Has a movie ever smoldered more ravishingly with the promise of sex than “In the Mood for Love?” Not in recent memory. And the fact that Wong Kar-wai, the film’s spectacularly gifted writer and director, doesn’t deliver any hard-core action only heightens the steamy atmosphere. Nothing’s hotter than repression — especially in this movie, which makes foreplay look like a lost art.
The place is Hong Kong, the time is 1962, and Chow (Tony Leung) and Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) are drop-dead gorgeous. He is a journalist with a selection of suits and ties that Richard Gere would have killed for in his “American Gigolo” days. She’s a secretary, a leggy beauty in spike heels who favors floral-patterned silk dresses that hug her form like a jealous lover. By coincidence, Chow and Li-zhen have both moved into the same apartment building, run by nosy Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan). It’s hard to make a move without Mrs. Suen and her Shanghainese friends taking notice. Of course, there’s a hitch. Chow and Li-zhen are married — to other people. And another hitch: Chow’s wife and Li-zhen’s husband are having an affair.
In the hands of a hack, “In the Mood for Love” could have been a snickering sex farce. In the hands of Wong Kar-wai, whose previous films — “As Tears Go By, Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels” and “Happy Together” — have put him on the cutting edge of global cinema, the film is alive with delicacy and feeling. Leung, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and Cheung, who took home a Taiwanese Oscar, give performances of shimmering glamour and grace. Chow and Li-zhen, both reserved in manner, are so wounded by the betrayal of their spouses — never shown onscreen — that a revenge fuck is out. At first, they comfort each other. Then, in a scene of startling emotion, they rehearse what they will say to her husband and his wife and nearly break down in the process. Chow and Li-zhen may be bruised romantics, but they are romantics nonetheless. Slowly, seductively, Wong Kar-wai — he is a master of hip romancinema — lets the nearness of these two people in a crowded city work its potent spell.
The smallest details are eroticized. The whisper of silk, the click of high heels, the splash of raindrops on a cheek — all have a hypnotic allure. As Chow and Li-zhen steal glances at each other, the camera mimics their furtive yearning. The melting voice of Nat “King” Cole singing in Spanish is heard on the soundtrack. The lyrics he sings, “Quizas, quizas, quizas,” are redolent with possibility. Perhaps these battered lovers can find fulfillment.ong Kar-wai is not an artist who walks the expected path. And you may find the ending — shot at a temple in Cambodia — ambiguous and troubling. No matter. The film’s sublime, closer-than-a-kiss intimacy will sweep you away. In a movie justly prized for the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bing, and the production design, costumes and editing of triple threat William Chang Suk-ping, it’s still the tender longing written on the faces of Leung and Cheung that cuts deepest. Asian films, notably Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi,” are putting Hollywood to shame right now. “In the Mood for Love,” Hong Kong’s entry in the Oscar sweeps as Best Foreign-Language Film, adds artful luster to that renaissance. It’s a beauty.