“Mood” is the operative word in the title of Wong Kar-wai’s latest picture. The Hong Kong writer-director has always been more interested in style than substance, and that’s never been truer than in this extraordinarily simple but fastidiously composed, lushly photographed tale of neighbors in adjoining flats who are attracted to one another when they become aware that their spouses are having an affair. The result sometimes seems like a series of stills and long tracking shots stitched together, many of them looking rather like advertisements in glossy magazines; and the viewer must frequently supply the connections necessary to fashion a coherent plot, since they’re often implied rather than shown. To be sure, the atmosphere Wong achieves is lovely, but over the course of 97 minutes “In the Mood for Love” leaves one appreciatively analyzing its cinematic polish but not caring much about its characters.

Set in 1962, the script focuses on Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a low-key journalist with a desire to write martial arts stories, and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a beautiful secretary. Chow and his wife take a room in a flat presided over by voluble Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan), while Li-zhen and her husband, a salesman frequently off in Japan, rent one next door in the apartment of the Koos. The first reels detail their simultaneous moving-in and their occasional meetings in the hall or streets, but we never see their respective spouses; Wong keeps them offscreen even during conversations in which they’re engaged, either showing only brief glimpses of them from the back, or obstructing any view of them with walls or furniture, or simply running their voices over shots of unoccupied space. The intent, of course, is to accentuate the isolation of the leads, but though the technique seems clever at first, it quickly becomes precious–some moments end up looking like sequences in a pan-and-scan video, with characters addressing emptiness off to their right or left, and the slow, dreamy pans across corridors, walls, chairs, and tables, along with frequent long shots of the leads themselves (who are often about as animated as the furniture), eventually become wearying in their forced artiness.

What little “plot” there is has to do with the gradual development of the relationship between Chow and Li-zhen, who are obviously drawn to one another but never progress beyond a hand-holding stage, partially because they’re concerned with how their neighbors and co-workers might react, but mostly because they choose not to emulate their wayward spouses. This might make them admirable, but it means that the story of their companionship remains one of small gestures and unconsummated desires, a depiction of genteel foreplay which never blossoms into open passion, in which many links are deliberately left oblique and unstated. A fragmented epilogue, which ends with the camera panning across ancient Cambodian ruins, emphasizes the tone of muted resignation and melancholy regret for what might have been that suffuses the entire picture.

Under the circumstances Leung and Cheung, who both have worked with Wong before, do their best, but the director’s approach mostly stifles whatever energy they might have brought to their roles. Leung suffers most, often appearing virtually incapable of flexing a facial muscle. Cheung is given more of an opportunity to shine, particularly in the latter reels when she grows increasingly emotional (as in a scene when Li-zhen uses Chow as a stand-in for her husband as she practices questioning him about his extra-marital activities). (She also looks gorgeous, sporting a bewilderingly large collection of silk dresses with floral prints for a secretary with an absent husband.) But it’s a sign that the leads fail to connect as entrancingly as they’re supposed to when we find ourselves refreshed by any appearance by Pan as the irrepressible Mrs. Suen, or by Siu Ping-lam as Ah-ping, a cynical, plain-spoken colleague of Chow’s. Ah-ping is a grubby little fellow, but after an hour or so of living with the mannequin-like lead couple, his presence comes to seem pleasantly invigorating.

One can admire the visual artistry and compositional skill evident in every frame of “In the Mood for Love,” but ultimately it impresses more as a technical exercise than an involving drama. When all is said and done, despite its surface sheen the picture is really nothing more than a high-toned soap opera straining to pass for a work of art.