This for so long had been a bit of an "amateur film buff bingo" film for me; I have been recommended it so many times, by so many people with disparate tastes, for so many reasons, that it took on a bit of a life of its own. So I came in with some preconceptions — mostly of its ostensible merits.
And boy did it live up to them!
The plot is sweet and melancholy and largely immaterial to my analysis of this film's merit — it can be summed up in a sentence, as can perhaps the movie itself. (I thought it was a particularly inspired choice to never show the two philanderers, and to only hear their voices.)
What is stunning to me (someone who's pretty poorly versed in HK cinema in general and Wong Kar-wai in particular) was the visual language. It's probably a cliche to call this a ninety-minute tone poem, but that's exactly what it was — deep, saturated hues, gratuitous shots of cigarette billows and skewed nested frames. There are so few staged shots: everything is obscured, obscured through doorframes and bars and desks and curtains. It was gorgeous.
And the acting was sublime. There are, in reality, two actors: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Their performances were classical: reaction over emotion, quiet and subdued and again, I am repeating myself, sublime.
The ending intertitle reads:
He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
I think the cut from the dusty, smoke-filled shots of Hong Kong to Angkor Wat — more conventionally shot and lit, with Tony Leung looking briefly like he's in an American film with Western sensibilities — is what will stick with me most in this film. This is clearly a story told not in the present day but as someone remembering the past, perhaps fondly and bittersweetly. Who does not have a story — told briefly, in vivid splashes of color and sepia and obscured by time — that they tell themselves like this, or to whom the memory is forced upon them when they catch a glimpse of something they had once forgotten?
(The highest praise you can afford a film is the ardent desire to see more of the auteur's work; I can't wait to watch 2046 ↗.)