First a question. Who are the most famous and popular movie stars on Earth? Hint: they are not American. Not British; not even European. Answer: Maggie Cheung Man Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Their individual fan base is secured in the Chinese-Hong Kong movie-making powerhouse that nets $20 billion-dollars-per-year in ticket sales around the world.
Yes, a lot of that moolah is generated by martial arts flicks, just as Hollywood’s income stream is powered by dystopian horror films and action fantasies that seems to crowd worthier fare off pay television channels and multiplex screens. But there are individual filmmakers in both Hollywood and Hong Kong—indeed everywhere—who are making beautiful movies.
At the 2000 Cannes Film Festival premier, In the Mood For Love, was nominated for the Palme d’Or—the highest prize awarded. Leading male actor Tony Leung was honored as Best Actor, and the Technical Grand Prize was shared by the film’s cinematographers and designers. It was named Best Foreign Film by the National Society of Film Critics (USA), and honored by the British Film & Television Arts (UK’s version of Oscars). In years subsequent to its debut’s, In the Mood for Love has been included on British and American lists as one of the hundred greatest films of all time.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung have teamed in several films with writer/director Wong Kar Wai. Even after Mr. Wong writes a script for the movie he is about to cast and direct, scripted situations are often abandoned for the kind of improvisation that only top-notch professional actors can deliver.
In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong, a time when urban Chinese were being pressed between the older, social constraints and the lure of a more international economy.
Star Ms. Cheung is one of the most beautiful and graceful actors on the international screen—never seen more stylish and aristocratic (her character’s reserve?) than in her fitted cheomsang gowns and fastidiously coiffed hair. Tony Leung, one of the finer male movie actors of his generation and among the warmer personalities in movies, is attractive in a less glamorous way, but his smile should woo any female audience.
As readers of this column may have noted, I incline mostly toward well-made comedies. Seldom do I plump for romances. That admitted, I am a sucker for life-affirming stories about decent people—unless filmmakers cross the line into a swamp of manipulation and mawkishness.
So, I would not be writing about In the Mood for Love were it maudlin on the one hand or cruelly cynical on the other. It is a tale of infidelity, but the wayward spouses are peripheral to the story, unworthy of screen time.
When this film was being made, Hong Kong still retained some pockets of dense familial neighborhoods, such as the adjoining rooming houses in which Ms. Cheung and Mr. Leung meet after they both rent apartments, while awaiting their traveling respective spouses to join them. Corridors, staircases and alleyways are narrow, lit by the yellow glare of midcentury lamp bulbs, but the film bursts with saturated color no matter how confined and darkened the setting. Christopher Doyle, chief cinematographer, was assisted in his superb craft by Mark Lee Ping Bin and Kwan Pun Leung.
Behind the story are, of course, logistics. How to film a 1960s love story set mostly in Hong Kong after that city had changed so much by 2000. For scenes of parks and temples, the crew and cast shot in Thailand and at the Vedic monuments and Buddhist shrines at Angkor Wat in Cambodia,
The characters played by Maggie and Tony meet casually years later amid the ancient calm of Angkor Wat, where old ideals carved in stone contrast with the constant change that sweeps through Hong Kong. For some, modernity confers a freedom to choose to sail with or against the wind. For others, loneliness and longing yield to moral restraint. In the Mood for Love is currently available online here:
Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for The Independent by Frank Cullen, published historian and novelist, film curator, co-founder of the American Vaudeville Museum, and 2011 recipient of the NY Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation Theatre History. Please send film inquiries and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.