It's a beautiful, serene film in which very little happens. I liked it a lot.
It's a Hong Kong film set in 1962 and the middle instalment of a loose trilogy, although I didn't know that while I was watching it. It shares characters with the same director's Days of Being Wild
(1990) and 2046
(2004). I'll be watching them. The story involves four people living in neighbouring apartments: (a) Maggie Cheung and her husband, and (b) Tony Leung Chiu Wai and his wife. The reason I've been vague about two of those people is because we never see them. Sometimes we hear their voices, but that's all. They're usually away on business trips, or working late shifts.
However when Cheung and Leung start harbouring suspicions about their partners' marital fidelity, the question becomes what to do about each other.
Firstly, it doesn't proceed in a conventional fashion. It's a character piece, almost a montage of these people's lives. It'll show us hints and half-scenes. It shows us people eating alone, or with oddly chosen friends. (Leung has a dodgy bald colleague who'll bet everything he has a hot tip from a friend and gets credit at the local brothel because he's their most regular customer.) We see the loneliness that Cheung and Leung never knew until they got married. Even the question of whether our main characters have sex or not is one that the film doesn't answer. I wondered if I was being dim, or if there were cultural signals I wasn't picking up. There are scenes that seem to suggest such a continuation. Maybe it did happen. However in other scenes they're clearly avoiding sex together and on the contrary are determined not to sink to the level of their spouses.
Nevertheless they go on seeing each other. Whether or not they're staying chaste, that's not going to stop the neighbours' gossip if they're noticed.
Interestingly the director thinks their relationship is warped. He's even compared them with Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo
, who doesn't strike the audience as a sicko entirely because he's the eternally likeable Jimmy Stewart. Maggie and Leung are similarly huge names in Hong Kong cinema and they keep you watching and empathising long after lesser actors would have had you turning off the TV. Nevertheless the things they do include, for instance, "rehearsals". From a less elegant director, those could almost be called cheating. Here it's ingenious.
By any definition these are good people. They're the injured parties, yet they're refusing to stoop to that kind of behaviour themselves. They work hard. However they're also non-committal and slightly distant, hiding behind good manners and thus letting themselves drift into something a bit odd and perhaps not entirely healthy. I still liked them and I wanted to know what would happen to them, mind you.
The film looks lovely. It was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language and for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It's the kind of movie where you've got to be watching for what's unsaid and reading the gaps between the scenes, so for instance at one point I suspected that Cheung's boss had a mistress. It's just a look he gives her when she passes on a message. That's all. Maybe I'm reading too much into a throwaway moment, but it's refreshing to watch a film that expects to be watched on this level.
The 1960s era is recreated subtly, but occasionally it draws itself to your attention. The typewriter's the main one for me, since in those days the only way to write Chinese characters was to write them by hand. Cheung will have been typing her Chinese in Latin script.
My favourite anecdote about this film was that filming had to move from Beijing to Macau because the Chinese authorities had demanded to see the script. Kar Wai Wong never uses scripts. Filming took fifteen months, while the film itself covers half a decade (1962-1966). Intelligent, delicate and far more watchable than you'd expect, given its ingredients. It also has an ending I didn't expect. Recommended.