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Armchair Cinephile

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Every day we brush past so many other people — people we may never meet, or people who may become close friends ...

The opening lines of Chungking Express (Miramax, $19.99), Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 film festival hit, are key to his approach to storytelling. In Express and Fallen Angels, its sequel-in-spirit (Kino, $29.95), certain characters are given copious voice-over dialogue illuminating their interior worlds — enough characters with disparate viewpoints that the idea of a central protagonist becomes moot. The films even abandon storylines, providing only the flimsiest transition between one plot and the next; one character walks by another, and suddenly we're hanging out in a different person's head.

Stylish to the extreme and heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-Wai stands apart from his Hong Kong contemporaries. He has made a historical martial arts film, as all HK auteurs must, but for the most part any action in his work is beside the point. Even in Angels, an assassin's chores are really only of interest because they give him cause to interact with a woman who could be his soulmate — or could remain a complete stranger.

Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the director fills his movies with handheld camera set-ups, step printing and slow motion. While other filmmakers use such techniques to create a frenzied atmosphere, Wong uses them to immerse us in the often aimless lives his characters lead. Contrary to what you'd expect, his films often feel much longer than they are, and not necessarily in a bad way.

When they're working, they can charm you out of your seat. In Express, a young girl winds up with a key to a handsome but brokenhearted police officer's apartment, and gets in the habit of going there while he's at work, pretending to share his life while the object of her affection is walking his beat.

She gets the key from a Dear John letter that never reaches its recipient; that theme, of the message never sent, runs through these films, most poignantly in the final scenes of Wong's most recent release, In the Mood for Love (Criterion, $39.95). Again, individuals' lives hinge on bits of information that is accidentally or deliberately withheld from them, making our paths seem arbitrary, less driven by the direction of our conscious thoughts than by chance.

In the Mood, though, turns many of Wong's tendencies upside down. Instead of internal monologues, the voiceovers here are conversations between a man and a woman, a dialogue that seeks to make sense of a situation that's known but never seen: The man and woman, next-door neighbors, are both married, and their spouses are having an affair. While the lovers are out of town for "business," Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow handle their grief in a very odd way. In an attempt to understand how the affair began, they pretend to be the cheating couple, playing out an imaginary courtship that inspires some very real feelings on the part of at least one participant.

It's the most engrossing of all Wong's films to hit DVD in the states, partly because Wong sublimates most of his visual flair: instead of delivering eye-candy cinematography, he imbues what's in the frame with a lush, nostalgic beauty. Richly textured wall treatments, sets constructed to conceal as much as they show, and a collection of high-collared dresses that make the most of Maggie Cheung's exquisite figure, all make us more interested in what's happening onset than in the story — and since what's happening onscreen is all repressed longing and stifled impulse, Wong brings the viewer to a boil without seeming to try.

That effortlessness is a big step for a filmmaker whose earlier work, masterful though it is, relies heavily on an obtrusive technique. As flashy as they are, Wong Kar-Wai's tales are most exciting when the substance pokes its way through the style.

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