“You notice things if you pay attention.”
Born in Shanghai in 1958 and raised in Hong Kong after 1962, director Wong Kar-Wai has been active in the Hong Kong film industry since the mid-1980s. His initial efforts were in script-writing, but he soon turned to directing and has had considerable success during the past decade with such titles as Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997). Two of his most often-used actors have been Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung and in 1998, he began work on a film that would feature the pair almost exclusively. Although originally planned for three months, shooting took well over one year as the story was developed (Kar-Wai apparently favours an improvisational approach to filming) and the actors gradually immersed themselves in their roles. The completed film was In the Mood for Love, released in 2000 to considerable international acclaim.
In the Mood for Love has now been released in Canada on DVD by Seville Pictures in a very nice edition.
Li-zhen has just rented a room in an apartment building in Hong Kong. She and her husband move in the same day that Chow and his wife move into their room in the apartment next door. Li-zhen’s husband is a representative for a Japanese company and is often away on business. Chow is an editor at a local newspaper and his wife too is frequently away. Li-zhen and Chow often find themselves thrown into each other’s company either at home as their landlords are good friends who often socialize with each other, or because they both frequent a near-by noodle stand. The two become good friends, but eventually they are forced to realize that their spouses are having an affair.
In many films, the pleasure is in the unexpected. Here we have an exquisite love story in which the principals say little and barely touch, yet the attraction between them is so powerful that we are completely captivated by their relationship. Equally compelling is seeing how the conventions of 1962 Hong Kong society control their ultimate destiny as a couple.
One of the key characteristics of the film is its claustrophobic nature. Anyone unfamiliar with Hong Kong is probably at least aware of its reputation for being a city where space is at a premium. Wong Kar-Wai accentuates this characteristic in virtually every scene in the film. Couples live in small single rooms; furniture is moved with difficulty up narrow staircases and through narrow hallways; narrow alleys force people to push past each other; and workers share small, crowded offices. Li-Zhen and Chow are already living in rooms in adjoining apartments before they even know each other, and every action they later take seems to cause them to run into each other. As their personal lives break down, the forced togetherness caused by the physical surroundings gradually builds a sexual tension even before they realize themselves what’s going on between them. The film then becomes a struggle between the desire to release that sexual tension and the reticence of both characters to break with the confining social conventions of the time that demand faithfulness regardless of the actions of their respective spouses.
So much of what Li-Zhen and Chow think and feel is internalized, that it places immense demands on the skill of the two principal actors to convey the nature of their characters’ relationship. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung both deliver wonderful performances that are completely believable and true-to-life. They make the audience feel for the heartbreak suffered by their characters, yet also clearly convey the ambivalent feelings that both have (but particularly Li-Zhen) about their own relationship.
The overall atmosphere created by the film is an important part of its allure. Careful attention has been paid to costume selection (particularly Li-Zhen’s array of beautiful tight dresses known as cheongsams), food presentation, and musical accompaniment. The latter features a haunting theme plus several songs sung in Spanish by Nat King Cole, all of which punctuate the narrative repeatedly at key points of the story. Cinematography is mainly in the hands of Christopher Doyle (with whom Wong Kar-Wai normally works) and the result is a rich but confined-looking tableau of sights and sounds framed through windows, doorways, mirrors, and narrow hallways, staircases, and alleys.
Seville Pictures’ DVD release does full justice to the film. Director Kar-Wai’s original framing was the international 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Seville has chosen to frame its image transfer at 1.78:1, close to the North American theatrical release ratio of 1.85:1. The image delivers a crisp, clear picture marred only by an occasional speckle. Colour fidelity is excellent, blacks are deep and glossy, and whites are clean. Shadow detail is generally very good except for a few darker scenes that appear a little murky. Edge enhancement is not an issue.
The film’s sound is delivered by a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround mix that appears to do a fine job of conveying the mainly dialogue-driven film. The sound track is in Cantonese (with optional English or French subtitles available), but since I don’t speak that language, it’s difficult for me to judge how clearly the dialogue is delivered. Use of the surrounds is restricted to the music which sounds rich and enveloping. It’s a pleasure to hear the film’s theme music and Nat King Cole’s efforts so well presented. Overall, a very acceptable effort.
The disc concludes with a nicely rounded array of supplements. Principal among them is a 20-minute featurette made by the director that provides interesting insight into the production process and the approaches of the director and actors to the material. On-screen comments by Wong Kar-Wai, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung are included. There is a photo gallery of images from the film set to music and some text material entitled “The World of In the Mood for Love” that provides background on the costumes, hair styles and food depicted in the film. Biographic and filmographic information is provided for the director and both leading actors. Included also is a listing of international awards and the film’s theatrical trailer plus trailers for three other films available from Seville (The Chinese Box, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Three Seasons).
In the Mood for Love was one of the best films of 2000 and many people have been eagerly awaiting its appearance on DVD. Seville Pictures has now provided a worthy DVD release in Canada that is highly recommended. The disc can be obtained on-line through at least one dealer (Videoflicks.com). For those who may not have heard, Criterion has also announced a forthcoming DVD release of this film and will doubtless do a fine job with it. Given the excellence and favourable price of the Seville release, however, there’s no real reason to wait for the Criterion version. It’s hard to see how they could improve much on Seville’s image transfer, at least.