Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #2 In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love

My heart can't quite endorse this ranking. It believes In the Mood for Love is no less than a gift from heaven. It considers this movie infallible, perfect, beyond criticism. It gets violently defensive when people put it down, be they critics or message-board trolls. It palpitates at the sound of this movie's score. It bathes in its quixotic images. It shatters and dissipates at its ending. With dogged romanticism, it cannot fathom a better movie from this decade, or really any other.

My heart, you see, can get carried away. Especially when it sees pretty things.

Wong Kar Wai's seventh feature lingers with me like no film I've seen. From the striking compositions to the elegant costumes, In the Mood for Love is all about, well, mood. Its every detail seems fashioned to evoke sweet, lasting sorrow. Like unconsummated love itself, the film stays with you. It perverts your thoughts the longer it stews, taking on a seismic sense of importance. The film loiters in the mind, forcing you to ponder the what-ifs of an unfulfilled romance. It understands that we, as humans, have an unyielding urge to romanticize what we don't have. A love that never begins can never end. It goes on forever, looping in your head. A mental security blanket for the realities of modern living. A trumped-up splinter of perfection. A go-to thought for the emotional masochist in you. What if, what if, what if. If only, if only, if only.

In the Mood for Love presents a romantic, almost twee vision of love. In real life, things would probably play a lot crasser. The film's protagonists would meet, flirt, fuck, and deal with the consequences. Alcohol would likely be involved. But In the Mood for Love has no interest in realism. It uses fantasy to arrive at truth. In this way, it embodies cinema's most primal appeal: seeing our desires acted out in an idealized world.

To depict this world, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle craft images that look beamed in from some faraway dreamscape. You can't oversell In the Mood for Love's visual gorgeousness. The film repeats shots, gestures, and songs to mimic the rhythms of a lingering love that won't go away. It circles around this love like a jazz composition infatuated with one blistering riff. Wong uses cinema's everyday tools (slow motion, montage) to capture obsession and loss, leading to a climax of almost unbearable beauty.

That climax, set to a devastating composition from Michael Galasso, moves me like no other moment in cinema. If the first nine-tenths of In the Mood for Love exist in a dream world, one in which coy would-be lovers exercise inhuman restraint, then the film's final minutes show the harsh awakening to reality. Our protagonists may have won the moral victory by shunning infidelity, but that doesn't make them any less alone. One disappears from the film; the other releases his love into the ether. Wong refuses to give us gratifying closure. Instead, he leaves our wounds open, so that we may feel like his characters: helpless; our heads filled with dreams of an ideal love that never was. We relish in fantasy, just as we do most nights when we go to the movies.

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