PRINT February 2001


Dennis Cooper on Wong Kar-wai

WONG KAR-WAI MAKES RAUCOUS, loose-jointed, love poem–like films with oddly decisive titles—Fallen Angels, Happy Together, even the super-propulsive (if inconclusive) Chungking Express. In the Mood for Love, the less tidy, more evocative moniker of Wong’s latest film (which opens February 2), is the first sign that the director is up to something different. Rather than transmute the rush and joggled logic of the protagonists’ passions into bastard, improvisational story lines that go nowhere on purpose, Wong’s new film is a careful, even overly deliberate attempt to have his lovers’ emotional aches and outbursts amount to something larger than the sum of their gauzily beautiful struggles in the moment. Unfortunately, that something works against his signature nothing-is-more-than-something approach.

In the Mood for Love is a period piece, set in Hong Kong in the early to mid-’60s, and for the first third of its ninety-seven minutes, it looks and acts like one. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), and their respective spouses (who are, pointedly, heard but never seen), rent rooms in neighboring families’ apartments. All four work long hours at dissatisfying office jobs and seem barely to interact, until Chow and Mrs. Chan realize that his wife and her husband are having an affair. Commiseration turns into a mutual, though unconsummated, infatuation, and its repercussions come to dominate the film. Eventually, Chow moves to Singapore and the two lose touch, but they remain discreetly haunted by one another.

Wong and longtime cinematographer-soulmate Christopher Doyle begin the film demurely, creating an atmosphere out of which Chow and Mrs. Chan’s love can semi-emerge without razzmatazz. This hypnotic if conventional preliminary section of the film is strangely its most exciting, pressurized by the filmmakers’ uncharacteristic restraint. But as love grows, familiar Wong flourishes—“gratingly” repeated pop-song snippets, scenes restarted from scratch, unpredictable slo-mo and freeze-frame effects—appear with increasing frequency. While they remain ravishing devices that must (or at least should) make artists like Doug Aitken and Douglas Gordon lose sleep, here they never quite manage to import their usual quality of beyondness. By the end of the film, the stylization has reached such a pitch that it reduces the narrative to a series of dislocated dream sequence–ettes geared, it would seem, to disorient viewers into thinking the lovers’ failure to make their love real has something to do with the miasmal unreality of middle-class life in Hong Kong in the years leading up to China’s Cultural Revolution, whose onset is hastily introduced as the film’s meaningful subtext in its waning minutes.

One of the most thrilling contemporary directors, Wong Kar-wai more than deserves a following outside the art and art-film worlds. And it’s possible that the determinedly half-conventional In the Mood for Love will pull new fans from the pool of less adventuresome moviegoers. But otherwise—Oscar-friendly performances and the drowsily exquisite production design notwithstanding—Wong’s detour down a well-beaten path makes for a strangely listless, distracted, traditional film, his least successful experiment to date.

Dennis Cooper is a contributing editor of Artforum.