Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. This March, we revisit the sumptuous, romantic, deeply humanistic works of Hong Kong’s favored son, Wong Kar-wai. Read the rest of our coverage here.
If repression is the ultimate aphrodisiac, there are few films that make such a case for it than Wong Kar-wai’s sumptuous 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love, one of the most passionate, delicately rendered on-screen odes to yearning cinema has ever produced.
If that seems like a stretch, In the Mood for Love doesn’t just regularly pop up on best films of the 21st century lists, it’s often considered among the greatest films of all time. Countless filmmakers have counted Wong Kar-wai as a major influence, and his ability to bring beauty out of grime rivals Terrence Malick’s.
But where Malick can take a godforsaken rural wasteland and make it look like a paradise, it’s in service to lofty philosophical concepts which invoke nature, god, and man’s relation to both. Characters don’t speak to each other so much as muse out loud, typically in settings that minimize imperfections while embracing the world beyond them. Emphasized are the boundless skies above or the shadowy environs around them, which are hauntingly shot to imply secrets lurking just beyond our perception, be they hidden motives within a fractured mind or ghostly visitors from another world.
Wong takes a different, far more humanist approach, one which allows his characters to dominate the screen. Rather than emphasizing and insisting on immaculate settings, he takes the often gritty circumstances they find themselves in and showcases their inherent beauty, which is typically embodied by almost impossibly beautiful people who move through the world with graceful self-possession, even at their most conflicted.
And the 1962 Hong Kong setting of In the Mood for Love is a perfect vehicle for Wong’s most cherished sensibilities to be honed to the sharpness of a fine-tuned surgical scalpel. From the fashions to the firmly traditional social climate to the relatively calmer politics (which would explode a few short years later), it was just the time for two people to fall into what is basically an emotional entanglement after discovering their spouses are having an affair with each other. And be completely sincere when they vow that they will not be like their not-so-better halves and keep their relationship platonic.
Then there’s the timing of the film’s release, with Wong unwittingly picking the perfect cultural moment for what is still his most influential work. Just as 1962 has become known as our last gasp of collective innocence before Camelot came to a tragic, bloody end, (or more in the context of the film, the turbulent protests and brutal crackdowns in Hong Kong) how could we have known that the world would erupt in the flames of 9/11 shortly after In the Mood was released in 2000?
It doesn’t seem quite so unbelievable, then, that Su Li-zhen, or Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), and Chow Mo-wan, or Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) could live in the same building, in rooms that are right next to each other, and even spend time alone in a hotel room together, and never consummate their relationship, which deepens by the day. While their spouses are not only seeing each other but are away on a trip together, no less. Nevermind that Su and Chow must take careful steps to keep their…friendship from being found out by their neighbors, which makes them resemble their respective counterparts more and more. It may not be a full-blown liaison, but it’s close enough.
Their proximity itself becomes a torment, haunting them and us with increasingly sensual possibilities. Cheung and Leung have the kind of burning chemistry that practically erupts into flames when they merely pass each other on a stairway, and it’s difficult to imagine this hitting home without the film’s haunting score, which has become iconic for good reason.
Just as the shark attacks in Jaws would be incomplete without the menacing musical undercurrent, and Jack and Rose’s romantic sunset flight in Titanic is impossible to conceive without its soaring melodramatic notes, Chang and Leung’s romance is defined by its tender rhythmic accompaniment.
If Wong is the meticulous architect of In the Mood for Love, Cheung is its glorious embodiment.
It’s also deeply steeped in nostalgia. Wong clearly lived in the very specific time and place In the Mood for Love is set in, which has now all but vanished. To create the place he knew from his youth, Wong spent 15 grueling months filming, doubtlessly driven by more than a commitment to a singular artistic vision. Wong not only grew up in Hong Kong in the ‘60s, but he also spent much of those years separated from his father and two older siblings due to the borders closing before they could join him and his mother from Shanghai. It made for a lonely childhood, with Wong feeling isolated in a country where he was unable to speak the language.
That perspective, one borne of loneliness and longing, lingers, and it’s understandable that the director wouldn’t have felt the need to overly beautify the place that defined his childhood, nor recreate it using a studio set or special effects. It’s certainly hard to imagine the shoddy apartment building where Su and Chow meet and fall for each other (while surrounded by prying neighbors) being considered a romantic setting in another filmmaker’s hands.
If there’s any traditional romantic decadence, it’s at the hotel where the pair meet to write martial arts serials, of all things. Draped in the fiery red which bespeaks passion, these scenes are also absent much of anything resembling softness or warmth. This is a place of fire — heat which both of them fear could not only burn but consume them — and it warns them away.
That said, if Wong is the meticulous architect of In the Mood for Love, Cheung is its glorious embodiment. Leung may be the actor who could actually claim the title of Wong Kar-wai’s muse, having worked with the director on a number of films, but the film clearly belongs to Cheung. Her wardrobe, which consists of immaculate and colorful dresses referred to as Cheongsam or qipao, doesn’t just reflect the film’s mood and romanticism; they mark the passage of time. As her character remarks, “You notice things if you pay attention.” And Wong is counting on us too.
Indeed, throughout In the Mood, much remains the same. The locations, the conversations, Su and Chow’s feelings, even what they say to each other, from quiet reveals to reenactments of how they believe their spouses’ affair began, are mostly consistent. It’s Cheung who changes as she gracefully steps out in one fabulous dress after another as she moves through the world, remaining self-composed even as her movements are constantly monitored, both by her nosy neighbors, and most hypocritically, by her boss, who is also stepping out on his wife.
We never see the faces of Su and Chow’s spouses, and such mystery never feels like a loss. Why would we wish to see the people who refuse to value such passion, even as understated as it is? Especially since within a few years, what made that passion possible will vanish, a product of a bygone era. Their own guilt and circumstances keep the lovers apart, and by the end, the lasting symbol of what could have been will be a temple which is defined by its decaying beauty.
The lasting impression isn’t so much a message as a suggestion, that ultimately, everything and everyone is a mere product of their time. And eventually, everything passes, no matter how much of an impression a lingering few might make.