Kar Wai Wong's absolutely fantastic film In the Mood for Love takes place in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) live next door to each other in rented rooms. With their respective spouses. Both of them have office jobs in the city, while it seems that their spouses are often on business trips or working long shifts. Many cordial meetings take place between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow in the hallway, on the way to the noodle stall, etc.. Soon enough they begin to realize odd coincidences between what both their spouses wear, the amount of time they are away, and their secretiveness. It isn't long before they uncover a mystery they had sort of already solved: Mrs. Chan's husband and Mr. Chow's wife are having an affair. This reality is so harsh to them that they decide to turn to each other for any possible consollation, talking about it over dinner or sneaking into each other's rooms to analyze the situation and propose different scenarios of how the affair could have begun. With their spouses away most of the time and their incredulity too heavy to handle for each of them alone, they begin to meet more frequently and develop a friendship out of necessity.
Although they often talk about their spouses' infidelity and recreate what they might have done together, it seems as though Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan manage to find a space in which their interest is each other, rather than the people they are married to. Once they realise that this growing intimacy might just make them into unfaithful spouses as well, they begin to draw a limit: it is that limit precisely, and the overwhelming desire that Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow feel to cross it, that creates the emotional tension that In the Mood for Love is about. Two people who, because of convention, or out principle -they are both married, after all- repress their feelings of love for each other. Because, in time (time plays a very important role in the film), it's obvious that they feel love for each other, even if to different extents each. They sense danger when they stop using the other as a clutch.
As usual in Kar Wai Wong's films, the cinematography and the use of color is mind-blowing; everything is filmed with such lush care and romanticism that it was difficult to draw my eyes away from the screen. The director's trademark repetitive use of music is also present and works beautifully.
Of course, the film would probably not come together as wonderfully if it wasn't for the two stars: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Cheung is elegance personified, and she plays the suffering yet optimistic Mrs. Chan with all the grace I've ever seen an actress deliver. Tony Leung is a great actor and his performance here is incredibly moving: Mr. Chow is helplessly in love but also helplessly wounded by his wife's infidelity: While Mrs. Chan will occasionally burst into tears when they talk about the affair, he must stay cool and collected because that's simply what he's supposed to do; the same applies to his painful longing for Mrs. Chan - it would seem absurd for anyone to suppress such overwhelming feelings, but what else can he do in a society where people lecture each other about morality, about "being proper", about "being respectable"?
So In the Mood for Love is both an exhilarating piece of romantic arthouse cinema and a frustrating play about loneliness and social pressure. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it's right. I didn't end up feeling sad or angry, but curious (and optimistic) about how much happier Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan could have been, had they only lived in a more permissive culture. I wouldn't say Kar Wai Wong's film is a social commentary itself, but I believe it contains one.
It's always great to find a film like this, that appeals to both intellect and sentiment without comprimising either, that doesn't merely satisfy the audience but leaves something to the imagination. All in all, In the Mood for Love is an unforgettable film and one of the director's best, if not his greatest film ever.
BTW, the Criterion edition contains deleted scenes that might shed some light over some unresolved issues and satisfy some inconformities with the way things turned out, but I believe they were all removed from the final cut for good. The film is perfect as it is.