Fa Yeung Nin Wa (In The Mood For Love) is undoubtedly one of the best regarded films of the 21st century. Together with A Fei Jingjyuhn (Days of Being Wild) and 2046 it forms Kar Wai's unofficial romance trilogy, a set of films he will be remembered by long after he gives up on film making. It's also the film that got me hooked on Kar Wai, so I wondered how well it had survived since I last watched it more than 10 years ago.
The first few Kar Wai films I watched didn't go down too well. I was less than convinced of Christopher Doyle's cinematography and Kar Wai's choice of music bothered me. It wasn't until I saw Fa Yeung Nin Wa that everything finally fit together. I've been a fan ever since (even though I haven't changed my opinion about some of Kar Wai's older films), yet I also believe Kar Wai has kept improving himself afterwards. For many people Fa Yeung Nin Wa is his undisputed masterpiece, to me it is just a landmark moment in a, to this day, ongoing process.
I remembered Fa Yeung Nin Wa as a stylish, subtle and introverted romance. With that in mind, the opening sequence came as quite a surprise, as it features some ever-blabbering Chinese neighbors, occupying the entire scene with their noisy presence. Immediately after, the focus shifts to the main characters and peace returns quickly to the film. It's the start of a complex romance that never really blossoms yet thrives right below the surface.
Chow and Chan move in next to each other on the exact same day. At first they ignore each other's presence, but as they spend more and more time alone (they both struggle with their relationships) they begin to appreciate each other's company. When one day they find out that their partners are cheating behind their backs, they decide to engage in a fake relationship in the hope of finding out what drove their partners away.
Visually there are two sides to Fa Yeung Nin Wa. Doyle's work is absolutely impressive, with superb slow-motion sequences and inspiring camera angles. But the colors are a bit too muted for my taste and even though it might have been the DVD transfer (Tartan edition), the images lack a certain clarity. Then again, it could just as well be the film's age shining through. Compare it to 2046 and Fa Yeung Nin Wa comes off just a little lacking, even though it's still a beautiful film to look at.
The soundtrack is suffering a similar problem. Umebayashi's Yumeji's Theme is a stunning piece of music that gets better every time it pops up, the Spanish-language track isn't so much. Both themes have a tremendous influence on the atmosphere, which keeps rocking back and forth depending on the music that accompanies a certain scene. Overall the soundtrack works for the film, but the quality between individual tracks varies a little too much.
As for the actors, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the parts of their lives. Leung (Chiu Wai) owes a lot to Kar Wai and portrays his characters with style and dignity, but it's Cheung that deserves the most credit I think. She is otherworldly, a weird, at times even unpretty, yet oddly mesmerizing creature that draws all the attention towards her. As a couple they are amazing, drifting on subliminal urges that surface in their body language but never quite make it across.
As the film progresses the relationship between Chow and Chan starts to simmer, but Kar Wai never allows us the pleasure of release. Before the couple is allowed to blossom their ways part and they disappear from each other's lives entirely. The ending is beautiful in a dramatic sense, but might leave some people disappointed. Romances in Asian films are far less rosy than their Hollywood counterparts, which can be a little hard to swallow if you prefer wet kisses, passionate sex and a happy ending.
Fa Yeung Nin Wa is a great film, but it's ageing quite rapidly. Doyle and Umebayashi do a great job, Leung and Cheung are stellar, but they cannot hide the fact that Kar Wai grew even more skilled after completing this film. I think Yi Dai Zong Shi, 2046 and My Blueberry Nights are all better films, even though that's probably considered sacrilege in certain circles. Still, Fa Yeung Nin Wa remains a great film only bested by Kar Wai's own body of work, so it's definitely a must-see for everyone who hasn't seen it yet.