Make Mood, Not Love With films of style and suggestiveness, nobody creates sexual tension quite like Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai

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Whispers in doorways. long, longing looks. Desire smothered by propriety. A love that dare not show its face. Wong Kar-wai's enthralling, enigmatic In the Mood for Love is an essay in appetite and inhibition. Its theme is withholding-withholding love, commitment and information to the characters and the viewer. The film lives in the realm of emotional suppression and artistic suggestion. It weaves an erotic web around two of Hong Kong's comeliest stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, then lets the audience decide whether they have an affair. "People who watch films think they need to be provided with details," Wong says. "I don't want to give them."

The "story" of In the Mood for Love (which releases in Australia this week) is simple enough. In 1962 two couples, the Chans and the Chows, move into adjacent boarding houses in Hong Kong. Proximity forces Mrs. Chan (Maggie) and Mr. Chow (Tony) together, and gradually they realize that their spouses are having an affair. This abandoned pair are united at first by bereavement-for their compromised marriages and their dented egos-and then by something else. Could it be love? That's what In the Mood's audience is in the mood for. But Wong isn't.

"I hate love stories," he says. "They sell prettiness. I don't do that. There's more to life than love." Yet love, sex and their attendant ache are at the humid heart of his films; that's one reason he is Hong Kong's most distinctive director, and Asia's most imitated. He eroticizes his images with a dreamy sensuality edited at a sprung-rhythm pace: slow-motion gazing at a woman carrying a thermos of noodles, a man dragging on a cigarette. And the subject of every Wong film, from the early As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild to Chungking Express and Happy Together, is the combustion of yearning and isolation-the need for closeness within the life sentence of solitude.

"I'm tired of making Wong Kar-wai movies," the director half-seriously once said. In the Mood has the bleak glamour and daring craftsmanship of his other work, thanks to Chris Doyle, the cinematographer, and William Chang, who designed both the production and the costumes (including a ravishing cheongsam wardrobe for Cheung) and edited the film. But for his first period piece since the kung-fu Ashes of Time, Wong wanted a style that evoked the colony and its movies in 1962: more classical, less ornate. To capture the density of middle-class life in the Shanghainese sector of Hong Kong, he keeps the camera close to the actors as they edge past each other in narrow corridors and alleyways-so close you can feel their heat and pain.

In its first hour, the film draws the viewer into the characters' frustrated lives. How do people behave when they learn they have been betrayed? And later, when they are considering an affair of their own? On the outside, nothing unusual. They play mah-jongg, go to the corner for take-away food, sit alone in a room. Visually and dramatically, the film doesn't raise its voice; it never reveals the faces of the adulterers and often shows only one of two people in a doorway chat. In 1962, Wong was four years old (he came to Hong Kong from Shanghai the following year). In the Mood could be seen as a child's perspective on grown-up matters-of adults speaking their private language, sotto voce.

But the attentive viewer will see signs of furtive feelings. The strained courtship of Maggie and Tony is a symphony of fumbling gestures. Her hand brushes past his jacket; his hand rests, for a tense moment, on hers. One night she stays in his room, because the landlord has come home and they don't care to stoke a hotpot of gossip. As incarnated so beautifully by two actors who can suggest worlds without words, the pair have all the wariness and guilt of adulterous lovers. But do they have an affair?

The director says they do; he shot love scenes that he later cut. But who needs a big revelation? "It's easy to understand," he insists. "Hong Kong audiences are saying, 'Finally, we understand a Kar-wai movie.' I get a little upset about that. I think I've let them down." Still, some viewers are confused by the way the film veers into opaqueness toward the end. At its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Cheung said she was shocked by how much was left out in the editing. And Leung says, "When I saw it for the first time, even I felt like an outsider. I had lived that character for a year and a half and I couldn't get into that character, live with them both, flow with them."

Wong acknowledges that his actors were often exasperated during the grueling 15-month shoot. "It took four hours just to set up Maggie's hairdo," he says. "So if we shot 12 hours, it meant 16 for her. That's tough, she hated it, and she hated me for it." But the plot doesn't matter as much as the mood in a Wong Kar-wai film, which has to be an active collaboration between its makers and the audience. And for the viewer who can get beyond did-they-or-didn't-they, the film has all the mystery of real life transformed into seductive art.

At the end of Happy Together, the gay man played by Leung sought refuge in a lighthouse at the southern tip of Patagonia. At the end of In the Mood, Leung is in the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat, speaking his secret (of guilt or loss or deceit) into a hole in a temple wall, then sealing the crack so the words will be safe from prying minds. He might be Wong, disclosing and securing the secret of his film.

The last shots are of Angkor Wat's ancient doorways, echoing 800 years of con-fessions, prayers and betrayals. The story of these two sad people is as small as a shrug, as soft as a whisper, as lovely as a Maggie Cheung dress, as old as Adam and Eve, as cold as the ashes at the end of an affair that kindled all too briefly, or never was.

-Reported by STEPHEN SHORT Hong Kong