Note: This was written for my Contemporary Global Cinema class last spring.
Wong Kar-wai “the Jimi Hendrix of cinema”s most well loved film is 2000’s In The Mood For Love. (Jones 2000) The only film released in this century to be voted into the top 25 of the Sight & Sound critic’s poll of the best movies ever made. (Sight & Sound 2012) This along with the fact that it’s his most well regarded movie is the reason why I chose to analyze this film out of the ten total features he’s credited with directing. The Criterion Collection stamp of approval didn’t hurt either: “This film has been a major stylistic influence on the past decade of cinema, and is a milestone in Wong’s redoubtable career.” (Criterion 2012)
I’m not sure this is a movie you can understand. Analyze endlessly, yes. Understand? No. It’s a movie you feel. This may be because, “for Wong, emotion, and not necessarily story, is the content; style exists to evoke it.” (The Playlist 2013) It will make you question not if you are with the right person, but if you are the right person, and if you’re not, what should you do to ensure you become that person?
The film is set in 1960s Hong Kong and concerns two next-door neighbors, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, whose spouses begin an affair. After a while our heroes figure out they’re being cheated on, and begin meeting to commiserate together. They develop feelings for each other, but struggle with the choice of whether to act on them or not. They eventually choose not to pursue a relationship, which breaks their hearts, but keeps them morally superior to their unfaithful spouses. However, once their platonic relationship develops into love and becomes an open secret between them, Chow does ask her to leave Hong Kong with him. She doesn’t accept his extra ticket, and Chow moves away to Singapore alone. They never see each other again.
This is really a film about questions. The original title was Secrets but was changed at the urging of the Cannes Film Festival because it was such a generic title. (Kaufman 2001) The title Secrets brings to my mind the act of interrogation, either of self, or others, which the narrative encourages us to think about, as our protagonists role play Mrs. Chan confronting Mr. Chan about his affair. We wonder if Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan shared secrets with their respective spouses. Mrs. Chan, for instance, arranges clandestine meetings for her boss, Mr. Ho with his mistress, even on his wife’s birthday! She tells Mrs. Ho that he’s working late at the office. The one exception being on Mr. Ho’s birthday, where Mrs. Chan explains to the mistress that he will be having dinner with his wife. Does Mrs. Chan go home and tell her husband these things? I think not. The great irony is that the same types of lies Mrs. Chan is involved with are what her husband tells her in order to cheat on her.
Some of the questions the film raises include, should we stay faithful to unfaithful people? What constitutes an affair? Why would people cheat? Why not leave first? How much, if any, of the blame do those who are cheated on share? Is getting emotionally attached to someone of the opposite sex being unfaithful? Is getting cheated on a sufficient reason to cheat also?
The whole film can perhaps be summed up in a line from Mr. Chow. Speaking with Mrs. Chan about his former dream of being a martial arts serial writer (I presume this means Wuxia stories), he says, “I couldn’t get started, so I gave up.” This encapsulates their entire future relationship. The sad part is that even though they never officially began a romantic relation, they did have the foundation in place for a great relationship. That’s why I’m tempted to believe that what they were doing in essence constituted an “affair” as well, even if it never became anything physical.
Another important line is uttered by Mr. Ho to Mrs. Chan. He tells as he prepares to leave the office to see his mistress that there’s “No need to stay if everything’s done.” We as the audience want Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan to get together, because we know that their marriages are already over and done with. But they can’t seem to go through with it. As Joshua Kline writes, “The two potential lovers cling near one another like satellites, but they seem to understand that they may never be able to share the same orbit.” (Kline 20013)
But if “everything’s done,” why stay? Divorce was less common in the 60s, surely, but these are very cosmopolitan characters, who it seems aren’t against divorce. Why can’t they be together and stay together? The film leaves it up to us to answer. I want to remake this as a teen romance with the couple’s parents standing in for the cheating spouses to explore these questions.
Wong Kar-wai is known for his incredible visual aesthetic and he further explores this in In The Mood For Love. According to Tony Rayns, Wong Kar-wai actually acted as his own director of photography on this film, despite what the credits say. This was Wong’s first film where he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. This film was actually shot two times over a period of fifteen months because Wong found better location for the many apartment scenes after they had “finished” shooting principal photography the first time, (Rayns 2012) which accounts for why Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin are credited as the film’s cinematographers, since they did shoot the movie even if their actual work isn’t on the screen or in the finished product.
This film is rife with beautiful shots ready to be swiped and repurposed for other films. The cinematography tells the story. All these beautiful shots serve a purpose. The lush photography shows us an aesthetically beautiful world even while our heroes’ lives are falling apart around them. We see they’re in this beautiful world, but they can’t seem to escape their misery to enjoy it. This is where the power of photography comes to intertwine with the subject and subtext of the film. The film takes place in a Shanghaiese community that no longer exists; a world vanished. Wong Kar-wai grew up in such a community, and he and his art director, William Chang do their best to recapture it here.
But we all know the past can’t be recaptured, no matter how hard we try. The film seems to tell us through its cinematography that we are already in paradise and what we must do is awake to that fact, and make our lives match the gorgeous worlds we already inhabit. That’s one of the ironies of nostalgia; things once taken for granted are now infused with magic and mystery and yes, even love. To quote the American director Noah Baumbach on the popular music of his youth, “When I was a kid, I would resist Top 40 music, because I was that kind of kid. But now I hear whatever was on the radio when I was a kid and it makes me want to cry, it’s beautiful.” (Arbeiter 2015) And to finally drive the nail in, an intertitle taken from Liu Yi-chang’s short story Intersection that appears towards the end of the film reads, “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.”
We see this in every frame of the film. Restaurants, taxis, wallpaper, hairstyles, fashion, they’ve all gone the way of all the earth. This leads us to ask the question, why is nostalgia such a powerful force? What is it we want back? And is there a way to get it back? This is a heavy movie!
I think that what Wong Kar-wai is getting at through showing us these images is that we can’t be sure that we’re not living in a golden age right now---and that even applies to our relationships. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan love each other, but they don’t take the next step to establish a relationship. Mr. Chow does make a weak attempt to persuade Mrs. Chan to go with him to Singapore, but she doesn’t leave with him.
Later, there is a scene where Chow can’t find something in his room, and he asks the apartment manager who’s been in his room. The manager denies anyone has been there, but we then see shots of Mrs. Chan in his room looking at his things. She was there, but without him. Later, Mr. Chow goes back to Hong Kong and stops by his old building to visit his landlord, and give him a present. He learns that his landlord moved sometime ago. He leaves the present with the new occupant. He almost knocks on the door next door to say hello to Mrs. Chan’s old landlord, but he hesitates, and then leaves. What he doesn’t know is that Mrs. Chan has since bought her landlord’s apartment and lives there. If he had knocked, he would have seen her again! He barely misses her!
This film is so, so sad. But it speaks a truth about the past and the future and the present that is unmistakably important to everyone who sees it: we can’t let our lives (with their attendant golden ages) pass us by through indecision. Mrs. Chan loves Mr. Chow but won’t leave her husband even though he’s already left her in his heart. This parallels what a clerk at Chow’s wife’s work tells Chow when he comes to pick her up after her shift: “She’s already gone.”
The film’s final scene follows Chow in Cambodia at the Angkor Wat temple complex as he follows the ancient custom of letting go of secrets by whispering them in to a hole and then filling the hole in with mud. He uses grass and dirt, but we get the idea. But does he get rid of the secrets, or just sacralize them?
This emotion of losing time right in front of your eyes is expressed in some of the bizarre shots selected. There are shots when our heroes are in a restaurant talking and suddenly we cut to a shot where the camera starts on an empty booth and quickly dollies screen left to catch Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow sitting in a booth together. It’s disorienting because it looks almost amateurish. But since we know these aren’t amateurs, we have to consider what they are drawing our attention to, and that is the subject of time itself. As Kent Jones writes, “His films are made up of moments that seem to have been grabbed out of time, as though he's almost always just missed it.” (Jones 2000)
Another technique the filmmakers use is jittery slow motion. It makes us feel like we’re being led inexorably toward something, like the gallows for execution. That’s exactly what happens as the potential relationship of our protagonists is killed by their indecision. We’re repeatedly shown this in the objects the camera lingers on. Clocks, doorways, hotel room numbers, empty hallways, walls that separate characters who want to be together, and ringing telephones all testify to the fact that the characters are halting between two opinions. (1 Kings 18:21)
Mrs. Chan wears a different close-fitting high neck cheongsam dress in each scene. Twenty-one different dresses appear in the final cut of the film. (Foam of Days 2013) Mrs. Chan’s high fashion looks reveal her beauty and seemingly flirty and fun loving ways while cleverly hiding and distracting from her heartbreak. We’d never see her on the street and think that her husband would cheat on her. The change of dress further imprints the passage of time on the audience.
The final intertitle reads “The past was something he could see but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” Much like a Greek tragedy, Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece acts as a cathartic experience for the audience. The characters suffer so that we can learn from their mistakes. We’re privileged to witness the sad fate of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan so that we don’t become people who hold on to the beautiful past, when we thought our future was brighter and possibilities seemed to abound, but instead make the hard choices that will allow our happiness to bloom in our hearts, just like the flowers on Mrs. Chan’s amazing dresses. In The Mood For Love is a heartbreaking, instructive, tragic masterpiece that deserves every bit of its lofty reputation.
Interview: Noah Baumbach Talks 'While We're Young,' Working With James Murphy, Ad-Rock, Wes Anderson & More by Michael Arbeiter. Retrieved at http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/interview-noah-baumbach-talks-while-were-young-working-with-james-murphy-ad-rock-wes-anderson-more-20150325
Online Entry for In The Mood For Love (2000) – The Criterion Collection #147 http://www.criterion.com/films/198-in-the-mood-for-love
In The Mood For Love: 21 Dresses by “Foam of Days” retrieved at: https://foamofdays.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/in-the-mood-for-love-21-dresses/
Of Love And The City: Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love by Kent Jones. Retrieved at: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/of-love-and-the-city-wong-kar-wais-in-the-mood-for-love
Decade: Wong Kar-wai on "In The Mood For Love" by Anthony Kaufman. Retrieved at http://www.indiewire.com/article/decade_wong_kar-wai_on_in_the_mood_for_love
1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, In The Mood For Love entry by Joshua Klein. General Editor Steven Jay Schneider, Updated By Ian Haydn Smith
Retrospective: The Films of Wong Kar-wai by The Playlist Staff retrieved at http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/retrospective-the-films-of-wong-kar-wai-20130819
On In The Mood For Love. Interview with Tony Rayns on Special Feature found on the 2012 Criterion Collection Blu-ray reissue of Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love.
The 50 Greatest Films of All Time By Sight & Sound Contributors and Ian Christie. retrieved at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time