I have a real problem with BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945).
I’m not sure why.
It is a much admired British film, albeit by train enthusiasts and those who crave that golden-age that John Major described so memorably with its warm beer and leather on willow. It concerns a caste courtship between two strangers: a dashing Trevor Howard and a pop-eyed Celia Johnson; the latter giving a Cherie-Blair-alike performance with irritating voice-over that sets my teeth on edge just thinking about it.
It was a set text on a film studies course that I completed in 2004 so was obliged to watch the film a number of times, each time failing to connect with the characters as it seemed to portray another world that said nothing to me about my world; “the past is foreign country, they do things differently there.” Thanks to Steve Hale, my inspiring lecturer, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE gave me a way into Lean’s classic, as it explores a similar relationship between its main characters.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung move into neighbouring apartments and are brought together by their partner’s infidelities. The narrative is extremely sophisticated in its ambiguity as it is never clear whether they consummate their affair; however they conduct it in an elaborate, tacit courtship that recalls the one in BRIEF ENCOUNTER.
This is a film about style, mood and a melodramatic romance. In a country where people are forced to live cheek by jowl, a sense of moral restraint and etiquette are needed to manage human interactions. Wong reflects this through his intricate composition of shots of frames-within-frames, the characters are literally constrained by the world around them and conduct conversations to people outside of the frame. It’s a device he also deployed with a more frenetic pace in his noir-thriller CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994). In this film, there is a gracefulness, especially in the key scene where the two characters pass each other at the noodle-bar, a tight corridor, a languid,slow motion tracking shot as they cross, but do not touch, while the heady soundtrack surges. A simple social exchange that is loaded with unspoken significance. Wonderful.
He revisited the characters and situation in an oblique manner in 2046 (2004) which I refuse to watch as I want IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE to be suspended in that moment in the ruins of Angkor Wat. In the final moments there is a sense that there is something darker, more melancholy apparent in the relationship, and Wong has indicated as much by comparing Leung’s character to that of Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO (1958). He has suggested that the audience feel an affinity with the characters in both films as they have “gentle faces” and tolerate their obsessions without realising that they are essentially disturbed people.
It is a fascinating film and it is remarkable that it took a director from the other-side of the world to unlock a film that was much closer to home.