Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Mood for Love (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/4/05 w/ Additional Edits & New Content.

When Sofia Coppola won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for her 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation, one of the people she thanked was a Hong Kong-born director named Wong Kar-Wai. Admitting to borrowing elements of his work into her own film, Coppola acknowledged the director as a profound influence. While not being known entirely in the American mainstream, Wong Kar-Wai has attained a cult following in the U.S. especially among directors like Quentin Tarantino. Internationally and in Asia, Kar-Wai has always garnered all sorts of acclaim for his moody, colorful look of Asia with storylines that were inspired by his love for European cinema, notably the French New Wave.

Born in Shanghai, China in 1958, Wong Kar-Wai provided an alternative to the already huge action and martial films that was dominating mainstream Asian cinema. Though he incorporated action into his early features like 1988's gangster film Wang jiao ka men (As Tears Go By) and 1991's psychological coming-of-age drama A Fei jing juen (Days of Being Wild). In 1994, Kar-Wai released two different features that year, the first was a stylized martial arts epic Dung Che Sai Duk (Ashes of Time) and the more personal romantic drama Chunghing Samlam (Chungking Express). The latter became Kar-Wai's first taste of real international success as Asian film fan Quentin Tarantino got the film its first American distribution to some acclaim and art house numbers.

With frequent collaborators like cinematographer Christopher Doyle and editor/production designer William Chang, Kar-Wai's films were getting large notices, especially in the regular company of actors he used from Tony Leung Chui-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, and Brigitte Lin. In 1995, Kar-Wai released Duoluo Tianshi (Fallen Angels) which broke ground in terms of the visual style Kar-Wai and Doyle wanted for the crime film. Then in 1997, Kar-Wai released his most international successful work to date with Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (Happy Together), a gay romantic drama that not was filled with lavish visuals and frame speeds but also in unconventional storylines as Kar-Wai won a Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Kar-Wai was becoming a hero in Asian cinema as he would wow audiences and critics again with another unconventional romantic film with 2000's Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love).

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Fa yeung nin wa is a romantic drama set in 1962 Hong Kong about two young couples living next door in a cramped apartment building. With a man working at a newspaper and a woman being a secretary for a company, the two often see each other whether it's picking up noodles or bumping each in seeing other tenants in the building. Then, the two begin to suspect about the frequent absences of their spouses wondering if they're having an affair. Starring Tony Leung Chui-Wai and Maggie Cheung, Fa yeung nin wa is an engrossing, harrowing romantic drama that brings mystery into love and its aftermath.

It's 1962 in Hong Kong as Mrs. Chang (Maggie Cheung) is ready to move to a cramped apartment owned by Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pang). With her husband (voice of Roy Cheung) on business, Mrs. Chang moves in while another man, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chui-Wai) is also moving with his wife, who is also on a business leave. With both moving in at the same time, Mrs. Chang and Mr. Chow would often bump into each other giving things that didn't belong to them. Mrs. Chang works as a secretary to Mr. Ho (Lai Chen) while Mr. Chow works in a newspaper publication with friend Ah Ping (Ping Lam Sau). While their spouses would return, Mrs. Chang and Mr. Chow would only see them for a brief period of time. Mrs. Chang would often talk to neighbors and go into an alley to get noodles and sometimes, would run into Mr. Chow.

During a dinner with Ping, Mr. Chow's suspicions of his wife's absences finally gets to him. With their spouses going out on business trips in separate places, the loneliness of Mrs. Chang finally gets to her. Even after returning books to Mrs. Chow (voice of Paulyn Sun) before her departure, she longs for the presence of her husband. After bumping into Mr. Chow again, they go to dinner one day and immediately, she learns of Mr. Chow's suspicions as they notice a few things that their spouses had bought. With their spouses not around, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang often go into conversation where immediately, they're being suspected into having an affair by a few neighbors.

Mr. Chow tells Mrs. Chang his interest into writing a martial arts serial for his newspaper as Mrs. Chang helps by staying in his apartment room where they hide for a while. Even as one of their neighbors, Mr. Koo (Cheun Tung Joe) got himself drunk. Mrs. Chang finally gets to her apartment after a few days. They begin to learn more about the idea that their spouses had an affair, even as they learn about what they like to eat and do. Mr. Chow decides to leave his apartment for a while to live in a hotel. Mrs. Chang would often visit his place in room 2046 where he was writing. Immediately, the loneliness of the two gets to them.

The two would rehearse about how to confront their spouses over the affair which has become too emotional for Mrs. Chang. Then when Ping calls from Singapore to ask Mr. Chow to help him work in a newspaper in Singapore, Mr. Chow is trying to figure out if he wants to go. Mrs. Chang wonders if her husband is coming back while Mr. Chow ponders his own future with his wife as he admits to falling for Mrs. Chang. He asks her if she would go to Singapore with him. One year later in Singapore, Mr. Chow continues in his investigation as things with Mrs. Chang were falling apart that leads to loss.

If there's any similarities in what Lost in Translation and Fa yeung nin wa had, it's the fact that both films are about two people being alone in disintegrating marriages. In Kar-Wai's approach, it's more of a momentum-driven film where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang both begin to suspect what's going on and try to understand on what is happening. In Kar-Wai's script (though he never really uses one), he has a very interesting structure that's more about building the story as opposed to going into a situation right away. The first act being Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang living their life at home and at work while starting to suspect things. The second act is the two confirming their suspicions and pondering their loneliness. Then, there's the third act where the story not only moves in different places but in different times from Hong Kong in 1962 to Singapore in 1963 and going back to Hong Kong in 1966 with the finale in Cambodia, 1966.

The third act of the film is really the emotional payoff. Throughout the first two acts, there's a sense of repetition in the way Mrs. Chang would bump into Mr. Chow when they go for noodles or in the corner alley near their apartment where they would talk. In the third act, the scene where they rehearse about confronting their spouses and their own feeling for each other. It's not they fall into their own affairs but it's because why they got into an affair. It's because they're driven by loneliness and their spouses just ditching them. Then after the trip to Singapore, things get really weird when the film moves into more emotional territory, notably in its finale but that's another story that is talked about in Kar-Wai's 2004 sequel-of-sorts called 2046 after the hotel room Mr. Chow stayed in.

If Kar-Wai in his approach as a storyteller is fascinating in his unconventional approach to European and Asian dramas. Then its his directing that really comes across as entrancing. There's an intimacy to many scenes as well as a subtlety in the restraint of emotions in the film. There's also some claustrophobic situations in the apartment settings as Kar-Wai moves the camera with such ease to see two people at the end of their emotional ropes. The way Kar-Wai presents the film is seductive in its setting and sadness in the characters with the way he shows a little bit of detail, including some slo-motion shots where it brings out an emotion to what the character is feeling, especially in the way Kar-Wai has Chui-Wai and Cheung together in their own situations. It's some fine, observant direction where Kar-Wai would rather give the audience their own interpretation as opposed to what he's thinking though in the end, he creates a situation for one of the characters to come into another world.

Helping Kar-Wai in capturing the intimacy and feel of the film is his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle along with another cameraman in Mark Lee Ping-bin. Ping-bin and Doyle capture a colorful, luminescent feel to the film in many of the film's interior settings, notably the hotel and restaurant scenes while on the exterior, the use of light from the streets captures an authenticity that really captures the realness of Hong Kong and Singapore later on. Even the finale in the Cambodia scene is just amazing to watch as Doyle and Ping-bin bring in some of the most inspiring and exhilarating camera work ever captured on film.

Then there's the work of Kar-Wai's jack-of-all-trades William Chang. Bringing a solid, stylized cut to the editing including a few jump-cut sequences, Chang gives the film a nice pace that at first might seem slow but it only serves to present the story's momentum as Chang surprises in the editing. With art director Man Lim-chung, Chang's production design is filled with a lot of color whether it's a bland setting in the restaurants to the hallways of the hotel with its red walls and the little things in the apartments of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang. There's so much that is to love in Chang's production design. Another brilliance in what Chang does is the costumes, notably the thin dresses that Maggie Cheung wears. There's a lovely movement to the clothes that Cheung wears that is filled with all sorts of colors and styles that doesn't present itself as something beautiful but also conveys what mood that Mrs. Chang is in. William Chang really brings a lot to the film in terms of its technical brilliance.

Then there's the film's music that really plays to the emotions of the film. With three songs sung by Nat King Cole in Spanish that plays in the background. The songs give the film a romantic, playful feel as it serves to not just the loneliness but also a feeling of love for the main characters. With other music pieces that includes an Asian rendition of Happy Birthday, there's a mournful yet hypnotic score piece from Michael Galasso that comes in the end of the film. The film's most dominant musical moment comes from composer Shigeru Umebayashi who brings in this waltz-like score piece that is later accompanied by a mournful violin. The way the music moves with the way Cheung walks to get her noodles with the dress is by far one of the film's most sexiest moments. It's just an amazing scene to watch heightened more by the music.

Finally, there's the film's cast that includes several amazing small performance like Rebecca Pan as Mrs. Suen, Lai Chen as Cheung's sensitively flawed boss, Ping Lam Sau as Chow’s funny associate, and a cameo from Cheun Tung Joe as a neighbor. The two actors who play the cheating spouses never show their faces but their presence is amazing since it provides the jolt that the story is needed for its two central characters. The leading performances of Tony Leung Chui-Wai and Maggie Cheung is really the film's emotional centerpiece as the two use their faces and body language to convey a lot of the emotion in their film, even when they're not speaking. From the detail of clothing to the places their in. Chui-Wai and Cheung have great chemistry in every scene they're in. Especially in the emotional moments with Chui-Wai being more determined in his suspicions while Cheung conveys more of the film's heartbreak and alienation. It's those two actors who shine together while individually, both provide honesty and electricity to the film and its story.

***Additional DVD Content Posted on 1/18/11***

The 2002 Region 1 2-disc Special Edition Criterion Collection DVD for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is presented with a new digital transfer that is enhanced for 16x9 televisions from its original 1:66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Along with a 5.0 Dolby Digital Soundtrack. The film is presented in such an evocative fashion that the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-Bin is stunning.

The special features in the first disc includes four deleted scenes that features 25 minutes worth of footage along with a commentary track by Wong Kar-Wai. The first deleted scene revolves around the room 2046 where Chow and Su try to engage into an affair as they wonder why their spouses were able to do it while they’re reluctant. Chow checks into the room 2046 to figure things out as Su visits as they both ponder about their own feelings and behaviors. The second scene revolves around Chow’s work in Singapore where he sends a postcard to Su along with a song dedicated to her on the radio. The scene also has Su working with her boss as he receives a ticket to Singapore for Su as she later has dinner with Ah Ping about Chow.

The third deleted scene is set in the 1970s where Su is trying to sell her apartment as a woman named Lulu arrives to check it out. Revealing to be married to Chow, she asks Su about the place. Su decides not to sell it as Lulu later meets Chow who learns that it’s the old apartment he lived in. An argument with Lulu and Chow ensues as he and Su later meet at the noodle place as they’re both surprised by their appearances. The fourth scene is an extended scene that relates to the film’s ending in Cambodia where Su and Chow meet one last time as they talk about the past. The scene also reveals what did Chow put into the hole of a temple wall as well as extended images of the temple itself.

In Kar-Wai’s commentary tracks (all subtitled) for the first three scenes, he reveals why they’re cut from the final film. The first scene about room 2046 has Kar-Wai discussing where the room was shot which was in a British hospital that was to be torn down following the 1997 handout from Britain to China. He also revealed that he had a moment that was similar to Fellini’s 8 ½ where he was meeting William Chang about some costumes he was making. Kar-Wai felt it should’ve been used in the scene but didn’t while he had originally intended the scene to be used early in the film but make it into the final cut because he felt it didn’t fit with the tone of the film.

For the second deleted scene, Kar-Wai talks about Chow’s brief scene as it relates to the short story Intersection by Liu Yi-chang. Notably the scene of Chow eating a fruit about how a Chinese man would eat this fruit in Singapore and never return to China. In the third deleted scene, Kar-Wai revealed that it’s set in 1972 where the clothes and looks of the characters has changed while his approach for the film’s ending remains true.

In the section for the film’s soundtrack, the feature includes an overview of the material used in the music told by Joanna Lee through interactive essays. Lee discusses the importance of music in the film and why Kar-Wai chooses these tracks. Notably Yumeji’s Theme by Shigeru Umegayashi that had a waltz-like melody that plays as the love theme between Su and Chow. The traditional music used in the film were used to play up to the film’s melancholia while Lee also gives some historical insights to the traditional pieces as well as the Asian pop music of the 1930s and so on. Including a song by Rebecca Pan whom Kar-Wai adored as a child.

For some of the Latin influences, notably the songs in Spanish sung by Nat King Cole to convey the feeling of nostalgia and love. With Michael Galasso’s music, notably in the final scene, Kar-Wai wanted something that was to complement Umegayashi’s piece in the same way to emphasize the film’s melancholia. The essays also features video clips of where those musical pieces are used.

In Michael Galasso’s statement, he talks about his first meeting with Wong Kar-Wai in 1995 at film festival after he learned that Kar-Wai used one of his pieces in Chungking Express. They met again at the 1997 New York Film Festival for the premiere of Happy Together where they talked about working together. He talked about being sent a bunch of traditional Chinese operas and classical pieces to create a score for the film which he spent a few months in 2000 to create the final theme in the film through various incarnations. Wong Kar-Wai’s statement about the film and music as he talked about an idea for a project called Summer in Beijing that would later become In the Mood for Love as some of the music was influenced by John Coltrane and traditional Chinese pieces.

The two-and-a-half minute short film Hua Yang De Nian Hua is a short by Kar-Wai that features old nitrate footage of films from the past as it serves as a tribute to the Chinese films of the past. Featuring a statement from Kar-Wai, it also includes press notes about the short where he found the numerous nitrate films at a warehouse in Southern California. The short is essentially images of women in all of these old films from China and Hong Kong as it plays in a dream-like fashion to the song that the film is named after by Zhou Xuan that also appeared in In the Mood for Love.

The second disc of the DVD includes more special features that relates to the film’s production and the promotion that went on about the film. Headlining the second disc is a 51-minute making-of documentary on In the Mood for Love entitled @ In the Mood for Love. The documentary features interviews with Wong Kar-Wai, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Rebecca Pan, and Siu Ping-lam as they talk about Kar-Wai’s process and how he tries to find the film when he’s making it. Even as the film started out with more looser, comical scenes that featured deleted scenes that weren’t in the final cut. Among them is Chow and Su dancing to some surf music or them trying to cook in room 2046.

Other material shown in the film is Su and Chow singing as both Cheung and Leung explain their characters and their motivations. Cheung revealed that making the film for her was hard at first because she hadn’t worked with Kar-Wai in a while and didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Even as Leung reveals that it’s pointless to try and talk to Kar-Wai about what the film is about as Kar-Wai is trying to find the story when he’s shooting which is a reason why it took so long to make. Rebecca Pan talks about the period where Kar-Wai was shooting and how women behaved then while Siu Ping-lam was just a prop master before being asked to play Ah Ping. The documentary ends with a look into the worldwide promotional trip Kar-Wai, Leung, and Cheung took as the film became a worldwide hit.

The interviews with Wong Kar-Wai features the director being interviewed at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for two different interviews. The first is a 22-minute interview with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret has Kar-Wai talking about the film and why it took so long to make it. One of the reasons is Kar-Wai working very slow to make his film and the other was the Asian economic crisis at the time which created a lot of problems in the production. Kar-Wai also talks about his desire to re-create the feeling of 1960s Hong Kong in terms of behaviors, the look, and the way food was cooked at the time. He also talks about the actors, Christopher Doyle, and the film’s soundtrack in relation to the period of the film.

The 16-minute Cinema Lesson interview at Cannes with Gilles Ciment where Kar-Wai talks about the filmmaking process. On screenwriting, he reveals that he never works with a script though he would write down ideas that would become one or two films. That was the case with Chungking Express where a third portion of that film eventually became Fallen Angels. Ciment also asks about Kar-Wai’s upcoming project 2046 where some of the material was made during the production of In the Mood for Love as Kar-Wai talked about overlapping productions that he did with Ashes of Time and Chungking Express. Kar-Wai also talks about the unused footage of the film which was Kar-Wai’s attempt to find the story when making the film. Even as he strays away from the conventions of how Hollywood tries to make their films while keeping costs low.

The 43-minute Toronto International Film Festival with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung. Led by moderator Robert Gray, Leung and Cheung discuss the production of the film as well as Kar-Wai’s process in making the film. Particularly since some of the idea of the film was inspired by a short story called Intersection by Liu Yi-chang. They also talk about the production and why it took so long along with William Chang’s art direction and costume design and the dresses that Maggie Cheung wear. Cheung and Leung also talks about working with Kar-Wai and why he’s so different from other directors in terms of working without a script and such. Even as they create scenes that don’t make it to the final film as they’re a bit disappointed over what’s cut though it’s all part of a bigger picture.

Leung and Cheung also talk about working with each other which they’ve done for years as it was easy for them to work with each other for this particular film. Even as they talk about each other in a humorous way. They also talk about the long shoot where just after finishing the last scenes just before Cannes, Cheung revealed that she was drained from finishing the film since she believed she was still in character. The overall interview is fun and lively as Leung and Cheung looked relaxed despite its duration.

Gina Marchetti’s essay about the film’s period setting reveals a lot of what was it like during those times as it also includes a photo gallery of stills from the film and what Hong Kong looked like in the 1960s. The objects, such as the metal contain Su carries to the noodle shop, plays an important role to what women did at the time in Hong Kong. Marchetti also dwells on the history of Hong Kong as it dwells on the period in the 1960s which was a period where things were definitely changing rapidly until 1967 when the revolutions in mainland China were emerging.

Marchetti also talked about people originated from Shanghai that emigrated to Hong Kong as they became known as Shanghainese. Their history is complex in the way they helped Hong Kong’s economy in such a big way. Even in the apartments of the time as it housed Shanghainese where despite their workaholic personas were able to find time to interact socially. Marchetti’s essays are a wonderful read to see what influenced the film as well as the period Kar-Wai is capturing. Notably a brief video clip of how the cheong sam dresses are made with careful measurements.

The promotional material section includes an 18-minute behind-the-scenes promotional special. Among the material presented were unused art and concepts that were supposed to use to promote the film internationally as it also includes a gallery of posters that were used for the film once it was released. There’s also two Hong Kong TV spots plus a U.S. trailer and TV spot along with a French trailer and TV spot. The Hong Kong ads used Bryan Ferry’s cover of I’m In the Mood for Love which inspired the film’s title as it also featured some deleted footage. The U.S. ads also use Ferry’s song while trying to promote it as a conventional, romantic film of sorts. The French ads go for the film’s more melancholic tone while using Yumeji’s Theme as its musical background.

The 18-minute behind-the-scenes special is a conventional special of sorts as it features interviews with Wong Kar-Wai, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Maggie Cheung as they talk about the film. Leung discuss his own persona and how different he is to his own character while Kar-Wai revealed he got the English name of the film after hearing Bryan Ferry’s cover of I’m in the Mood for Love. Cheung believes her character is an unhappy woman trying to be a good wife with small ambitions as they all discuss Kar-Wai’s idea on storytelling and his filmmaking process.

The photo gallery section includes stills of the film in three different sections. Other sections a bio on cast and crew members in the film. The last big section is an essay on Wong Kar-Wai. The essay is an overview of his career with photos of the director and his films along with posters for the films (including the aborted Summer in Beijing) and trailers for Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love.

Also in the DVD set is a 48-page booklet that features a director’s statement from Kar-Wai about his experience on the film as well as making what he believes is a definitive sequel of sorts to his 1991 film Days of Being Wild. The bulk of the booklet features the short story Intersection by Liu Yi-chang, the story that inspired Kar-Wai to make In the Mood for Love as the story is also set in 1960s Hong Kong. Finally, there’s an essay by film critic Li Cheuk-To about the film with its themes and relation to Days of Being Wild where both films carried similar ideas about love but in different context. The overall work in the DVD is magnificent as it’s a must-have for any fan of Wong Kar-Wai.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

When the film came out in 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival, it won 2 prizes for its technical achievements to Christopher Doyle, Mark Lee Ping-bin, and William Chang and a Best Actor prize to Tony Leung Chui-Wai. While the film was well-received and became a modest art house hit in the U.S. More interesting is what was going on during the 15 month shoot of the film where concepts kept changing around and Kar-Wai's ability to work without a script along with several costumes being made and stuff. Even a week before its initial release at Cannes, Kar-Wai and his crew went to Cambodia to shoot and edit the film altogether at a rapid pace. While it's a reputation that some might not like, still the result of his film did prove what a great director he is while it led to an immense amount of anticipation for his follow-up film 2046, which premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and becoming the first film to have a delayed release at the festival because its final print arrived, three-hours late.

In the end, Fa yeung nin wa is an engrossing, romantic masterpiece from Wong Kar-Wai. While at first, it's not an easy film to watch for its slow pacing but its build-up and resulting factor will leave you breathless. With great performances from Tony Leung Chui-Wai and Maggie Cheung plus the talents of Michael Galasso, Christopher Doyle, Mark Lee Ping-bin, and William Chang. It's one of the most beautiful and enchanting films of the decade. For an introduction to the director, it's a very good start while anyone who really loved Lost in Translation should check out Wong Kar Wai's masterpiece.

© thevoid99 2011

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