Since I have the 10:30 pm to 1:30 am shift with the new baby, I’ve taken some time to catch up on movies that I’ve been meaning to watch. I finally got around to watching Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I really liked Hero once I got past the first half-hour. Flying Daggers was good, but not great. Why? Seeing the two movies on consecutive nights made comparisons inevitable. The two movies operate on different scales — Hero careens wildly between epic and intimate, while Flying Daggers contents itself with the scope of a soap opera narrative. Hero employs trained martial artists, which opens up the fight scenes somewhat.
The main difference to me was the presence of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Hero. The love story told between their characters of Broken Sword and Flying Snow is beautiful, tragic, hopeless and hopeful. I left the movie wanting more.
Fortunately, there is more. Years ago, I had rented Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love starring Cheung and Leung, but never got to watch it, as my wife fell ill, and I didn’t feel like watching it alone. Ever since then, I had occasionally picked it up at the video store, only to pass it up for a newer release. With the memory of Hero fresh in my mind, I went back to the store and picked up a copy of In the Mood for Love (released as a part of the Criterion Collection), hoping to see some more of the magic between the two actors. I was not disappointed.
In the Mood for Love tells the story of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, neighbors who rent rooms next door to each other, who become more than just neighbors after discovering that their spouses are having an affair. As they struggle to understand how such a thing could have happened, they find themselves becoming emotionally entangled, perhaps even falling in love. Their relationship is hampered by a number of obstacles, the mores of 1960s Hong Kong, and their own determination to take a different path than their spouses chief among them ("We’ll never be like them," Mrs. Chan declares). The result is a movie that is demure enough to earn a PG rating, yet the movie is suffused with erotic energy that puts much more explicit fare to shame.
The title suggests that the movie is about mood, and everything about it contributes. First and foremost is the clothing — Mrs. Chan appears throughout attired in the traditional Chinese cheongsam, and a lesser actress than Cheung would be upstaged by the stunning array of dresses provided her. After viewing this film I found myself wanting to buy one of the dresses for my wife. The rest of the film is shot beautifully by Christopher Doyle (Wong’s usual cinematographer) and Mark Li Ping-bin. The score is wonderful as well, dominated by a melancholy waltz played on a cello, with cuts of Nat King Cole singing in Spanish providing contrast.
The Criterion DVD has some excellent features. The quasi-scholarly commentary on some of the other Criterion discs I have seen has been unwatchably dull, but I found the essays describing the political and economic situation in 1960s Hong Kong to be helpful to my understanding of the characters in the film. Even more interesting is the "making of" feature, which is full of unused material, and which provides a peek into the way Wong Kar-Wai prefers to make his films; namely, without a script. The story (such as it is) seems to have evolved over the course of the 15-month shoot. Ideas for scenes and dialogue were often generated on the set, with little or no consideration of plot. The process was apparently frustrating to Cheung, who had not worked with Wong for over a decade, and the end result could easily have been a hopeless muddle, but in this case, the method pays off handsomely.
Watching Hero, I marveled at how much Cheung and Leung could communicate without saying a word — a pensive stare, an arched eyebrow, the carry of a shoulder communicated more than any dialogue could. Zhang Yimou is a control freak — everything has to be just so (for instance, he had a person whose job it was to monitor the color of the leaves at the location in Mongolia where the fight between Flying Snow and Moon takes place, and the leaves used in the shoot were categorized by quality — high quality leaves would be blown into the actors’ faces, while lesser quality leaves would only appear in the background on the ground). Could he have directed Cheung and Leung to provide such spare, yet intense performances? Probably, but my guess is that fifteen months of working with Wong on In the Mood for Love gave the two actors a wealth of experience which they used to great effect in Hero (Christopher Doyle is the cinematographer for Hero, creating another connection between the two movies).
The character of Mr. Chow in In the Mood for Love is a journalist who really wants to write wuxia stories, and he does so, with Mrs. Chan as his editor/muse. One can imagine that he might have written a story like Hero. If you have only seen one of these movies, go out and see the other. If you’ve seen neither, make it a double feature.
The Rotten Tomatoes page for In the Mood for Love has many better informed and better written reviews.