Every now and the on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.
“In the Mood for Love”
Dir: Wong Kar-Wai
Criticwire Average: A
Sensual and devastating in equal measure, Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” captures the loneliness of unfulfilled desire better than almost any other film of the 2000s. Wong uses lush visuals, precise framing, and evocative slow-motion to illustrate both the beauty of unexpectedly falling in love and the fractured feeling of knowing it can never be consummated. Its quiet, subtle tone masks a deep well of love and pain that only occasionally shows its face amidst the many visual repetitions, riffing on ideas of adultery, heartbreak, and infatuation without a clear schema. “In the Mood for Love” operates on instinct and intuition, engendering a tender sensation that is ultimately transient but creates the illusion of permanency. It’s a love story about love itself and how it lingers in the minds of its subjects far longer than any one relationship ever can.
Set in 1962 Hong Kong, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into the same apartment building on the same day and become next door neighbors. Both have spouses who work late and leave them alone for long periods of time. Since the two are often alone, Chow and Su see quite a bit of each other in the halls and on the streets, with plenty of chance encounters on their way to the street noodle cart. The two independently believe their respective spouse is having an affair, but after a telling dinner conversation, both realize their spouses are having an affair with each other. In response, Chow and Su strike up a platonic relationship, playacting how their spouses met and got together, and rehearsing how they’ll confront them about their infidelity. Along the way, the two eventually develop feelings for each other and fall in love, but their respective principles and societal norms ultimately keep them apart, leaving them to pass each other by over many years.
The first thing you notice about “In the Mood for Love” is its pacing, and how its both patient but ruptured. Wong employs a snapshot structure to Chow and Su’s relationship, luxuriating in small moments of connection before jumping forward in time to another moment all together. It’s the collection of these moments coupled with Chow and Su’s slow realization of their spouse’s deception that allows their relationship to at first pivot on revenge but then later become something deeper and tangible. Wong edits the moments when they’re playacting their spouse’s affair as if they’re twistingly real before dropping a hint that it’s all been pretend, creating a sense of intimacy that keeps being deferred by their own separate realities. There are a handful of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments that hint at when these two actually fall for each other (one that jumps to mind is the sequence when Su travels to Chow’s rented apartment to help him write that’s punctuated by whirlwind jump cuts), it’s mostly kept to suggestion, as if we know it’s inevitable far before they do.
Wong gracefully employs certain techniques in the film that somehow produce both overwhelming beauty and unbearable dread. The leitmotif of “Yumeji’s Theme” (originally composed for Seijun Suzuki’s 1991 film “Yumeji”) expresses their own loneliness and their respective desire, rendering simple shots of Chow or Su eating alone some of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire film. Wong’s use of slow-motion simultaneously basks in the gorgeous splendor that is Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and ensnares them in prisons of their own love. But it’s Wong’s use of color that stays with you longer than any one sequence ever can. The film’s breathtaking use of reds and blacks captures the suppressed intensity of their love as well as the shadows where it must stay. His cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin create a colorful world of dark secrets, with bursts of flame threatening to pop out from the darkness only to eventually stay there untapped.
But more than any one moment or technique, it’s the last act of “In the Mood for Love” that seals its power because it refuses any neatness, preferring its catharsis to come from separation rather than coupling. After Chow moves to Singapore after realizing that he and Su can never be together, the two pass each other by over a period of years. Su travels to Singapore to see Chow, going so far as to wait in his apartment, but eventually departs before seeing him, leaving behind only a lipstick-stained cigarette as a memento of her presence. Chow goes back to their apartment complex to visit his landlords only to learn that they have left and a “young woman and son” have moved in next door, but Chow leaves before learning that it’s actually Su and her son. Wong insists on keeping their love a thwarted, impermanent event in a larger story we don’t have access to; he creates the sense that there’s a bigger picture behind every single shot in the film, but pushes those hints to the margins and maintains the focus exclusively on the small moments of their relationship. Chow’s only satisfaction is to whisper his emotions into a hollow of a ruined wall in Angkor Wat, knowing it will never see the light of day. We’re left on that moment: A mud-covered hollow containing an enduring love that will never be realized but can never be forgotten.
More thoughts from the web:
Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
“In the Mood for Love” is probably the most breathtakingly gorgeous film of the year, dizzy with a nose-against-the-glass romantic spirit that has been missing from the cinema forever, a spirit found in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the best Roxy Music and minor-key romantic movies like the forgettable 1956 “Miracle in the Rain,” where the lovers’ suffering is sealed because of the chasteness of the era. Sex scenes couldn’t be spelled out, and as in Mr. Wong’s film, yearning becomes the epoxy that holds the material together. The pining here is so graceful that you may be transfixed by it. Instead of explicit physical tangles Mr. Wong eroticizes each movement of his camera, something not many others could do because no one can cut within a camera move the way he does. “Mood” fits the tradition of audacity at the New York Film Festival, where “Last Tango in Paris” once changed movies forever. This film goes so far in the other direction that there’s a fetishistic fixation on clothes; the beautiful floral-patterned silk dresses worn by Ms. Cheung have a sexual charge. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
Wong Kar-wai leaves the cheating couple offscreen. Movies about adultery are almost always about the adulterers, but the critic Elvis Mitchell observes that the heroes here are “the characters who are usually the victims in a James M. Cain story.” Their spouses may sin in Singapore, Tokyo or a downtown love hotel, but they will never sin on the screen of this movie, because their adultery is boring and commonplace, while the reticence of Chow and Su elevates their love to a kind of noble perfection. Their lives are as walled in as their cramped living quarters. They have more money than places to spend it. Still dressed for the office, she dashes out to a crowded alley to buy noodles. Sometimes they meet on the grotty staircase. Often it is raining. Sometimes they simply talk on the sidewalk. Lovers do not notice where they are, do not notice that they repeat themselves. It isn’t repetition, anyway — it’s reassurance. And when you’re holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
With seductive pop love stories like “Chungking Express” and “Happy Together,” Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has developed an intoxicating style that reaches beyond the shopworn conventions of traditional storytelling and into a more abstract realm of human emotion. His unique virtuosity has often been compared to the improvisational riffs of a jazz artist, with straight scenes dropped in favor of rhymes, repetition, and dizzying impressions. Set in the sad yet deeply romanticized world of Hong Kong in the early to mid-’60s, Wong’s ravishingly beautiful “In the Mood for Love” may be classified as a period piece, but only in the technical sense. In detailing the intimate friendship and love between two unhappily married lonelyhearts, Wong collects vivid moments out of time as they might play out in a person’s memory many years later. Shots of the couple first brushing shoulders on a flight of stairs or sharing an umbrella in a heavy downpour are slowed down to poignant effect, as if they wished these fleeting instants would last an eternity. Read more.
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Studied as it is, “In the Mood for Love” might have felt airless or static were it not for the oblique editing. Every artful contrivance is fuel for the fire, ashes of time scattered on the wind. “That era has passed” is the closing sentiment. “Nothing that belongs to it exists any more.” Is “In the Mood for Love” Sirkian? Proustian? Can we speak of the Wongian? This 43-year-old writer-director is the most avant-garde of pop filmmakers (or vice versa). Poised between approach and avoidance, presence and absence, “In the Mood for Love” is both giving and withholding. Governed by laws as strict as the old Hollywood production code, it’s rhapsodically sublimated and ultimately sublime. Read more.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
A brooding chamber piece about a love affair that never quite happens. Director Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most romantic filmmaker, is known for his excesses, and in that sense the film’s spareness represents a bold departure. Claustrophobically set in adjacent flats in 1962 Hong Kong, where two young couples find themselves sharing space with other people, it focuses on a newspaper editor and a secretary at an export firm (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the sexiest duo in Hong Kong cinema) who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair on the road. Wong, who improvises his films with the actors, endlessly repeats his musical motifs and variations on a handful of images, rituals, and short scenes (rainstorms, cab rides, stairways, tender and tentative hand gestures), while dressing Cheung in some of the most confining (though lovely) dresses imaginable, whose mandarin collars suggest neck braces. Read more.
Nathan Rabin, The Dissolve
“In the Mood for Love” does for slow-motion sensuality what John Woo did for slow-motion violence. Cheung doesn’t walk so much as glide, as if driven by some divine internal motor. The way Cheung’s hips sway ever so gently in her tight-fitting dresses as she saunters down a hallway is hypnotic in its blistering yet restrained eroticism. But it isn’t just the impossible beauty of the leads that makes “In the Mood for Love” such an immersive sensual experience. Wong’s film benefits from a rare alchemy of sight and sound. Those exquisite textures come as much from Michael Galasso’s score and a brilliant selection of songs sung by Cole as it does Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography. Read more.
In Dream Time
It is by no means coincidental that the two most celebrated Chinese-language films of the last two or three months – Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) – hark back to old genres and times past. Some grand design of time has brought the films about. Both directors and their films recollect childhood memories of pleasures induced from going to the cinema. Both men are roughly of the same generation (Lee was born in 1954; Wong in 1958), and have come of age as directors at about the same time: this, above everything else, appears to have informed their choices of genre. In the case of Ang Lee, the director’s own memories of watching martial arts pictures spawned boyhood fantasies of a China “that probably never existed.” (1) Watching the pictures of the wuxia (sword and chivalry) genre throughout his formative childhood days evoked a dreaming time for Ang Lee – his film being in his own words, “a kind of dream of China”. (2) Both Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai, each in their own ways and working in radically different genres, have tried to duplicate this kind of “dream time” in their respective movies.
Wong’s In the Mood for Love is a romance melodrama, which tells the story of a married man (played by Tony Leung) and a married woman (played by Maggie Cheung), living in rented rooms of neighbouring apartments, who fall in love with each other while grappling with the infidelities of their respective spouses whom they discover are involved with each other. The two protagonists are thrown together into an uncertain affair which they appear not to consummate, perhaps out of social propriety or ethical concerns. As Maggie Cheung’s character says: “We will never be like them!” (referring to the off-screen but apparently torrid affair of their respective spouses). The affair between Cheung and Leung assumes an air of mystique touched by intuitions of fate and lost opportunity: is it a Platonic relationship based on mutual consolation and sadness arising out of the betrayal of their spouses? Is it love? Is it desire? Did they sleep together? Such ambiguity stems from the postmodern lining of the picture (its look as processed by Wong’s usual collaborators, the cinematographer Chris Doyle and art director William Chang), which is more in line with Wong Kar-wai’s reputation as a cool, hip artist of contemporary cinema.
However, there is a conservative core to the narrative that is quite unambiguous, clearly evident in the behaviour of the central protagonists, both of whom act on the principle of moral restraint. In this regard, the film reminds me of the 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small City, directed by Fei Mu, the plotline of which is slightly mirrored in Wong’s film. (3) In Spring, a wife meets her former lover and flirts with the possibility of leaving her sick husband. In the end, she falls back on the principle of moral restraint. The director Fei Mu was reputed to have ordered his players to act on the dictum “Begin with emotion, end with restraint!” As a result, the film ends on a note of moral triumphalism colored by a sense of sadness and regret, reinforcing the inner nobility of the characters – a theme which Wong regurgitates with the same sense of brevity and cast of subtlety. The soulful nobility of the characters in both films is a touching reminder of the didactic tradition in Chinese melodrama, where the drama serves to inspire one to moral behaviour – and when the actors are as beautiful as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the note of restraint is all the more poignant and all the more ennobling (the attractiveness of the characters preying on our own natural inclinations or baser instincts building up a kind of suspense but finally leading to an anticlimax that is as close to a philosophical statement as Wong Kar-wai has ever got his audience to).
Whether or not one sees In the Mood for Love as a film about sexual desire or alternatively, about moral restraint, there isn’t that much more to the plot. It lives up to its English title as a veritable mood piece, and is essentially made up of rather passive and variable substances: the characters and their interchange of feelings that are nothing more than fleeting moments of time. Added to all this is Wong’s dense-looking mise en scène that combines the acting, art direction, cinematography, the colours, the wardrobe, the music, into an aesthetic if also impressionistic blend of chamber drama and miniature soap opera. Wong’s key elements – what older critics might call “atmosphere” and “characterizations” – are thus grounded in abstraction rather than plot, and it’s hard to think of a recent movie that offers just such abstract ingredients that are by themselves sufficient reasons to see the picture. But it is precisely this quality of aesthetic abstraction that makes up an ideal dreamtime of Hong Kong, which is Wong’s ode to the territory.
The Melodrama of Mood
The English title itself, of course, strikes the key to the picture, suggestive of foreplay or a kind of mind-massage. What Wong Kar-wai does for an hour and a half is to butter up his audience for two or three levels of mood play: a mood for love, to begin with; but even more substantially, a mood for nostalgia, and a mood for melodrama. In Wong’s rendition of the melodrama, we have a romance picture that works mainly as a two-hander chamber play, illustrated by contemplative snippets of popular music that also help to recreate the ambience of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The elements of nostalgia and melodrama that play on our feelings are Wong’s way of paying tribute to a period and to a genre. The Chinese melodrama (known in Chinese as wenyi pian) is traditionally more akin to soap opera – a form that assumes classic expression in the ’60s with the rise of Mandarin pictures from both Hong Kong and Taiwan (particularly adaptations from the literary works of the author Qiong Yao, often starring Brigitte Lin).
The terminology “wenyi” is an abbreviation of wenxue (literature) and yishu (art), thus conferring on the melodrama genre the distinctions of being a literary and civilized form (as distinct from the wuxia genre, which is a martial and chivalric tradition). Wong seizes on the literary or “civilized” antecedence of the genre to water down the soap opera tendencies that were characteristic of ’60s melodramas. (4) Wong’s interest in the genre is not so much narrative as associative. For instance, he equates the melodrama with the ’60s, a period that for the director, yields manifold allusions to memory, time, and place. “I was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong the year I was five (i.e. around 1963). .For me it was a very memorable time. In those days, the housing problems were such that you’d have two or three families living under the same roof, and they’d have to share the kitchen and toilets, even their privacy. I wanted to make a film about those days and I wanted to go back to that period .”, Wong says. (5)
The melodrama genre itself becomes an apt metaphor for the ’60s, with many films of the period dealing with just such housing problems and families living under the same roof as Wong speaks of. The invocation of wenyi pian carries a sense of period and place. The Chinese title, Huayang Nianhua (translated in the subtitles as “Full Bloom” but more accurately meaning “those wonderful varied years”), is more suggestive of period nostalgia and the Shanghai association, pointing to an iridescent, kaleidoscopic age of bygone elegance and diversity (and it is actually the title of a Chinese pop song from the ’40s which we hear played on the radio, sung by the late singer-actress Zhou Xuan who popularized the song in a 1947 Hong Kong Mandarin movie). In Wong’s hands, the genre itself and the period of the ’60s is a stage of transfigured time that isn’t fixed diachronically. His ’60s happens to coalesce around other synchronic recollections of the memorabilia of earlier periods (such as the ’40s or the ’50s), through the evocations of popular culture as a whole that largely recalls the glories of Shanghai: in music (citing the songs of Zhou Xuan, for example), in fashion (the cheongsam), novels (the martial arts serials that Tony Leung writes with input from Maggie, that recall the methods of the “old school” writers of martial arts fiction in ’30s and ’40s Shanghai), and the cinema (the unstated allusion to Spring in a Small City).
In watching the film unfold, the audience itself is partaking in a ritual in transfigured time (to borrow the title of a 1946 Maya Deren film (6)), and each member of the audience, depending on their ages, could in theory go as far back in time as they wish to the moment that holds the most formative nostalgic significance for them. Of course, Wong’s skill in recreating Hong Kong of the ’60s seems so assured and so transfixed to those of us born in the post-war baby-boom years who grew up in the ’60s that it is more than enough to recall nothing but the ’60s (with the rise in our consciousness at the time of Western culture and accoutrements, plus the efforts to blend East and West, as evoked by the references to Nat King Cole’s Spanish tunes, Japan, electric cookers, the handbag, Tony Leung’s Vaselined hair, eating steaks garnished by mustard, and eating noodles and congee in takeaway flasks).
So successful is Wong’s recreation of the past that we tend to forget that he has only shown us the bare outlines of Hong Kong in 1962 (the year when the narrative begins). Wong has created an illusion so perfect that it seems hardly possible that the director has got away with really just the mere hints of a locality to evoke time and place (the film was shot in Bangkok rather than in Hong Kong with the feeling perhaps that the former could better convey the idea of transposed time, and not so much to capture ‘authentic’ details of the seedy alley ways and sidestreets, through which the protagonists pass or meet each other, that have supposedly vanished from modern Hong Kong). In other words, Wong Kar-wai has successfully transfixed his audience in a dreamtime without the necessary big-budget frills so that it actually seems a bit too dissociative to think of In the Mood for Love as a dreamtime movie. It doesn’t, for example, indulge in the kind of overt symbolism such as one may associate with Dali’s famous painting “The Persistence of Memory” where we see time pieces melting in a desert-like landscape, symbolizing time lost. I mention Dali’s painting because in Wong’s films, we do see persistent shots of clocks in what has now become the characteristic style of Wong Kar-wai (being so persistent, they actually invoke a surreal sense of time melting away, as in the Dali painting): those scenes in In the Mood for Love where the camera dollies down from a giant Siemens clock hanging overhead in Maggie Cheung’s workplace to catch Maggie in a pensive moment. In Wong’s deliberative manner, this is exactly the moment that would conjure up the ’60s in his body of work, with the same motif and the same actress (indeed, essentially the same character) from Wong’s key work in the early phase of his career Days of Being Wild (1990), also set in the ’60s.
A Literary Vision
Such visual motifs are the obvious affirmations of Wong’s style, denoting his preoccupations with time and space. However, in keeping with his theme of moral restraint, Wong himself appears to show a much more restrained hand in delineating his visual style, which seems less semaphoric and more attuned to the purposes of a narrative, however slight that narrative may appear to be. The film may function basically as a mood piece, with much to wonder at in terms of visual splendours, but there is no visual motif that goes astray. In the Mood for Love is a virtual cheongsam show, for example, and who among the Chinese of the baby-boom generation could fail to be moved by the allusive and sensual properties of the body-hugging cheongsam (or qipao in Mandarin)? The array of cheongsams worn by Maggie Cheung is Wong’s cinematic way of indicating the passage of time, but Wong also milks it for its erogenous impact on the mind and soul. Maggie Cheung clad in the cheongsam is surely every Chinese person’s idea of the eternal Chinese woman in the modern age, evoking memories of elegant Chinese mothers in the ’50s and ’60s (when the gown was still in fashion) as well as memories of the Chinese intellectual female still bonded to tradition (recalling the image of the writer Eileen Chang, or Zhou Yuwen, the character played by actress Wei Wei in Spring in a Small City).
Much more significant, in my opinion, than all these visual configurations is Wong Kar-wai’s predilections for covering his ground with literary references. It is often forgotten that Wong is a highly literary director, and part of the magic that he wields in movies like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express (1994) and Ashes of Time (1994) is the consummate way with which he induces his audience to auscultate to his narratives. The monologues and voiceovers of those films are some of the most literary pieces to be heard in Hong Kong cinema. Of late, Wong has taken to inserting passages from books as inter-titles studding the course of the film, somewhat in the manner of silent movies, or in the manner of epigraphs in essays – a practice seen in Ashes of Time (where he quotes passages from the book by noted martial arts writer Jin Yong that was the source of his screenplay), and now in In the Mood for Love where he quotes lines from a 1972 novella, Intersection, by Liu Yichang, a Shanghainese expatriate writer living in Hong Kong. Gone is the voiceover narrative or the multiple monologues that he ascribes to each of his characters (finding classic expression in Days of Being Wild). The story of Intersection, the Chinese title of which is Duidao, tells of the way in which two characters’ lives – strangers to each other – appear to intersect in ways apparently determined by the nature of the city, and the structure of the novella provides a direct form of inspiration for Wong’s use of the intersecting motif in In the Mood for Love.
The influence of Liu Yichang’s story cannot be underestimated – so taken by the story has Wong been that he has actually put out an ancillary product in the wake of the film’s release in Hong Kong last year: a book of photographs and stills from the film illustrating an abridged English translation of Liu Yichang’s story. It’s a curious kind of book, seemingly without any theme or focus, which actually contains a hidden title Tête-bêche: A Wong Kar-wai Project. Wong explains the significance of the title in a foreword:
The first work by Liu Yichang I read was Duidao. The title is a Chinese translation of tête-bêche, which describes stamps that are printed top to bottom facing each other. Duidao centres round the intersection of two parallel stories – of an old man and a young girl. One is about memories, the other anticipation. To me tête-bêche is more than a term for stamps or intersection of stories. It can be the intersection of light and colour, silence and tears. Tête-bêche can also be the intersection of time: a novel published in 1972, a movie released in 2000, both intersecting to become a story of the ’60s. (7)
Tête-bêche – the intersecting motif that makes up Wong’s narrative style in other films, notably Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, and Fallen Angels (1995), which are narratives of parallel stories, finally finds its mature expression in In the Mood for Love where the motif assumes a diacritical mode. The poetic nature of Wong’s images and his style stems from this literary conceit, and the serial-like connotations of Chinese literature where the chapters intersect with one another (the zhang hui form) to build up the suspense of “what happens next”. Wong’s literary sensibility makes him unique among modern-day directors who would probably not have conceived of an ending whose spirit is basically literary in nature, embedded in storytelling and myth. This ending, taking place among the ruins of Angkor Wat (subconsciously calling to mind the ruins of Spring in a Small City which similarly endow a sense of melancholic nobility to the chief protagonist), is one of Wong Kar-wai’s more conclusive and heart-stopping moments, filled with secrets that must never be revealed in a kind of compact between the director and the viewer, and finally infused with a sense of regret and Zen-like magnanimity.
- Ang Lee, “Foreword,” Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 2000), p. 7
- In interviews with the Western press, Wong speaks of being inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as in this exchange with U.S. critic Scott Tobias published in The Onion, Volume 37, No. 07, pp. 1-7 March 2001: “I wanted to treat it like a Hitchcock film, where so much happens outside the frame, and the viewer’s imagination creates a kind of suspense. Vertigo, especially, is something I always kept returning to in making the film.”
- The soap opera tendency remains popular to this day, perpetuated largely by Japanese TV serials that are shown in the Chinese-speaking regions and also by long-standing traditions in Hong Kong and Taiwan cinemas (cf. the recent romance cycle in Hong Kong cinema, eg Sylvia Chang’s Tempting Heart , Jingle Ma’s Fly Me to Polaris , Wilson Yip’s Juliet in Love , Aubrey Lam’s Twelve Nights , etc.).
- Interview with Wong Kar-wai by Scott Tobias, The Onion, Vol. 37, No. 07, 1-7 March 2001.
- In Deren’s film, a woman quite literally walks back in time, as symbolized by the opening shot of the filmmaker herself holding a thread that seemingly unspools in reverse, to mark the flow of the “thread of time” backwards as the chief protagonist follows this thread back in time.
- The last sentence in this passage is my own translation of the Chinese foreword that is separately printed on transparent paper inserted into the book which differs from the English text printed on the pages. The last sentence in the English text reads: “Tête-bêche can also be the intersection of time: for instance, youthful eyes on an aging face, borrowed words on revisited dreams.” See Tête-bêche: A Wong Kar Wai Project (Hong Kong: Block 2 Pictures).