Hong Kong, 1962. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) is looking for an apartment for him and his wife. The place he’s just tried has just been let out to Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), but the landlady suggests that he try next door. Soon, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan and their respective spouses are moving in on the same day, and the removal men are mixing up their furniture.
In the next hour and a half we see Mr- Chow and Mrs. Chan sharing a taxis, meeting next to the same wall, walking up and down stairs and eating noodles together (there is a LOT of eating noodles in this film). And, nothing much more. I don’t think it’s too original of me to say that this is a South East Asian take on Brief Encounter – lots of wistful glances, without any scenes that might worry the censors.
Like Brief Encounter, this is a triumph of style over substance – I’ve pretty much explained the whole plot already. Lest this may seem to be damning with faint praise, may I just say WHAT substance. Every scene is immaculately filmed in vibrant colours, down to the shot which has become iconic of Leung sat in a taxi with Cheung leaning her head on his shoulder.
There are occasional attempts to add a little bit of plot. Mr. Chow is a journalist who keeps working late and really wants to write a novel about martial arts. Mrs. Chan is a secretary. Chan’s husband is often away on business. Chow rarely sees his wife, as she works peculiar shifts. Eventually it becomes clear that their respective spouses are having an affair.
We occasionally hear and get a view of the spouses – but always from the back or another unusual angle. And we get to hear long speeches that each would like to say to his or her partner but are just too timid to address them. So they rehearse the speeches to each others – making accusations about infidelity to someone opposite who must be half thinking “chance would be a fine thing”.
Does this push them into each other’s arms? It really isn’t that sort of film. There’s more taxis, walls, stairs and noodles, and that’s about it in terms of anything actually happen. But did I tell you that it looks really good? It sounds good and all – there’s some great music in 3 / 4 time with insistent violins, and there’s Nat King Cole singing the song I know as Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps in Spanish.
I’ll guarantee that there’ll be critics who bang on for pages and pages trying to describe what is better just experienced – dancing about architecture so to speak. You’d be much wiser to just watch it and make up your own mind. If you’ve seen it before, this is a tarted up re-release. I missed it when it come out, so can’t really say to what extent they enhance things.
One final quibble. There are a couple of false endings which maybe were there to give added meaning, such as some mystical pissing about in a temple in Cambodia, a year or two before the place got flattened by US bombs. This may have been deeply significant, but it didn’t do anything for me. But it didn’t really have to. The rest of the film is fine as it is.