Not long ago, I suggested that neophyte filmgoers make finding quality movies easy on themselves by applying two selection filters: go old, go foreign. All well and good for starters, but what about the cinematically rich decade in which we, at least for a few more months, live? They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?'s dynamic list of the 21st century's most critically acclaimed films is the most goodness-rich resource of that type that I've found. Here's the sampling of the top 50 that sold me on it:
2. David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.
5. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation
9. Alexander Payne's Sideways
14. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
16. Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love
18. Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums
24. Stephen Frears' The Queen
26. Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
33. Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale
47. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man
50. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century
At the topmost spot resides Kar-wai Wong's In the Mood for Love, which I had long been ashamed to never have seen. Even after Adam Cadre's writeup of the film, which begins with the words "Recommended for Colin Marshall," I somehow took my sweet time to watch it.1 I was not disappointed. Though it's not quite a contender for the coveted position of my favorite film of the decade — Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe are the current front runners there — the movie certainly deserves its accolades.
It scores its first points by avoiding the fatal, common mistake of biting off more than a film can chew (especially in a brief 98-minute runtime). A certain Mr. Chow and Mrs. So, close neighbors, find themselves attracted to one another after coming to suspect that their spouses are cheating on them — with each other. While in our enlightened era of 2009 these four could simply form a line marriage and move into an armored transhumanist compound in New Hampshire, things weren't so easy in 1962 Hong Kong. This is a time and place, mind you, where nosy middle-aged women wielded infinitely more gossip power than they do here and now. Hence Chow and So's mortal fear of ruination by whispers if they were ever to be startin' somethin'. Nevertheless, they do a lot of chaste hanging out under the guise of So helping Chow write a martial-arts serial when their spouses, under separate flimsy excuses, head off on some rapturous illicit retreat.
There are many interpretations of why, exactly, the two protagonists never consummate their own thing. One could take them at their word and believe that they're simply too virtuous to sink to the shadow couple's level, but that doesn't quite fit with a work that is on no other level a dumb morality play. One could believe that each assumes the other is sincere about their own wish to stay proper, without actually desiring it themselves. One could also, with some creative viewing, come to the conclusion that they do fall into it. Wong achieves this wealth of possibilities by showing only what he needs to — we never see So's husband or Chow's wife, for instance, except in glimpses — never lecuring, never overplaying his hand.
By way of support for the bold "recommended for Colin Marshall" thesis, Adam references another, more visually oriented post about the film, praising "the sumptuousness of the camerawork, where the threads of Tony Leung’s hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak all exude a hyperdetailed texture that you just want to sink your eyes into." That's about right. Because this thing was shot by Christopher Doyle, it has no choice but to look fantastic; it may well be the best use of color I've ever seen. And indeed, texture is very much a part of its aesthetic appeal: shots of cigarette smoke and wallpaper are as contributory to the whole as those of the characters themselves.
Complaints about the picture, of which there aren't very many, tend to focus on the very same: too much cigarette smoke, too much wallpaper, where's the explanations, let's get to the sex, etc. This usually slides into accusations of slowness, though if I had to find a problem with the film myself, it's that it flicks by a bit too quickly. Cuts came with about twice the frequency I expected, but I suppose that's all part of what gets called Wong's "kinetic" filmmaking style. Sometimes his physical and editorial trickery works, and sometimes it doesn't — Chunking Express and My Blueberry Nights suffered from an iffy batting average in that respect — but in In the Mood for Love it's mostly to the good. While the movie contains a few too many moments of the chintzy post-production slow-motion of which Wong is inexplicably fond, it also has at least a dozen moves that forced me to pause, rewind and rewatch. Sometimes over and over again. I'm thinking of the pan from behing onto Chow's profile when he suddenly realizes So knows what he's hinting at, or the pull out from a frame-filling white lamp, or the cut from a downpoured-on city block to the later, drier version of itself.
Perhaps the best I can say about the movie is this: before I started watching, I heated up a Trader Joe's pizza. Taking the pizza out of the oven, I thought I'd just get through the first few scenes while it cooled. I then forgot all about the pizza.
1 He also calls it "a must-see for those interested in looking at a striking array of sleeveless 1960s dresses." Though he would've had no way of knowing, I also find that to be a draw. Returning to the realm of hoodies, studded belts and flip-flops after the credits rolled was not a happy experience, let me assure you.