Spoiler alert: This essay contains plot points.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, for many cinephiles across the world the cinema’s centre of gravity shifted from American and European cinemas to those of Asia. Iran and Taiwan had amazing ‘New Waves’ with films by auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. There was a tremendous resurgence in Japan with the films of Juzo Itami and Takeshi Kitano. And even in the more regimented film industry of Communist China, master filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke emerged.

But for me, the most unexpected and remarkable epiphany of those years was the work of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997) had the vivacity and delight of the act of filmmaking that had marked the original French New Wave of the early 1960s. Their sparkle, freshness and freedom were exhilarating. And then in 2000 came his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love. This is a film so accomplished, poised and simply beautiful to look at, that it remains for many a definitive modern cinema classic and perhaps even the finest film of the first two decades of the 21st century so far.

A newly restored version will be streamed on MUBI on December 12.

In The Mood for Love (2000).

Set in Hong Kong of the mid-1960s which was then a British colony, In the Mood for Love tells the story of two neighbours falling in love after they discover that their spouses are having an adulterous affair with each other. What starts as chance glances in the mahjong parlour of another neighbour and the narrow stairways of their apartment building develops with furtive looks exchanged in the dark corridor leading to the local takeaway.

Their mutual attraction continues with them playacting the affair of their respective spouses in restaurants and late night taxi drives of palpable but unspoken desire. They hire a hotel room to collaborate on a martial arts serial novel but not even a kiss or embrace is exchanged; instead only a deep feeling of at last having met one’s soulmate envelopes the very air and physical space around them.

But she cannot shed her old ideas of fidelity to her husband or the notion of a ‘pure’ love. He is reticent and respectful of her feelings, and this tact never breaks down. The relationship is not consummated, and after a while he moves away to another journalistic assignment in South-East Asia.

Time passes. In the film’s magnificent climax in the Angkor Wat temple, he enacts an old belief he related to a colleague a long time ago. That one can only truly share one’s deepest secret by whispering it into a tree hole, and then concealing it with dead grasses and fallen leaves. As a monk placidly watches him, he pours out the ache and longing buried in his heart in a hole in the temple wall, covers it, and walks away through the gate of the temple as the sun sets.

In The Mood for Love (2000).

Music of a severe grace and transcendent quality (composed for cello by Michael Galasso) accompanies the ending of an affair that never came to fulfilment but was one that nevertheless changed two lives forever. To my mind, no film before had traced such a heart-wrenching arc of romantic longing since Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan) or Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds (1955, with Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori) and the similarly moving earlier PC Barua New Theatres classic Devdas (1936, with KL Saigal, Jamuna Barua and Rajkumari).

Like these predecessors of the unrequited love story sub-genre, Wong Kar-wai creates depth and poignancy through period details of the narrative’s social milieu which are true of a morality that has long passed away and may even be termed as pre-modern.

Hong Kong of the mid-1960s is evoked through costume, interior design, popular music and radio broadcasts characteristic of the era. How men and women related to each other in those times is piercingly revealed in gestures and actions which are so perfectly tuned to the prevalent behaviour codes that one has the sense that even as the veneer of fidelity and tact is kept, the innermost motivations of the characters have been laid completely bare.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In The Mood for Love (2000). Courtesy Jet Tone Films.

Tony Leung is the handsome, dapperly attired man about town, and Maggie Cheung is the gorgeously dressed and coiffured Chinese female figurine-like sculpture come to life. The incandescent photography by Mark Lee Ping-bing, Christopher Doyle and Pun-Leung Kwan with lovely reds, blues and greens makes the atmosphere electric with emotion.

The music, from varied artists ranging from Nat King Cole and popular Cantonese pop songs to Chinese Opera attunes us to the nuance and significance of every situation. But above all, there is the film’s signature sad waltz-like Yumeji’s Theme by the Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi that haunts one like the soundtrack of all the loves one has had or imagined in one’s lifetime.

See this film for it could change your life; or at least make you aware that even as time passes and we begin to age, we have lived for a purpose and that our deepest feelings can still be recalled and relived.

Postscript: Wong Kar-wai had shot a different end which included a scene of the two lovers accidentally meeting a few years later in the Angkor Wat complex before the ending with the secret buried forever in the temple wall. But he deleted this last encounter for the film’s release to give the finale a greater emotional power and lingering resonance.

In 2004, he also made a brilliant, but less artistically successful sequel, 2046, named after the hotel room number where they used to meet. Maggie Cheung appears only in a few fleeting shots in flashbacks, as the burned-out hero engages in several affairs which do not have the same meaning for him.

2046 (2004).