Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Painful Romance

Films: Hua Yang Nian Hua (In the Mood for Love)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Evidently, of late I have been attracted to domestic dramas. Hua Yang Nian Hua (In the Mood for Love) is the third in a row, and the second from Asia. Had I been able to follow the original plans of today, I’d have also watched Bin-Jip, another Asian domestic drama. Interesting the little clusters of coincidence that play out in the course of completing this long journey.

This film is very similar to yesterday’s in a few ways. In addition to what is mentioned above, the story takes place in the early 1960s, and centers around the idea of marriage. This is a story from Hong Kong, though, and is less concerned with getting married than the idea of marital infidelity. Additionally, this is a more modern film, made in 2000 by the acclaimed director Kar Wei Wong.

The film starts with two married couples moving in next door to each other on the same day. On the one side is the Chans. Mr. Chan is away on business during the move and is thus not there to help. Instead, his wife Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is handling the move on her own. On the other side, we have the Chows. Mrs. Chow is also out of town, so Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is arranging things.

We discover rather quickly that Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow are out of town a lot, and usually at the same time. It becomes apparent first to us and then to their respective spouses that the two are having an extramarital affair with each other. Our two main characters attempt to recreate this affair as much as possible, avoiding the intimacy. Essentially, they want to try to discover exactly how the affair might have started between their spouses.

They also discover that they have common interests. Both of them like martial arts serial stories, and for something to do, Chow Mo-wan begins to write one with Li-zhen’s assistance. They continue to investigate their respective spouses, practicing confrontation on each other to work up the nerve to confront their spouses for real. And, the two slowly begin to depend on each other more and more for emotional support.

It’s clear to the audience that the two are deeply in love with each other long before they realize it themselves. However, they are also both incredibly concerned with appearances and propriety. Once, while working on their martial arts serial, she is trapped in his apartment when their landlady has friends over for a mah-jongg tournament. She refuses to leave because the other people might see her leaving his apartment. Rather than create suspicion, she waits, then creates an excuse for not being in her own apartment the night before when asked.

This is the beauty of the film. The two of them are so drawn to each other, and so deeply in love with each other, but are also unwilling to take that next step that both want to. Hell, we want them to. The ache between them is a physical thing, each gentle touch, each word, so filled with longing and desire that it is almost painful to witness. Several times, in rainstorms after a dinner spent talking about their spouses’ affair, they share a cab, leaning on each other in the back seat for support, knowing that their relationship will never go further than this no matter how much they want it to.

Good God, it’s pretty. It’s tragic and sad and heartrending as well, but it’s also the most romantic thing ever created. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on this pair in terms of desire. Kar Wai Wong (or if you prefer the traditional Chinese, Wong Kar Wai) manages to draw out performances here that express tremendous emotional power from small movements and long pauses. It’s masterfully directed.

It’s also beautiful to look at. Maggie Cheung wears traditional cheong-san dresses (yes, I looked up the name of this style of dress because there was no way I could have known it on my own) in every scene, and it’s a different one in every scene. They are gorgeous, almost mesmerizing. Of course, everything here is mesmerizing.

Why to watch Hua Yang Nian Hua: There may not be a more beautiful romance.
Why not to watch: You’ll ache.

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