There’s something subtle, sexy and hypnotic about this movie and it’s not hard to see what that is, as the willowy frame of Maggie Cheung sways like a dream walking to the haunting strains of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme. The experience of watching this sad, beautiful love story play out is indivisible from those two indispensable elements.
Cheung is Mrs Chan, who moves into a rented room in a Hong Kong apartment block in 1962. There is a Mr Chan, but he’s away a lot, usually in Japan, where he buys a rice cooker that enthralls Mrs Chan’s landlady and her family. Cheung is divinely beautiful, dressed in a dazzling parade of slender cheongsams, with legs like willow stems and that kind of superbly polished sophistication that we all yearned for in the 60s.
She is utterly perfect, and perfectly lonely. Her husband is barely there, and probably a philanderer. Before long Mrs Chan learns that he is having an affair with her neighbour’s wife. He is Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), whose wife is also always ‘working overtime’. Their neglected spouses live on shop noodles, and put on a brave face. They pass each other on the way to the noodle shop, are drawn to each other, and soon Mrs Chan is helping Chow write a martial arts serial.
That’s about all there is to it, actually. The two are far too shamed and hurt by their spouses’ faithless behaviour to emulate it – “We shall not be like them,,” Mrs Chan says. But in taking this stand they condemn themselves to an even greater heartbreak – that of suppressed love.
Kar Wai Wong’s gorgeous movie not only draws the viewer in to a deeply touching love story, it also recreates an evocative portrait of the 60s in Hong Kong – a very different time to now. It seems inconceivable that two such attractive and warm people cannot be together, but that’s how it was – in the mood for love, but forbidden by convention and personal pride to ever give in to it. Wong’s direction, the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, and the superb performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung creates palpable sexual tension and an almost dreamlike feeling of unresolved romance.