Director creates the right 'Mood' through style, story

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Understand that Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is obsessed with visuals and style above all else, occasionally at the expense of his scripts. Wong's artistic sensibility made "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels" sleeper hits on the art-house scene. Critics overlooked the interwoven stories' jarring execution, seduced by frequent camera partner Christopher Doyle's intoxicating cinematography. But technique failed to save the disastrous "Happy Together," proving the auteur's ability to match stunning production values with a cohesive script is erratic at best.

"In the Mood for Love"

Rating: * * * (out of four)

Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. 97 minutes. Harvard Exit. Rated PG for adult themes.

Sometimes he can get away with his aesthetic accentuation, sometimes not. With "In the Mood for Love," a quiet tale of unrealized yearning with the subdued phrasing of a torch song, he once again succeeds.

"Mood" won the Grand Prix de la Technique at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival, demonstrating an unconventional combination of cinematography and story at work. It also reunites Wong with "Chungking Express" star Tony Leung (Cannes' best actor award winner), and Maggie Cheung, whose exquisite face conveys a world of emotion without much effort. Even so, the viewer is tempted to get lost in the film's '60s-mod distractions. Amid the stylized sets, props and Cheung's ravishing form in sleek mandarin dresses, "Mood" relies largely on audience inference to keep the story rolling. Silence, space and challenging shots are the source of this romance's horsepower, leaving moviegoers to fill in the blanks where exposition is lacking.

It's a daunting proposition, one that has left a few critics cold. But surrender yourself to Wong's intentions and the effect, like love at its most heady, is narcotic.

"Mood" is a study of comrades in loneliness. Journalist Chow Mo-wan (Leung) moves in next door to the attractive, reclusive Mrs. Chan (Cheung) on the same day, neither with the help of their respective mates. Both are treading water in absentee marriages; Chow's wife abandons him for her work, and Chan's husband is frequently away on business, leaving her with a matriarchal landlady for company. We hear but never see Chan's husband, and Chow's wife is only identifiable by rear views of her flirty flip hair-do. Given their cool connection to the story, it's barely shocking when Chow and Chan realize the wandering spouses are having an affair.

Throughout "Mood," Wong makes voyeurs of the audience. We peek at the action through mirror reflections, eavesdropping from around corners and down hallways as Chow and Chan's romance unfurls. It's a tricky technique, but one that conveys a sense of their impossible predicament.

"Feelings can creep up just like that," Chow explains to his unattainable lady love, and Wong hopes the audience empathizes. It's not hard to see that something noticeable but unspoken is hanging in the air between these two and, to paraphrase an old standard, if it isn't love, it's the best they can do. Locked in the gazes of both neighbors and the audience, Chow and Chan aren't free to consummate their desires. Rather, they role-play the missing parts of one another's marriages in a secret, painfully beautiful dance as a mournful Nat King Cole soundtrack swells in the background.

A small drawback in "Mood" doesn't strike until the end, when the film unduly picks up the pace. Variety assigned the blame to Wong's rush to complete "Mood" in time for Cannes, supposedly filming the closing scenes mere days before the festival opened. Whatever the case may be, one senses the rush. But, as the lovers find in their situation, it barely matters in the larger scheme of things.