Editor’s Note: In this new feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
I remembered the music immediately; it’s been floating in my head for 20 years. At the center of Wong Kar-wai’s hypnotically beautiful film “In the Mood for Love” is an unforgettable waltz. Its tempo is slow, as if dripping with dark syrup; its melody, played by a solo stringed instrument, is all plangent longing and eloquent wandering — it wraps itself around the listener, enveloping you in sadness for something you didn’t know you’d lost. It recurs throughout the movie, a stately dance with memory.
When “In the Mood for Love” first came out, after much acclaim at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, I remember seeing it several times in theaters, dazzled; it’s the sort of movie that inspires obsession, like a mystery you’re trying to solve. But I hadn’t watched it again, in all those years. Now, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary at a time when seeing a movie on the big screen is something at least temporarily lost, it seemed right to slip back under its spell.
The plot that unfolds in “In the Mood for Love” is simple: A journalist, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), and a secretary, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), rent rooms in next-door apartments in 1962 Hong Kong. Known to their cheerfully chatty neighbors, and to us, only as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, the two are both married to others — but they learn, early in the film, that their spouses are having an affair with each other. We never see the spouses’ faces; this is a film about what isn’t there.
After a quiet, sad restaurant meal together — “I thought I was the only one who knew,” she says — the two become friends; compatriots in betrayal. Obsessed with what happened, they conjecture on how the relationship may have begun. They meet in secret, worried about what the neighbors may think, but they are not together. “We won’t be like them,” Su says.
Nonetheless, anyone who’s ever seen a romantic movie can tell what is happening: these two honest, heartbroken people are falling in love, but know that they shouldn’t. They dance around it, delicately; hiding behind the behavior of their spouses and their own determined nobility. “I sometimes wonder what I would be if I hadn’t married,” he says at one point. “Maybe happier?” she offers, tentatively. There’s no sun-dappled future for Chow and Su, just a secret whispered, and a story never told.
And that’s all there is: 98 minutes of melancholy longing. But oh, that longing. Dipping into his own memories of 1960s childhood in Hong Kong, Wong creates a lush mood in painterly colors and nostalgic radio music, both impossibly glamorous and grittily real. Cheung’s character wears a colorful array of cheongsam dresses, whose high collars and tight bodices seem to hold her in careful control; her head, with its elaborate whorl of a ‘60s bouffant, seems to droop like a flower on a slender stem. Inside the cramped apartment house, every detail feels vivid: the floral prints on the curtains and lampshades, the cracked paint on the wall, the whirring fan that can’t quite keep the humidity out, the cigarette smoke that floats around Chow like a delicate picture frame.
Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin immerse us in the movie’s yellow light and shadowy corridors, slipping into slow motion almost imperceptibly as the characters politely brush past each other in too-small spaces. (It’s as if they’re waltzing with the music — you feel, watching, that they hear it somehow.) We feel the closeness in which these people live, as the cameras let us become a curious neighbor, peering around hallway corners and catching glimpses of secret moments. In one scene, we look at a slightly steamed-up mirror and realize we are hearing — not quite seeing — Su sobbing as the shower runs. In another, the two pass each other in a tight outdoor staircase: After acknowledging each other in a quiet, neighborly way, he goes down and she goes up — and then she lets herself look at him as he walks away, just for a second and an eternity.
And that waltz keeps coming back, like a forbidden thought that you can’t banish. Though Michael Galasso is credited with the movie’s original score, this piece of music isn’t new: It was composed by Shigeru Umebayashi for the 1991 film “Yumeji,” and was known then as “Yumeji’s Theme.” As the camera lingers on the beautiful, tired faces of the characters, that velvety waltz seems to be saying what they can’t: I’m aching, I’m yearning, I’m alone. Often repeated but seeming new every time, it becomes the film’s third character.
Very little happens in “In the Mood for Love” on its surface; in its mesmerizing details, however, lie an endlessly rewatchable world. I found myself wallowing in every tiny moment: Chow’s hand, with its slim wedding band, knocking on a door; the eloquent slouch of Su’s lonely walks to the noodle stand; the way Chow’s face seems so subtly frozen when the landlady casually says, “Your wife’s so often late home”; the uncanny stillness with which Su waits for someone who isn’t coming.
A scene near the end, as the two sit in the back of a cab holding hands in the darkness, reminded me of a similar scene in Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” as Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) — another star-crossed couple who can never be — became lost in a moment together, knowing that it must end. As must “In the Mood for Love,” but how I wished it wouldn’t.
“In the Mood for Love,” directed by Wong Kar-wai, 2000, 98 minutes, rated PG for thematic elements and brief language. In Cantonese and Shanghainese, with English subtitles. Available on DVD (I recommend the gorgeous Criterion version), or streaming on Kanopy (college/university accounts only), the Criterion Channel or HBO Max.