Glad to be Unhappy

Rock critics a few years back coined the clever term miserablism to describe a brand of guitar music light in metallic crunch but heavy with emotional self-flagellation. It wasn't a compliment, exactly. Yet with songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," bands such as the Smiths and their flamboyant lead singer Morrissey proclaimed their angst so grandiosely it became, for fans, sublimely comic.

If cinema has a poet of romantic miserablism, it's the virtuosic Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who has made seven feature films--each unforgettable. The Smiths drew their inspiration from British camp icons like Oscar Wilde; Wong follows a French path, Baudelaire by way of early Jean-Luc Godard. But instead of trenchant Godardian critique, Wong indulges his characters' youthful follies, their meandering and alienation, their futile efforts to find meaning in the ephemeral present while simultaneously waxing nostalgic for the past. Wong's is a world of missteps and missed connections. Should-be lovers turn the wrong way at the wrong time. Anomic city-dwellers moon over impersonal objects--a plaid shirt, a toy airplane--as a substitute for the real thing. In a typical Wong Kar-wai moment, a lonely cop nurses a beer at a city bar, turns to the jukebox for solace, and stares away a whole afternoon--frozen in place, waiting to select the perfect soundtrack to his solitude, while the rest of the world rushes by in rapid motion. (This from Chungking Express, the director's 1994 breakthrough film and still his hyperactive, hyper-romantic best.)

Drenched in voice-over, buoyed by incongruous pop music (the Mamas and the Papas, Nat King Cole) the films are like small romantic conspiracies; we listen in on the characters' dreamy reveries, but they don't know what we know. Because we've come in so close, we too can share the fun: a melancholy so rich that it turns into pleasure.

Expectations of good behavior constrain the proper couple in Wong's new film, In the Mood for Love. They're married to other people. And they're neighbors in cramped, raucous quarters. It's Hong Kong, 1962, and a chilly society is thawing, but slowly. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a hardworking journalist, moves into an apartment on the same day that Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a secretary, takes a room one door over. Mrs. Chan's husband is often away on business; Mr. Chow's wife works odd hours as a hotel receptionist. Wong allows us to glimpse the spouses only in fragments--a slender forearm here, a straight back there. He grants us more time with the protagonists at their workplaces--him, photogenically cradling a cigarette in a smoky newsroom; her, buying gifts for her boss's mistress. They are together in spirit but apart in fact. Framing the actors in tight, vertical compositions, in doorways and halls, the director creates a sense of entrapment. Claustrophobia, you come to feel, is just intimacy by another name.

When the pair discover that their unseen spouses are in fact having an affair, you expect them to give in to a simmering passion. But In the Mood for Love is suffused with the exquisite rush of self-denial. Wong is a fantastically inventive filmmaker. His films Chungking Express, Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together (1997) are giddy with obtuse camera angles, jittery jump cuts, blurry swish pans, and harsh lighting tricks, but here he works in small, subdued strokes. When he shows off, just a little, the effect is all the more breathtaking. Slow-motion scenes of Cheung brushing against Leung as she rushes down the apartment stairwell, trying not to look his way, glow like electric sparks frozen in midair.

The actors, who've each worked for the director several times before, are, as always, matchlessly gorgeous. The sober and soulful Leung won the best actor award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for this performance. In her tight-fitting, high-necked silk dresses, Cheung is at once decorous and dead sexy. And that voice: husky, knowing, ready. But holding back.

In the Mood for Love is not the director at his best. In his other films, goofy, left-of-center humor, baroque plotlines, or noirish gangster touches leaven the brew. The filmmaker tends to work without a script, and his features can run out of steam or careen weirdly. Here, the passage of time, so deliciously slow as the lovers feint and parry, suddenly moves ahead by years. And their tightly controlled physical world opens up to take Leung on a journey to Angkor Wat. Still, for 97 minutes, In the Mood for Love made me miserable--and uncannily aware of how good that can feel.