Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
If it is possible to find the erotic register of despair, or the romantic dimension of ennui, then Wong Kar-Wai certainly achieves it in his new film. This is an exquisitely nuanced account of a married man and his married woman neighbour in the Hong Kong of the early 60s, who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair. For their mutual comfort as fellow sufferers – and also finding in their situation a kind of parodic and perversely exciting intimacy – they embark on an ambiguous affaire de coeur of their own.
It is a secret liaison whose every glance and touch has a silent static crackle of tension: not sexual tension precisely, but the tension of two people who are consciously duplicating the form of their partners’ adultery, with all the snatched restaurant meals and meetings in hotel rooms, but forgoing the sexual denouement and refusing to make the four-cornered puzzle snap into place. They have become siblings rather than lovers, a brother and sister orphaned by the absence of trust, and sustained by their own faint odour of incest.
The man is Chow Mo-Wan, a local newspaper editor, played by the estimable Tony Leung, a performer who grows inexorably in depth and acuity. There is something desperately poignant in his gentle, sensitive face, at once lined and boyish. His neighbour is Su Li-Zhen, played by Maggie Cheung, a stunningly beautiful, statuesque screen presence, her hair always worn glamorously up, with discreet droplet earrings, and whose elegant, roof-raisingly sexy form the camera is wont to follow as she sashays along alleys and into corridors…
Wong Kar-Wai locates the poignancy of their love affair in how short-lived it is, and how short all our lives are, and how we behave as if the excitement or the pain of each moment is the precursor to an infinite supply of such moments: the prelude to an open-ended vista, rather than one stage of a finite history. This is partly a humid, faintly Graham Greene-like love story, partly a conundrum about opaque and enigmatic behaviour. But what it mostly is, is a love story for grown-ups, a film that treats the themes of love and betrayal with almost theological seriousness. It is not to be missed. — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 27/10/00