A modern masterpiece: Wong Kar-wai’s «In the Mood for Love»

Quizás, Quizás, Quizás

«He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch».

That is the ending intertitle of a perfectly subtle and sublime Wong Kar-wai masterpiece «In the Mood for Love» – the quote adequately fit to describe the nostalgic mood and patterned memory of the past that always seems happier in retrospect. In fact, it is fair to say that most of Wong’s films share the same quality, as he often comes back to 1960’s Hong Kong not trying to recreate the past, but rather willing to share his distorted memory of it. Wong’s vision on what constitutes a narrative, the meticulous attention he pays to the form and style of his films inevitably brings back the memories of such authors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Nagisa Oshima. Thus, Wong Kar-wai rise to prominence during the 1990’s (arguably, the time of independent film renaissance) seemed perfectly fitting, even predetermined, despite the fact that he worked in a largely genre-driven Hong Kong film industry. What Haruki Murakami did for literature, WKW did for cinema…but it is much more than just bridging the East and the West. Much like Godard’s oeuvre and image were iconized, Wong’s body of work became kind of myth itself due to borderline caricature production stories, delays, last-minute edits and cuts, absence of shooting scripts and, of course, the presence of those trademark sunglasses. One could say Wong Kar-wai is a pretentious son of a gun – fair enough. But his film making has been influencing the medium for the last three decades, shaping our opinions on cinematic narrative, images and something as subjective as style.

In the Mood for Love

Beginning of 1960’s, Hong Kong. Two couples – Su Li-zhen with her husband and Chow Mo-wan with his wife – rent out rooms in adjacent apartments. Coincidentally, they move in on the same day and their things get mixed up amid the chaotic hassle in the cramped up apartment building. It gives a hint of things to come, as the lives of these two couples will slowly intertwine. Su Li-zhen’s husband, who often goes abroad for business trips, buys his wife a rice cooker and Chow asks him to buy it for his wife too. That marks the beginning of the unseen romance between Su’s husband and Chow’s wife. Eventually, the main characters pick up the clues and decide to meet to discuss the affair of their cheating spouses. Slowly they start to develop a bond themselves, while trying to understand the circumstances and reasons for their partners’ actions. Another romance begins, as uncertain as it is beautiful, doomed to a sad ending, with the secrets buried and the question of «what if?» lasting.

The storyline of «In the Mood for Love» is simple if not banal, but what ascends it to a masterpiece status is a mood – a sense of a romantic longing, an emotional bliss that reverberates forever after, the repressed feelings you can’t share with anyone. One of the keys to understanding the film is in its title – it is not exactly a love story per se, but rather two characters being in the mood for it, like if the circumstances that brought them together forced them to love each other – out of curiosity, revenge, a thrill of a shared secret or as a projection of their failed marriages. The way Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan started to bond was through a role-play, as they tried to recreate the dialogues of their cheating spouses, the way they had seduced each other and even the way they had dinners together. There are basically four main characters in the film, but the partners of Su and Chow are never fully revealed on-screen: they are either framed out, filmed from the back or just their voices are heard. So what WKW does is omitting important characters and events from the eyes of a viewer to create an uncertain chain of events that do not point to something, but rather vaguely suggest.

One of the factors that had contributed to Su and Chow affair was their environment. The 1960’s Hong Kong was a loud and busy city with many narrow streets and crowded apartment buildings. It was a common practice back then for families to rent out rooms, so neighbors were forced to spend a lot of time together. It was close to impossible to get some privacy and any gossip could spread like a deadly disease. After all, maybe there was no romantic tension between Su and Chow at first, but when their neighbors began to suspect an affair it seemingly became clear for them that they are indeed lovers. The repression of feelings and the pervert expectations of outsiders had created something resembling love.

The voyeur nature of the film that takes place in an apartment building invokes the memories of «Rear Window» and, indeed, WKW admitted that he was in many ways influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s films, «Vertigo» in particular. It makes a lot of sense, since one could find a number of tropes that Wong had used: a slight perversiveness, a projection of love, repressed feelings, dreamy qualities and saturated colors.

It is a known fact that Hitchcock was big on Freud theories, so it is particularly interesting to analyze «In the Mood for Love» through Freudian lens. The inner conflicts arise when Su’s and Chow’s spouses become lovers. To prevent an overwhelming anxiety, they begin their own affair, which can be characterized as a number of defensive mechanisms. Repression is employed in the beginning of their affair, as they try to recreate the affair of their respective partners and some true feelings begin to creep up, which out of guilt they try to repress. Denial is clearly articulated with the sentence that is often repeated in the film: «We are not going to be like them». Eventually, of course, they turned out to become just like them. Projection comes when Su and Chow teach each other on how their spouses talk and interact, what they prefer to eat etc. They try to recreate uncomfortable situations by attributing unwanted thoughts, feelings and motives onto another person. 

The next step is displacement, which is the redirection of an impulse onto a substitute object. Thus, a heavily suggested (but not shown) love scene between Su and Chow could be characterized as displacement, since both of them still have feelings for their partners and are even willing to forgive them (another Freud’s quote comes to mind: «I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process involving four persons»). Regression, as a movement back in psychological time, happens when main characters begin to unconsciously distance themselves from each other. Missed calls, lost chances and opportunities led Chow to believe that Su backed out of their affair, so he leaves for Singapore by himself. When later Su comes to Singapore, she visits Chow’s apartment and even calls him, never to say a single word. Sublimation, arguably, was deployed when Chow visited Angkor Wat to bury his secret (or when he finally started to work on his fiction stories) and when Su became a mother.

Another iconic trait of the film is a marvelous camerawork done by Christopher Doyle, the DOP on most of Wong’s films, and Mark Lee Pingbing, who is famous for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien. «In the Mood for Love» proved to be a change-of-pace work, as Wong previously preferred a chaotic handheld camera and stepprinting technique that reflected an unstable state of mind of his characters, which wouldn’t fit a dreamy, slow-paced and slow-burning romance. One of the most obvious observations is a voyeur feeling ubiquitously present in the film as if camera is constantly peeking through windows, doors and hallways, staircases and corners, catching glances in the mirror reflections. The framing (creating frames within frames) and the lucid cinematography create a claustrophobic feeling, even borderline paranoid — the main characters are always watched (by their curious neighbors and, naturally, curious viewers) and any action is closefully observed. WKW prefers to use a mix of static shots along with dolly shots (both tracking and pans). 

Especially peculiar is his use of dolly pan while filming a dialogue (with an occasional use of a whip pan to underline a turning point in a dialogue). Often, the camera is placed at a low angle, which somehow contributes to a nostalgic feeling when everything seemed so grand and big, in a way recreating the childhood memories since WKW grew up in a similar neighborhood. The film is basically devoid of any establishing (extreme wide), wide or full shots. It primarily consists of mid shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups (usually reserved for inserts on objects). According to WKW himself, he had realized the power of a close-up through Robert Bresson’s films, so he decided to flex this power to a full extent while shooting «In the Mood for Love». Another difficult feature to pull off is to breathe life into inanimate objects: a ringing telephone never answered, the unfinished cigarette with a lipstick on it, moving curtains in a hotel where lovers will never meet again. They seem to be relics of the past, a museum of unrequited love and lost opportunities, somehow charged with the vital energy of a touch or a presence of someone you loved and longed for.

«You notice things if you pay attention», says Maggie Cheung’s character at one point in the film and it seems one of the Hitchcockian messages Wong Kar-wai sends us. As most turning points of the film happen off-screen, we only have clues, often in a double quantity: two rice cookers that start an affair, two identical handbags for a mistress and a wife of Su’s boss, two identical handbags for Su herself and her husband’s lover, two identical ties for Chow and his wife’s lover. The need to pay attention is especially underlined through the editing, as the film takes place in a handful of locations: same apartment building, staircase, restaurant, cab, hotel room. But no scene is disposable, with the slightest of details always present there to differentiate and give a hint to what has changed. The confusion of where is the role-play and where are the actual feelings between the main characters creates a relentless tension, a state of ambiguity so inherent to Wong’s style. That tension arguably never gets a release, unless you count a somehow tragic ending of Chow whispering his secret to a hole in the ruins of Angkor Wat – the inanimate witnesses that will forever keep his secrets, with Michael Galasso melancholic strings elevating the scene from tongue-in-cheek to powerful.

WKW’s ability to create a unique mood and rhythm certainly traces back to his music preferences, which were formed by his parents taste – his father even used to work in a nightclub in Hong Kong where jazz and soul featured regularly. One of the show-stopping scenes in the film features a Nat King Cole Spanish-language hit and displays the editing that far precedes the standard for both feature films and music videos we have now: when Chow asks Su if she will go with him to Singapore in case there is an extra ticket, there is a jump cut and the music starts with sublime touch…«Quizas, quizas, quizas», commonly known as «Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps». And, of course, it is impossible to forget those numerous slow-mo scenes of radiant Maggie Cheung walking in those narrow streets and staircases with the always repeating “Yumeji’s Theme”, going for those wonton noodles she never craved for in the most beautiful cheongsams that any camera ever saw. Both heartbreaking and haunting, dreamy and breathtaking, it works as a shared memory, as if nostalgia was physically engraved on film.

To prove any film is a masterpiece may be a futile exercise, but with Wong Kar-wai’s «In the Mood for Love» the reasons are both analytical and emotional. Exotic, yet universal; subtle, yet bold; it hits hard because of the blank spaces, those vacant moments that let our imagination work and actively substitute our own experience. Wong Kar-Wai seems to know what those viewers suffering from «love fatigue» want and, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, they «want the image of love, not love itself». And that is what we get – an image of love, a delusion, a memory that has changed over the years with only a mood remaining as something true. That’s why it is such a thrill to watch this movie multiple times: it feels like looking through a dusty window pane into your own past and your own secrets; it forces to find words for feelings impossible to describe; it seems like trying to grasp for a dream that you just woke up from, but will inevitably lose.

2000
In the Mood for Love
花樣年華
director: Wong Kar-wai
genre: drama
starring: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

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