In the Mood for Love — A review
“The first time you see Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, you feel you are watching the work of a delicious visual mannerist indifferent to narrative structure….The sheer hedonistic absorption in architectural surfaces, in light sources, in decor of every possible fabric and material, and the absence of overtly literary seriousness in the plots, make you feel trapped in the world of a super-talented hack. Then you go back and take another look, and the movies change, more drastically than any I know of. They seem richer, more intricately organised, more serious…” — Larry Gross (Sight & Sound, 1996)
Given Hong Kong’s paradoxical existence between two colonial worlds — the British empire and mainland China — identity was a prerequisite aspect of its cinema culture, explored directly or indirectly.
Hong Kong had been a British colony since 1841, which it occupied during the Frist Opium War. However, after Qing-dynasty China was facing severe defeat it decided to cede the island to the British Empire through the Treaty of Nanjing. After the empire gained control of the three main regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories — an array of land that makes up the bulk of Hong Kong today), the British brokered a 99-year lease agreement for the use of Hong Kong on June 9, 1898 — Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1984, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing for the lease to end and for Hong Kong to remain semi-autonomous, both economically and socially, for 50 years after the lease officially ended. The lease ended on July 1, 1997, and thus exacerbated tensions between the pro-democratic population of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.
Once the handover was complete Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China with its own legal system, democratic rights like free speech and the freedom of assembly under its de facto constitution known as Basic Law. One of the critical aspects of Basic Law is the right to develop democracy, but over the years since the handover, mainland China has made several attempts to infringe upon the rights of Hong Kong’s residents.
The handover birthed, and still fosters, a heightened level of anxiety that is felt today — if the ongoing pro-democracy protests are an indication. As a result, it became an omnipresence that has moved from simply permeating Hong Kong cinema to directly influencing it. Its naturally overbearing nature influences movies that don’t explicitly acknowledge the unstable national identity, much like the Great Depression and its implicit impact on Hollywood cinema in the 1930s. So, the issue of nationalism in Hong Kong cinema is constant. Wong described the 1960s as “very special in the history of Hong Kong, because it is right after 1949 and a lot of people from China are living in Hong Kong and they still have their dreams about their lives back in China. That is a very special period and I’m from that background. And I want to make a film like this, and I want to recreate that mood.”
My favourite: In The Mood for Love
Love manifests itself in various ways given the innate complexity of our species. It can come with judgment rather than unconditionally where they’re held accountable — with terms and conditions; for some, with the manufactured sensibilities we call clichés; for others, wild, spontaneous, abrupt, neurotic; in the case of two neighbours, “Chow Mo-wan/Mr. Chow” (Tony Leung) and “Su Li-zhen/Mrs. Chan” (Maggie Cheung), in a Hong Kong tower it’s intimate but restrained, intoxicating but deadly.
After a decade of arthouse hits, such as Chungking Express and Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai set pace with the visually tantalising In the Mood for Love, which is — 20 years on — sitting comfortably in my top five favourite films of all time and in several other ‘greatest films of all time’ lists. By no means is the hyperbole exaggerated. A romantic melodrama that perfectly encapsulates painful and passionate reluctance. Reluctancy comes in various forms and this film deals with one (loyalty) so well that calling it “authentic” doesn’t do it justice. It’s distinctive for its demonstrative classicism and fixation on history — the second instalment in the ‘Chow-Mo Wan’ trilogy set in the 1960s and includes Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004); forming the confines that everything unfolds is the Hong Kong experiencing transition. The anxiety between Wong’s characters in this trilogy echoes that of Hong Kong’s residents at the time.
The naïve neighbours, “Chow” a newspaper editor and “Chan” an executive secretary, come to the realisation that their respective partners are indulging in infidelity; the cheating spouses always appear to be out of town at the same time. Consequently, the deserted duo begins to flirt with the possibility of their own affair. Scenes throughout the film revolve around the semblance of coincidence and fate; mirroring the intimately expressive performances of Cheung and Leung, moments surface and drift away in equally surprising and foreseeable fashion. For one, both couples move into their respective flats on the same day; their things become mixed up, foreshadowing the state of their soon-to-be shared reality. Everything that happens makes sense and simultaneously shouldn’t; assumptions run rampant but are whole, and settings serve as enveloping signifiers of destiny.
“We won’t be like them,” the would-be lovers vow to each other whilst spending time in room 2046 — a reference to the end of the 50-year promise of Hong Kong’s autonomy made by China in 1997 — of a hotel where they rehearse scenes for a kung-fu story “Chow” is writing alongside acting out what they imagine their spouses are doing. This is a one-hour-and-a-half dream that presents opportunities but restricts any intent to explore them. Contradictorily, soaring through escapism but imprisoning our reluctant lovers to their phantom lovers (loyalty), walls (secrecy), social norms (adultery), and so on. The minimalism is explicit: from the continuous focal shots that, cleverly, establish ambiguity of location (subverting our collective assumption of Hong Kong) and create a sense of urgency through the double framing making the audience feel like observers, to the dresses “Chan” wears that manifest her mood. Wong, constantly, minimises dialogue in favour of subtleties leaving our reluctant lovers to recite their poetic attraction through gestures such as soft touches, wandering glances, frustrated gazes, tranquil strolls, caring rushes, and so on. Heightened emotions are manifested through oversaturated colours enchantingly captured by Christopher Doyle. Lurid and screeching red signifies the burning passion between the characters whilst the juxtaposing monotone colours (of offices they work in, the small hallway connecting them, etc.) connote restriction and worrying, and blue tinted green signifies guilt and jealousy.
These proposals and manifestations of a myriad of emotions correspond to the state of confusion the two find themselves in; existing within the confines they’ve imposed on themselves out of respect for themselves beyond anything, wanting to succumb to justified temptation but never doing so. Naturally, however, these scorned reluctant lovers blame themselves for the mistakes of their respective partners, for their love is unconditional.