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Feb. 23-March 4 at the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater

Perhaps you’ve heard that In the Mood for Love is about a love affair. Actually, the film recounts two melancholy passions, and reasonable people may differ about which of them is more compelling: the seemingly unfulfilled romance between next-door neighbors Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) or Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s wistful longing for the city of his youth.

The former relationship is unabashedly schematic: Chan and Chow and their respective spouses move into rooms in neighboring apartments on the same day in 1962, the coincidence emphasized by a scene in which the movers mix up the newcomers’ belongings. That’s not the end of the confusion: Chan and Chow’s husband and wife (whose faces are never shown) soon seem to forget whom they’re married to. They begin an affair, and when Chan and Chow realize this, their own proximity becomes both comforting and more awkward.

The two nonlovers live in a world of suffocating decorum and intense intimacy, the latter a simple byproduct of the city’s overcrowding. Although they’re surrounded by cheaters—including Chan’s boss—they decide to honor their marriage vows. Still, infidelity is an inevitable topic of conversation for the two of them, and avoiding the appearance of impropriety becomes a significant challenge. One night, Chan is trapped in Chow’s apartment when his landlady and her friends come home early; rather than admit that she’s entered a married man’s room, she hides there all night and much of the next day—an especially uneasy situation for two people who, while insisting they will never sink to the level of their spouses, are nonetheless increasingly attracted to each other. Ultimately, their desire becomes so overwhelming that Chow flees Hong Kong for Singapore, and a few cryptic final scenes pointedly fail to reveal just how intimate the couple ever became.

Cheung and Leung have worked with Wong several times before, notably on 1991’s Days of Being Wild, to which In the Mood for Love is something of a sequel. The two films are set, respectively, in 1960 and 1962, but they have very different tones. Like most of Wong’s films, Days of Being Wild is about being young and footloose; it’s a frantic urban ballet constructed from equal parts MTV, early Godard, and Hong Kong’s candy-colored neon palette. And lovers who don’t quite connect is not a new theme for Wong: In Chungking Express, a carryout waitress secretly tidies the apartment of a heartbroken cop who barely knows she exists; in Fallen Angels, a woman nurses a secret crush on the hit man she represents; in Happy Together, two gay lovers travel to Buenos Aires, only to lose each other.

Those earlier movies are rhapsodically breathless, propelled by the handheld camera of Christopher Doyle, who ultimately walked out on In the Mood for Love’s two-year shoot. (The rest of the film’s Cannes Technical Grand Prize-winning cinematography is by Mark Li Ping-bin.) That In the Mood for Love is something new for Wong is quickly revealed by Cheung’s clothing: She wears colorful but constricting traditional silk dresses that are both historically accurate and symbolic of her circumscribed life. (The dresses compel Cheung into the opposite of her role in Irma Vep, in which a tight leather catsuit unleashed her character’s sense of adventure.) The film is equally confined, shot in close quarters—rooms, hallways, staircases, alleys—by a camera that moves deliberately and whose views are framed tightly. The music, a mix of neoclassical laments and languorous Nat King Cole ballads, also offers no release.

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Wong further embalms the film’s ambience by proceeding at a leisurely pace, contemplating the minimal action from a variety of angles; he gives the task of fetching dinner from a noodle shop an aura of religious ritual. Sometimes, he replays a scene twice, once from each principal’s point of view. The result is exquisite, mesmerizing, and very nearly airless, although the film’s stateliness is somewhat offset by the elliptical editing of William Chang Suk-ping, who also served as production and costume designer. The movie’s tiny emotional explosions barely breach its glamorously repressed surface, although the mood suddenly breaks free in the final sequence, in which the film—like its predecessor, Happy Together—takes a spontaneous journey to a location that has almost nothing to do with the previous scenes. (One indication that Wong’s style is becoming increasingly indirect: “Happy Together” finally plays at the close of that film; “In the Mood for Love” is never heard in this one.)

In the Mood for Love is set not just in Hong Kong but among the Shanghainese community in which Wong, whose family left Shanghai in 1962, grew up. It ends in 1967, when the Cultural Revolution spilled over into the British colony and the residents of Hong Kong, a city of refugees, began thinking of emigrating yet again. That’s 30 years before the British returned the city to Chinese rule, but 1997 haunts this film just as it does Happy Together, which was about avoiding the 1997 hand-over by traveling to the opposite side of the globe. Romantics may muse about whether Chan and Chow ever consummated their love, but Wong ends his film not with news about his central characters but with an elegy for their former home: “That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore.” As in Wayne Wong’s Chinese Box, Hong Kong itself is the film’s true lost love.

Akira Kurosawa’s best-known films feature clanging sword fights, but none have exactly the timbre of When the Rain Lifts. Set in the 18th century, when the Tokugawa shoguns’ rule had ended the feudal struggles that furnish the backdrop of most Japanese samurai epics, the movie is the tale of a master swordsman who can find no useful role in a peaceful society. Although it depicts a world of peasants and lords, kimonos and blades, the film’s outlook also suggests Kurosawa’s several parables of post-Hiroshima Japan, in which war is seemingly unthinkable.

Strictly speaking, When the Rain Lifts is not a Kurosawa film. It was directed by Takashi Koizumi, who worked with Kurosawa from 1974’s Dersu Uzala to the director’s death in 1998. The script is credited to Kurosawa but was in fact finished by Koizumi, based on his longtime mentor’s notes; its source is a story by Shugoro Yamamoto, whose writings also provided the basis for three Kurosawa movies: Sanjuro, Red Beard, and Dodesukaden.

The action begins at an inn near a river swollen by persistent rain. Overcrowded by travelers waiting for the waters to fall and allow a safe crossing, the inn erupts when a prostitute accuses an old man of stealing her food. One of the travelers, a poor ronin (unemployed samurai) named Ihei Misawa (Akira Terao), interrupts the quarrel and then arranges a feast for all the inn’s residents. Everyone is cheered by the party except Ihei’s wife, Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who realizes that her husband must have dueled for the money to pay for the provisions. Fighting for cash is beneath the dignity of a true samurai, and Ihei had previously promised Tayo that he wouldn’t do it again.

Ihei is hardly the detached, driven swordsman seen in so many Japanese period movies; he has a sense of humor and likes to calm stormy situations. So when he comes upon a group of men fighting in the woods, he skillfully disarms them, damaging nothing but their pride. His expertise impresses the local lord (played by Shiro Mifune, the son of Kurowasa’s emblematic star Toshirô), who invites Ihei to his castle. Soon the ronin has an offer to serve as the lord’s fencing instructor, a position Ihei hopes will lead to a more respectable and comfortable life for his dutiful wife. But there’s a reason why Ihei has long been unemployed: He’s much better at handling swords than aristocratic egos.

Kurosawa’s last samurai pictures, Kagemusha and Ran, were gory indictments of war, and even lighter-hearted predecessors such as Yojimbo were comically brutal. Blood is shed in When the Rain Lifts, but the story doesn’t end with a climactic showdown. Instead, it takes an unexpected road, toward a vision that suggests a subtler variation on Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody in August. Even if the movie Koizumi has made doesn’t convey precisely what Kurosawa intended, it is rooted in the master’s style—notably his sensitivity to the natural world—and in the themes he pressed a bit too hard in his final work. But rather than sermonizing on alternatives to violence, When the Rain Lifts simply shows one that is both simple and transcendent. CP