[Screen It]

(2000) (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) (PG)

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Subtitled Romantic Drama: A man and woman start falling for each other when they discover that their respective spouses are having an affair.
It's Hong Kong in 1962, and two young couples are moving into the same apartment building on the same day. Chow Mo-wan (TONY LEUNG CHIU-WAI) is a journalist who'd rather be writing martial arts serials, and his wife, a hotel receptionist, is working and can't help him move in. Mrs. Chan (MAGGIE CHEUNG MAN-YUK), who works as a secretary to Mr. Ho (LAI CHIN) at a shipping company, moves into Mrs. Suen's (REBECCA PAN) place, but her husband is reportedly out of town on a business trip and thus can't help her.

As the two get comfortable in their respective apartments, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan occasionally interact, with each noting that the other's spouse never seems to be around. While they may suspect that something suspicious is going on, the two always end up making excuses for the whereabouts and behavior of their partners.

That changes when Chow's friend, Ah Ping (SIU PING-IAM), informs him that he saw his wife with another man, and after Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have dinner and come to the realization that their spouses are having an affair with each other. The two then become closer friends and as they discuss the various aspects of the unseen affair, they start to fall for each other. From that point on, they must figure out how to handle their feelings for one another.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Although they're the most crucial link when it comes to filmmaking, screenwriters and their work are the Rodney Dangerfields of the cinema in that they don't get as much respect as they should. One only need look through a press kit's biography section for most any film and the writers usually aren't listed anywhere near the top of the talent pool.

Contrary to such treatment and some beliefs and opinions in Hollywood, however, the script is the king and is paramount in making a good film. One can have big stars or a talented director, but if the script stinks, is poorly constructed or essentially doesn't exist, no amount of star power, special effects or money can save it.

Yet, some filmmakers - who decide to serve as the screenwriter as well - think they can shoot their film without a complete or at least fully realized script in place. Just like most vertebrates in any world where gravity exists, however, a lack of a cinematic spine and skeletal structure usually results in a quivering mass that may look interesting, but clearly can't get anywhere on its own.

Such is the case with "In the Mood For Love," a period romantic drama from director & "writer" Wong Kar-wai, who previously helmed the pictures "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels." Reminiscent of "Random Hearts" where the two central characters discover that their respective spouses were having an affair with one another and then begin to have feelings for each other, this film has a decent, if not particularly novel premise from which it starts.

Beyond that, however, it's all mood and not much else as Wong visually paints a visually artistic picture that also just so happens to be one of the most boring and uneventful films I've sat through in years. Of course, those who love the sight of cigarette smoke slowing wafting upwards, slow motion footage of people not really doing anything, and other, carefully arranged visuals may enjoy the thick air of suppressed sexual tension that permeates the proceedings.

On the other hand, if you're more of a plot-driven viewer - as is yours truly who believes a little bit of that can go a long, long way - the fact that nothing of substance ever happens may just drive you crazy. In fact, more was going on in my seat - including, but not limited to, the boredom-induced crossing and re-crossing of legs, shifting of one's weight and the constant watch checking - than cumulatively occurs from a plot standpoint in this film.

To make matters worse, Wong uses two filmmaking techniques that not only draw more attention to that fact, but also serve to frustrate the viewer to an even greater degree. One is the repeated use of the exact or near exact score and songs from one scene to the next. While that works in some films if not overused (such as "Jaws") and probably has some psychological/symbolic meaning here, it will probably have viewers wondering if the filmmakers didn't budget enough money for more music and thus had to keep using the same material time and again.

Far more irritating and frustrating is Wong's insistence that the viewer usually remain as a voyeur rather than a participant in the story and its characters. Many scenes are shot from a distance and/or with some object in the foreground of the scene, as if we're hiding and peering into these two people's lives. While the effect works to that extent, it does keep the audience too far removed from what transpires.

Wong even occasionally goes so far as to keep the shot and viewer out in a hallway while an unseen conversation takes place in an adjacent room. While that could have been interesting had anything been occurring on camera or if something dangerous, erotic or even just compelling had been taking place just out of sight, such moments are usually static while nothing of importance is being discussed in the other room.

The end result reinforces one's feeling that time has been slowed down to a fraction of its normal pace. Although I liked the related fact that we never really get to see or meet the characters' respective spouses, all of the preceding only serves to frustrate rather than engage the viewer.

Fortunately, Wong has employed two terrific performers, Tony Leung Chiu-wai ("Chungking Express," "Hard-Boiled") and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk ("Chinese Box," "Police Story") for the central parts. They, along with the overall visual look - courtesy of cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bin ("The Puppetmaster," "My American Grandson") - at least make the film somewhat easier to sit through.

As the two jilted spouses, Tony and Maggie near perfectly play people who at first make excuses for their spouses' absences or late work hours, and then become kindred spirits when realize what's going on. They also create that credible and palatable, but never acted upon sexual tension, as their characters ultimately can't fulfill their newfound feelings for one another.

Although Wong's script - if you will - doesn't play out as realistically as one might expect - the two characters are far too passive in their reactions to everything and never blame the other's spouse for the being the troublemaker, etc. - the two talented performers bring a great deal more to their characters than what's present in the otherwise superficial story. That's a good thing, as although there might be a handful of supporting characters, they're really just superficial creations and aren't considerably any more substantial than the non-organic surroundings in which the two central characters operate.

Nevertheless, and despite those performances, the thick, but underlying sexual tension, and the terrific, visually moody look, the film can't overcome either the fact that nothing much ever transpires or the boredom that unfortunately but unavoidably will flow from that. Certainly not awful but clearly too inert for its own good due to the lack of enough of a plot to sustain its running time, "In the Mood For Love" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 9, 2000 / Posted February 23, 2001

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