of costume from Maggie Cheung, that the relationship deepens. If that’s the right word. Nothing really deepens in this film; instead, what we get is a more resonant shallowness. Hands touch and are pulled back; eyes lock and lower; partial smiles are exchanged. It’s all so coy that you half expect Wong to go all the way into parody. But what he really wants is to fashion a love poem from parody; he wants us to see the lyricism in all this straight-faced mooniness. What’s touching isn’t so much the plight of these repressed lovebirds but rather Wong’s desire to summon something rapturous from it. (The soundtrack contains generous selections of Nat King Cole singing in Spanish.) Wong is a romantic in a very timeworn tradition, but the change of venue from Hollywood to Hong Kong gives his film, at least for some, the illusion of strangeness.

Wong uses his actors in the same decorative way that he uses everything else. Despite the fact that he won the Best Actor award in Cannes last year, Tony Leung seems to be not so much performing as posing. He broods blankly and cocoons himself in curlicue rings of cigarette smoke while Maggie Cheung, pretty as a mannequin, is bathed in amber light and deep shadow. Dietrich and Von Sternberg, to name the highest exponents of Hollywood art kitsch, could get away with this sort of thing because they understood how deep-down sexy all that fancy preening could be. Dietrich was both a hoot and a turn-on – the mockery of our wooziest romantic fantasies, and also their perfect embodiment. To really succeed with his new film, Wong would need stars who radiated that kind of impossible allure. Perhaps he realizes he doesn’t have them, which explains why he’s always playing peekaboo with them, camouflaging their dullness. They need his help. On the other hand, Wong is the sort of director whose camera gives equal weight to objects and to people: An office clock has the same emotional temperature, the same poignancy, as a close-up of Mr. Chow or Mrs. Chan. For Wong, people are living décor.

He generally works without a detailed script and keeps his actors in the dark about what he’s up to, and yet the dialogue for his new film is replete with romantic sentiments and clichés that we are probably meant to regard not as howlers but as classics: Mrs. Chan tells her adorer, “I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me”; he tells her that he’s leaving her because she won’t leave her husband, and so on. American art-house audiences who dismiss this cornball stuff when it’s homegrown don’t seem to have a problem buying it as exotica. Maybe these audiences aren’t so quick to reject the corn after all. They still want it, but they also want the respectability of believing it’s all intended to be hip, postmodern. Seeing our pop-pulp dreams recast in another culture can be fun; sometimes, as in the case of films like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player, it can be much more than that – it can give us an entirely new reading of our own movie-mad mythology. In the Mood for Love has novelty value, I suppose, and plenty of pretty camera moves, but it’s not really a movie you can warm to. Those Hollywood weepies may have been sopping with sentimentality, but at least the sobs were delivered on schedule; the men who made those movies knew what their audiences expected. Wong Kar-wai tricks up the schmaltz with a lot of avant-garde filigree. He’s that most suspect of hybrids: a pop-schlock aesthete.

In brief: Wim Wenders’s The Million Dollar Hotel began as the brainchild of U2’s Bono, who retains a writer-producer co-credit. Some brainchildren are better off orphaned. A sort of L.A.-flophouse One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the film brings out an anomic streak in Wenders that normally is a mile wide and here is more like three. A lot of gifted, eccentric actors turn up, including Amanda Plummer, Bud Cort, Peter Stormare, Tim Roth, and Jeremy Davies, but it is Mel Gibson, playing an FBI agent investigating a mysterious death, who steals whatever show there is to steal. Fitted with a high-tech back brace, he ramrods his way through the bugged-out hysterics as if he were appearing in a movie that actually made sense. What a brave heart.

In the Mood for Love
Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.
The Million Dollar Hotel
Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Mel Gibson, Amanda Plummer, Bud Cort, Peter Stormare, Tim Roth, and Jeremy Davies.

Smoke and Mirrors