It seems immeasurably easy to fall in love. The cinema has taught us how, just as it has taught us who must, necessarily, find love. It is the preserve of the good-hearted and silent, those with well-furnished apartments, sinless women and weak-chinned men. They will come together, through some vacant adversity. Others will look on, in admiration or subtle longing.
But the idea that two people, with separate webs of feeling and a gulf of unknowing between them, can become utterly possessed of one another; that is a true miracle and a mystery. Bad people, who cheat and steal and kill, come to love in this way, just as do doe-eyed teenagers, but the movies rarely concoct explanations for such anomalies. And neither do they deal in the melancholy of love that falls away, or is never quite to be. Sure, we have tragic love, but this is something quite different: the pure infatuation of still moments and the passage of time.
Kar-Wai Wong’s film is an intricate paper lantern, threatening to blow away at the barest gust of wind. It is a series of chance encounters in an unseen Hong Kong, one of sudden rain bursts and the snap of cooked food and Mahjong tiles. Walls close in perilously, and everything is bathed in the most gorgeous lamp-glow. Two people, both ravishing, become entwined in their spouses infidelities and vow not to fall victim to the same lustfulness. They are Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and they belong together in that strange way that all beautiful people do. We feel that it is right, despite the circumstances.
There are vast oceans of feeling gone uncategorized here, mirrored and refracted by some of the most lonely cinematography I’ve ever seen. The film has a dreamy glide, reds and yellows and blues blending in palettes of mugginess, and that unseen city pushes in at the windows, in the tap and rhythm of crowded summer tenaments. The will is strong, the flesh weak, and these surroundings conspire to urge the flesh.
Yet there is so much ambiguity, even in a film with merely two characters. No other film says so much in what it does not say. Unspoken pacts, glance and gesture, linger in tangled networks of longing, and there are indications of scenes replayed, with reflected advances from both man and woman. Here the curl of a lip, there the brush of creeping fingers. And every other inhabitant of this small universe is so coarse and vulgar, illuminating the two lovers in their profound silence. They rehearse infidelities but never, to our knowledge as voyeurs, act upon them.
Time moves on. Years pass in moments. As if glancing through a hazy window, out into the rain shine of Hong Kong streets, the two are older, and have lost each other. And those singular moments, the ones we all live, when time could have driven down a different path had we only had the courage to speak a single word, are gone forever. This, then, is love.
One of the most beautiful films. Don’t take my word for it.