The Waiting is the Hardest Part

One of the hallmarks of film made in the days when sex was still taboo to show onscreen was the art of delay. This was the idea that sexual tension would be increased by slow accretion of innuendo, unfulfilled desire, longing stares, and pregnant pauses. By setting his latest film, In the Mood for Love, in the early ‘60s, writer/director Wong Kar-Wai has given himself permission to indulge in a storytelling tactic that could be seen, for better or worse, as unbelievable if set in a modern context.

The story revolves around two neighbors, both married, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. These characters are played by two of the busiest Chinese film stars, hunky Tony Leung and bewitching Maggie Cheung, both of whom have previously worked with director Wong on Days of Being Wild (a prequel of sorts to this film) and the martial-arts epic Ashes of Time. Leung also starred in Wong’s Chungking Express and Happy Together, and radiates cool and poise like (for those of you still unaware of the genius of Asian cinema and who need an American comparison) a young Robert Mitchum. And in the same vein, Maggie Cheung’s slender grace and long neck immediately remind me of Audrey Hepburn’s features.

Although both of them are very reserved, their friendship evolves because their spouses are both away; Mrs. Chan’s husband is in Japan on business, while Mr. Chow’s wife spends late nights as a hotel desk clerk. When they discover the shocking fact that their spouses are having an affair, it gives them even better reason to spend time with one another as an antidote to their loneliness. They discreetly begin to meet, but soon, others begin to notice. The film’s main question becomes: Will they have an affair — or won’t they?

Wong isn’t going to give us a quick or easy answer, because he uses delay as a conscious method to continually raise the interpersonal tension between Chan and Chow. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (a duty he shares with Mark Lee Ping Bin), Wong’s longtime collaborator, reinforces this tension with his use of tight angles and languorous movements that seem to box the two into a womb-like world of their own, insulated from all that occurs around them. To further collapse their world upon itself, the faces of the adulterous spouses are never seen, making them non-entities (Robert Bresson uses a similar technique to de-personify the Nazi prison guards in A Man Escaped).

Doyle is one of the true talents working in cinema today, and as so much of the story involves unspoken feelings between two characters, his contribution is all the more crucial toward making this film into an subtle and delicate waltz of elaborate and rule-bound foreplay. Yet it is foreplay that may or may not be occurring, flirtation that is more a state of mind than a physical reality.

Wong has long been a master of subtraction, as he pares his films down to a bare minimum in order to allow much of his character chemistry to occur on a level of suggestion so deep that it is nearly subconscious. He is not afraid to wait, to take what Western filmmakers would consider to be an inordinate amount of time to develop a fragile interplay of moments, each as light as single breaths, that layer upon one another to form a sweet gestalt of almost paradoxically deep feeling. He leads you exactly where he wants, yet once you arrive, you are as surprised to be there as if you had just awoken after walking there in a trance.

In the Mood for Love reinforces Wong Kar-Wai’s status as a director of lasting power and sublime artistry.