It was about time. After years of promise, flashes of brilliance, stretches of virtuosity -- in Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together -- Hong Kong's foremost fashioner of "art films," Wong Kar-wai, finally settles down and, in the popular phrase, puts it all together. Set in the early Sixties, the story of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, quiet, well-mannered next-door neighbors whose spouses are having an affair, is not by any means a major story; it is common as dirt. But it is a major movie, a perfect match of subject and style. The camera, for openers, is always squeezing into tight, narrow, cramped spaces, taking people as it finds them, with a Degas-like randomness and informality: people caught in their surroundings, from disadvantageous angles, at odd moments, not people in a conveniently cleared-out space, in front of a docile backdrop, in positions of total domination, like your average movie stars. They are often only partially seen -- from behind, in three-quarters profile, through forests of obstruction (slats, bars, window shades, doorframes), or are seen only in passing, as if from the corner of the eye. (We never see the faces of the cheating mates at all.) This sort of thing can be seen to express and preserve the mystery of people ("Do you really know your wife?"), the hiddenness of their personalities, the unknown recesses of their hearts, their bottled-up emotions and muzzled thoughts, the parts of them inaccessible to a camera. But to say so is inadequate. Words can't convey. You must see for yourself. It would be fair to say that, among the things hidden in the film, it is not always clear exactly where we are or what has taken place, but it is fair to say, too, that that fits in with the theme of the unknown and the unknowable. And the device of role-playing, whereby the cheated-on spouses improvise possible scenes (past or future) involving their cheating mates, has the potential to create some confusion. As does the nonsequential shuffle of scenes near the end. Of course it would not be a Wong Kar-wai film without some confusion. The great advance is that it's a Wong Kar-wai film without evidence of disintegration. Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung. (2000) — Duncan Shepherd
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