Monday, June 2, 2003

“In the mood for love”

The Night of Serendipity (below) had another marvel in store.

My landlord’s temporarily receiving World Movies. To my lasting shame, I have continued to socialise my evenings away, rather than devour a month’s free foreign films.

Not so Friday, when I settled down with my fish and chips dinner, flicked on the TV and caught just an hour of “In the mood for love”- missing the absolute beginning and the conclusion.

What I saw, was staggering.

The story is surpassingly simple. A man, Mr Chan (Tony Leung), and a woman, Mrs Chow (the gorgeous Maggie Cheung), are neighbours. They live with their respective husband and wife as lodgers within adjacent flats owned by larger families. His wife works late, and her husband very often travels. The male and female leads both work unnecessarily long hours to avoid their lonely marriages. She is a secretary for a kindly, but unfaithful boss, and routinely has to make dinner arrangements for him and his girlfriend, while lying to his wife.

Our protagonists slowly admit their partners are both involved in an affair. They are drawn to each other in loneliness, desire and friendship. This half-way relationship provokes him to take his own room and abandon his day-job for writing serials.

So much for the plot. What held me riveted was the cinematography, pace and composition of the film. It is the nineteen fifties: women have huge, elaborate hair, long dresses in improbable patterns; every man smokes and wears a grey or blue suit, square-cut white shirts and narrow ties with a gold clasp, hair brill-cream immobile. The sashay of a woman’s hips, the curl of a cigarette smoke tendril, a handkerchief drying a face, an unmoving singlet-clad man smoking in a corridor - motion and stillness are all lovingly captured. Many of the film’s most emotionally significant moments are viewed only as reflections in mirrors, as if to look at things directly would be too painful. Indeed, we never see their adulterous partner’s faces - Mr Chow is a pair of hands and a voice, Mrs Chan the back of a woman’s head in a lobby mirror. Enigmatic uses of composition, focus and camera motion invest the ordinary with intensity.

Not everything is languid, much of the film is naturalistic, but some of the lead actors’ conversations are followed with tennis-match whip-pans conveying the underlying tension of their budding affair and how much they have at stake. The film also dabbles with multiple possibilities: a few scenes seemingly presented twice, equally valid alternatives to the way a conversation may have played out, or an evening been brought to a close.

I am going to have to see this again, in DVD wide-screen if I can find it. Something this visually intense when cropped for a TV box could only be improved restored to its proper proportions.

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