-By David Noh

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That modern-day master of mise-en scene, Wong Kar-wai delves into pure romance in In the Mood For Love. Set in Hong Kong, 1962, it's the story of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a journalist who rents a room in an apartment. On the same day he moves in, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a secretary, takes a room in the apartment next door. Both are married, although their spouses are away at the time of their moves. Both are, subsequently, often lonely. Gradually, he discovers that their respective spouses are having an affair. As the couple begin to commiserate with each other, the possibility of a romance buds, but, given their circumscribed existences and her total reticence, it's not easy.

Not a whole lot happens here, but it's not the story so much as the way in which it is told that matters. Wong brews up a vividly colored, highly atmospheric world in which every frame is brimful of life. He finds soulful humor in secondary characters, like the cheerful, mah-jongg addicted landlady (Rebecca Pan), the wizened amah who serves her and Su's ingratiating, shy boss (Lai Chin). Poor Chow and Su have barely a second for themselves, let alone each other, in this bustling environment. Michael Galasso's evocative music is the perfect accompaniment to the often spectacular visuals. Wong is such an artist that he can render a simple, homely Cantonese interior with the deep beauty of a Vermeer. His camerawork (with longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle, and Mark Li Ping-bin), framing and editing have a sensuously mysterious, rhythmic glide to them. His directorial technique greatly enriches what is essentially a wan little tale, reminiscent of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter.

The stars, of course, are two of the most magnificent camera subjects alive today. They share a miraculous chemistry, the kind of deep simpatico that makes lifers of lovers. Leung invests his character with an affecting melancholy, suggestions of banked fires, and is, at all times, that rarest of beings today, a true gentleman. Cheung is dazzling in her exquisite array of formfitting cheongsams, a Suzy Wong with real brains and heart, what Jennifer Jones tried so hard to be in Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. She attains a Garbo-like stature here, in the graceful line of her impossibly elegant body, and is a symphony just walking along dark Hong Kong streets at night. There's one startling moment when she "acts out" confronting her faithless husband, which proves her astonishing, Brechtian histrionic mettle, which also blazed forth in the memorable Irma Vep.

--David Noh

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