I jotted down this formula while watching In the Mood for Love the other day, the first time I'd seen it since its theatrical release in New York 8 years ago. The formula, which I conceived (mind you, physics was my least favorite subject in school) translates as "love = desire multiplied by the sum of time and space". It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now, looking at it, it seems ridiculous. Which, I'm sad to say, is kind of like the experience I had with re-watching In the Mood for Love. I'm still trying to make sense of it.
I didn't have terribly strong expectations for revisiting the film. It wasn't on my top ten for 2000, but I felt I owed it another look it due to its exceptional reputation and ranking - it is, after all, the top ranked film on the TSPDT poll of the best films of the 21st century. But starting into it, I could feel myself being gradually pulled in by the irresistible current of impeccable images flowing through time. Current feels like the right metaphor for the way that the film moves, initially in a tumultuous swirl: the opening sequence where the two potential lovers move into neighboring apartments, their furniture clashing and commingling with each other. The way that people move through narrow hallways and other tight spaces, lingering or hesitating at doorways: this push-pull between being physically close yet hanging on to personal spaces. The famous slo-mo sequences set to tango emphasize the dance-like movements induced by this social setting, while also fetishizing them as objets d'art. The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.
And that's where it started to pull the floor from under me: the wall to wall gorgeousness of this movie, where every frame feels like it could be part of a gallery photo exhibit - Wong is consumed with coming up with new ways of framing and looking at things. One needs only look at thirteen different shots of Maggie Cheung taken over the course of the film to appreciate the visual variety and splendor on display:
and one of Tony Leung for good measure (anyone else think that he's an Asian dead ringer for Obama?)
Around the 25 minute mark (the third slo-mo tango interlude) is where the film's pervading sense of loneliness and longing sets in for me. It's such a seductive, melancholy feeling to be sucked into if you're receptive to it, and I was. The anticipation of these two people on the cusp of engendering attraction is, a seductive enough premise, but Wong amplifies the effect by treating his mise-en-scene as an endless landscape to explore, where their looks, their feelings, get framed and reframed, like an anxious lover replaying every moment, squeezing out and soaking in every detail. In this light even the multiple outtakes, the alternate endings, can all be integrated into the totality of this film as a fitting representation of obsessive, unconsummated love: its constant revisitations, revisionings and what-ifs...
That plus 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.
And that's how it was a for a good hour of my rewatching, until I had to interrupt it to keep an appointment. But the feeling engendered by the film stayed for me the rest of the evening and into the night.
The following day I picked up where I left off with the film. And I was surprised to find the whole thing somewhat empty, even banal, in terms of what this was all for or about. Back in the day I had a couple of heated arguments about way the last 25 minutes of the film play out - some of my friends just couldn't handle the abrupt, seemingly pointless Angkor Wat sequence, especially the use of piss-poor archival video footage which disrupts the visual splendor that precedes it. My argument back then - which I still believe - was that this disruption is the point; it's an unspooling of the spell that the film has cast on its audience, mirroring the spell of love that the circumstances of life are in the ruthless process of dissipating. So on a formal level, the film is brilliant from start to finish.
But my problem with the last third of the film, which casts back on the film overall, can be summed up by Rick Blaine in Casablanca: "The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Something about re-entering the film 2/3 of the way through gave me a new, sober(?) context, an awareness of how much fetishizing Wong was lavishing on this narrative. It hints at a terminal state of self-absorption, an emotional wound that not only never heals, but that the film never wants to heal. There's something in me that finds this disturbing. And despite all I've said about the film as this seemingly endless visual and emotional landscape to explore and soak in, there's something about it that feels small and enclosed, in terms of its scope of the world, and of life.
In the end, I think we're left with a paradox of a movie, one that conveys and achieves so much intensity of cinema and emotion within an experience of love that's ephemeral, even extravagant, and leaves us wondering what it really was about. I suppose that the degree to which one finds this meaningful depends on one's convictions of cinema as an end in itself - or one's own valuation of fleeting love.