(director/writer: Wong Kar-Wai; cinematographer: Christopher Doyle; editor: William Chang; cast: Tony Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Maggie Cheung (Su Li-zhen Chan), Lai Chin (Mr. Ho), Rebecca Pan (Mrs. Suen), Siu Ping-Lam (Ah-Ping), Chin Tsi-ang (The Amah); Runtime: 97; USA Films/Block 2 Pictures/Paradis Films; 2000-Hong Kong)

“Hard to put out of your mind…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout review.

This moody minimalist told piece is seen through the lush eyes of the camera rather than told as a narrative. It is about repressed desires and a love affair that never really happens. It is set in a crowded building in Hong Kong in 1962. The film centers on two young couples who rent adjacent rooms in the cramped tenement. They also share the embarrassment of being married to adulterous spouses who are not seen, but their voices can be heard offscreen. Their spouses travel on business quite frequently and the two are left alone to dwell in their loneliness, as they cross paths in the halls of their building and quietly yearn for the other without one of them making the first move.

Chow (Leung) is the handsome and reserved newspaper journalist, who rented the apartment from Mrs. Koo; Li-zhen (Cheung) is the extremely attractive, polite, and well-dressed chief executive secretary in a shipping firm, who rented a room from Mrs. Suen. They realize they are the victims in their marriages but can’t act out their repressed feelings, they are too worried about what others might say and do not want to be thought of like their spouses. Nevertheless, they come to enjoy each other’s company. They seem satisfied to eat out together, almost touch each other, and to just sit together while talking. They wish to avoid gossip in this crowded city where privacy is hardly possible, so they keep their meetings a secret.

Chow begins to suspect that his wife is unfaithful when he stops in unannounced at her office to discover that she is not there. Ping, a colleague, tells him that he saw his wife with another man. Then he notices that Li-zhen’s handbag is identical to his wife’s, while Li-zhen discovers that Chow is wearing a tie that she gave her husband.

The couple become close but can’t have an affair, there is something that can’t be put into words that is stopping them. The film goes back and forth between both their workplaces and their apartment dwelling. It shows how well-thought of they both are in their environments, which means so much to them. Ms. Cheung wears a new elegant dress every time they meet, dresses with tailored shoulder pads and long covered necklines. Mr. Leung smartly wears a charcoal silk suit with a different chic tie each time. The film is a visual fashion show of beauty and taste. Every shot is stylishly accomplished in a ritualized way. Nat “King” Cole sings a host of soft ballads that reflect the film’s steamy mood, while the couple often get caught walking in a rainstorm, or riding in a cab together, or nearly touching hands, or brushing past each other on the stairs, or expressing through their facial gestures their feelings of love. They even rehearse what she will ask her wayward husband when she confronts him: she asks Chow, who is playing the part of her husband. “Do you have a mistress?” Even in this play-acting, his response that he is having an affair hurts so much that she begins to sob. But before we realize it the couple will part, as Chow can’t stand the anguish anymore and volunteers to transfer to his newspaper’s Singapore office. She can’t get up enough nerve to leave her husband and go with him. It then becomes a question of whose fault it is that they can’t get together when they are both so polite and passive, as it is implied they are both responsible for their inability to come together. Yet the film suddenly ends by the subtitle writing stating: “That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore.”

Wong Kar-wai (Days of Being Wild/Chungking Express/Fallen Angels) has created a film about sexual frustration that leaves you hanging on every gesture for a resolution, but this very delicate romance ends without a fulfilling resolution. The coy lovers never manage to act out their desire to sleep with each other, instead their burning love for each other becomes ennobled into an ideal love. It is a film that is hard to put out of your mind; and, a lot of the credit for that should go to the two big stars of Hong Kong cinema, Leung and Cheung, who are simply mesmerizing.