“In the Mood for Love” - Wong Kar Wai (2000)

In the 1990s the uniquely romantic films of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) burst upon the scene as almost a new form of cinematic expression, something like a Hong Kong nouvelle vagueEach of his films during this period – As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together (1997) – featured Wong’s moody depictions of amorous yearning that seem to wander about in search of any form of structured plot [1].  His In the Mood for Love (Faa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000) was a continuation of this style and is perhaps the Wong film we remember the most.

For all of his films, Wong would begin shooting without having a script in hand and would more or less make things up a he went along.  What he did have in mind was not really a story (in its usual sense) but a mood.  So he would reshoot scenes many times looking for a particular angle that he had only vaguely in mind and had not pre-articulated.  Naturally this usually led to enormous shooting ratios and schedule overruns.  For example the shooting of In the Mood for Love took 15 months.  The results are not to all tastes.  Some people find his films aimless and boring; others find his films richly rewarding [2].  I am one of the latter type, and I think Wong’s films push the boundaries of creative cinematic expression.

Films often have two main narrative threads: one involving some quest in the external world and another focused on the (usually romantic) relationship between two principal characters. Both threads have a goal, a target to be reached, with possible adversaries potentially blocking attainment of the goals.  With Wong films, however, any external goals are obscure, and the focus is almost entirely on the relationship thread.  But the relationship thread lacks clearly defined goals, too, and often doesn’t seem to go anywhere.  Nevertheless, there is something unusually enchanting about Wong’s stories all the same.  He is always the Master of the Broken Heart.

In the Mood for Love represented to some extent the epitome of Wong’s moody style, taking his aesthetic expression of unfulfilled longing to its furthest point. As usual with Wong, the film featured big-name Hong Kong (and often Cantopop) stars, in this case Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Tony Leung (Tony Chiu Wai Leung).  And once again Wong worked with his usual creative assistants:
  • Christopher Doyle, the wondrously expressive cinematographer whose camera stylistics were always an integral part of Wong’s mise-en-scene.  On this occasion, though, because Wong’s off-the-cuff directorial style led to 15 months of shooting, which interfered with prearranged Doyle commitments, Doyle had to leave the project before shooting was finished.  His replacement was the equally gifted Mark Lee Ping Bin, who was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s regular cinematographer. So Doyle and Lee Ping Bin shared the cinematography credits for this film.
  • William Chang, who is credited with both production design and film editing.
What they create is a melancholy embodiment of urban alienation.  A key feature of this is Wong’s depiction of the always-crowded nature of city life.  In Wong’s environments, space is so cramped, one can barely move around or even find a place to sit; and privacy, as well as private spaces, are out of the question.  This is particularly the case and almost a signature aspect of life in Hong Kong, and it was probably doubly intense there in the 1960s, when this film is set.  Wong’s family had immigrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1963, when he was five years old, and his experiences growing up in that environment probably left their mark on him [3]. His early Wong-style breakout film Days of Being Wild was also set in Hong Kong in 1960.

This alienation, and hence internalization, is enhanced by both the sentimental soundtrack music and the short depth-of-focus interior cinematography. The lack of privacy feeling and reflective alienation is accentuated by all the mirror reflections shown in the shots where the two principal characters are alone together.  These are trademark Wong effects. But there are some interesting narrative innovations, too:
  • For example there is no voiceover narration expressing the internal thoughts and feelings of a principal character, as is common in Wong’s earlier films.  So the narrative witness doesn’t get a special perch inside the thoughtful mind (i.e. expressible in text) of any character.  All the narrative witness has available are the external images (which, admittedly given the above-mentioned mise-en-scene, are expressionistic) and the music.
  • But even with respect to the external images, the narrative witness (i.e. the viewer) doesn’t get any visual exposure to something crucial that we know must affect the feelings of the two principal characters, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan.  Both of them are hurt by their respective spouses’ marital infidelities, and they must often be thinking of their spouses and what led them to be unfaithful. Yet the viewer is never shown the faces of the two adulterous partners; we are only left to imagine what they might look like.
These two narrative effects are curious, because they somewhat distance the viewer from the focalization of interest – what is going on inside the minds of the two protagonists.  All the viewer has available to digest are the polite social gestures, which are made in the context of a not-so-private social environment.  So the viewer, like the two protagonists, must try to make out the extent of any amorous feelings on the part of the other in a somewhat constricted environment. Note that from I have been told, the lack of privacy, as characterized in the West, is a generic characteristic of Chinese society. One must operate there largely in a public space, and maintaining appearances and decorum is an important concern for social survival.

All of these circumstances and expressionistic effects combine to give one the feeling of being on the verge of falling in love.  This, of course, is a magical, thrilling feeling, but it is often only momentary. It is a tipping point that cannot last – either it happens or it doesn’t happen.  It then moves on to some other, more stable state.  Even films that capture this moment, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), only hold on to it for a moment. In contrast, the beauty of Wong’s In the Mood for Love is that this knife-edge tipping point of falling in love is maintained for much of the entire film.  That makes the film a rare viewing experience.

Although the film, like most of Wong’s films, doesn’t have a clearly structured plot (that is why Wong can add or delete scenes in the editing stage without much change to overall presentation), we can identify five general phases through which the narrative passes.

1.  Meeting in Hong Kong, 1962

In the beginning it is 1962, and a young woman, Su Li-zhen (played by Maggie Cheung), who is also referred to as Mrs. Chan, arranges to rent an available room for herself and her husband from an apartment owner, Mrs. Suen, in crowded Hong Kong.  Almost at the same time a young man, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), also seeks a room for himself and his wife and finds that the next-door apartment, owned by the Koos, has a single room available. So Su and Chow move in and become neighbors and, given the crowded apartment conditions, occasionally bump into each other.

We soon learn that both Su Li-zhen’s husband and Chow’s wife have jobs that involve business trips and night shifts that often keep them away from home.   So Su and Chow frequently find themselves separately going to a local noodle shop for dinner and sometimes run into each other there.

Note that Maggie Cheung also appeared in Wong’s Days of Being Wild, which was made a decade earlier but which was also set in Hong Kong in 1960.  In addition, Cheung’s character in that film had the same name, Su Li-zhen.  This has led a number of reviewers to presume that the two roles are the same character [4].  I don’t think so, however. The two characters played by Cheung are quite different – they dress and act very differently, and, of course, Cheung is now ten years older.  I think it is more a matter of Wong making a sly reference (or homage) to another of his works, something that he has done many times (see, for example my review of Fallen Angels).

2.  Discovering Infidelity
In the second phase of the film, Chow and Su gradually suspect that their two spouses (whose faces are never shown in the film – they are only sometimes fleetingly seen from behind) are having an extra-marital affair with each other.  Finally Chow invites Su out to dinner, and they share and confirm their  suspicions.  But now they are getting to know each other more and seem to tentatively be attracted to each other.

3.  A Growing Relationship
Su and Chow are still only politely acquainted, but they start doing little favors for each other.  Chow gets Su to agree to help him with his project of writing a wuxia (Asian martial arts) serial.  But their meetings have to be clandestine given their nosey landlords and neighbors.  Eventually Chow rents a hotel room where they can meet and work on his wuxia writing.  Su cautiously agrees, but assures him, “we won’t be like them”, meaning they will not stoop to the sordid level of their marriage partners. 

The hotel room where they meet has a room number of 2046, which has special meaning for Hong Kongers, since that is the date when Hong Kong’s right to maintain a separate administrative and economic system expires. The scenes shot in this room are particularly atmospheric because of the short-focus and moving-camera cinematography in the context of numerous mirrors.  The multiple mirror images intensify the growing sense of attraction between Chow and Su, and this is a film highlight.

These trysts are finally interfered with when the busybody Mrs. Suen lectures Su about her unseemly practice of going out alone at night.  Chow and Su do have further meetings, though, but they are only by happenstance and still clandestine.  Finally Chow tells Su that he is going to take an indefinite posting in Singapore, because he knows that the cautious Su will never have the guts to leave her husband.  He also finally admits to her that he loves her.

4.  Singapore, 1963
As he is about to leave, Chow invites Su to go with him to Singapore.  She hesitates, and when she finally goes to see Chow, he has already left.  This whole phase of the film is a series of missed opportunities for the two of them finally getting together.  It is clear that they love each other, but social propriety holds them back from making the definitive gesture.  Su had earlier been given a free boat ticket to Singapore, and she does go, but again they don’t make the true connection.

On one occasion in Singapore while conversing with his colleague Ping, Chow tells him despondently how in “the old days” people would bury a secret.  They would carve a hole in the trunk of a remote mountain tree, whisper their secret into the hole, and then fill the hole up with dirt and depart forever.  Such is Chow’s sad mood of melancholic resignation.

5. 1966
The story then jumps forward to 1966.  Su, after a long absence and now with a small son, returns to visit Mrs. Suen and learns that the woman is moving away.  So Su inquires about buying Mrs. Suen’s apartment.  Shortly thereafter Chow returns and visits the next-door Koo apartment, where he learns that the Koos have moved away and that the next-door apartment formerly occupied by the Suens is now occupied by a young woman and her son (suggesting that Su is no longer with her husband).  Chow looks at the apartment door where Su presumably lives, but he doesn’t make the connection, and he passes by without knocking.

The closing scenes show Chow visiting the Angkor Wat ruins in Cambodia.  Angkor Wat, a colossal, now-empty 900-year-old Hindu and Buddhist temple complex, is itself a haunting site that you must visit someday.  It evokes in the mind a vast lost world of innumerable stories and secrets.  Chow finds a hole in one of the temple columns and whispers his secret into it. Then he fills the hole with dirt.  And so the mystery of Angkor Wat reminds us of the boundless world of irrecoverable memories.

In the Mood for Love is very much an extended voyage into melancholia.  Throughout the film it sustains a feeling of hopeful yearning for the unearthly experience of love.  It never arrives at the hoped-for destination, though, and leaves one suspended on the knife-edge of falling in love but never arriving at a blissful state. Rather than a conventional narrative account, it has the feel like a series of impressionistic recollections.  Thus to some extent we might say that the film is the ultimate expression of Wong’s romantic expressiveness, and accordingly the film has never lost its appeal.  It is ranked 24th on British Film Institute’s 2012 critics’ list of all-time greatest films, which is the highest rated film from the 21st century [5].
As for me, I liked the film even more on the second viewing.  It is an enduring mood piece that artfully links sound and image to create a feeling of an imminent losing of oneself into love’s ecstatic embrace.  Two memorable aspects of the film come particularly to mind.  One is the soulful music, especially the recurring mournful cello music of “Yumeji’s Theme”, which comes to stand for the lovers’ doomed romantic inclinations.  There is also the velvety music of Nat King Cole that suggests an otherworldly romantic innocence far removed from our world of mundane activities [6].

Another key element of the film is the subtle and touching performance of Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen. Perpetually clad in long, body-hugging cheongsam gowns, which gracefully display her svelte and sensuous figure, Cheung seems to be an ideal personification here of civilized sensibility.  The cheongsam gown, by the way, was something of a symbol of the modern Chinese woman and became popular in Hong Kong after 1949 when Shainghainese emigrants brought with them the fashion that was then discouraged back in China by the new Communist government.

One can view a few deleted scenes from In the Mood for Love, which are available on distributed DVDs.  Some of them show Chow and Su consummating their love, others show them meeting again in the 1970s and dispassionately revealing how much they have changed since those old days.  However much those scenes may fill in the gaps of a narrative that the viewer may want to learn more about, Wong was wise to leave them out.  The package that he released instead was the ultimate, resonant cinematic embodiment of the haunting “Yumeji’s Theme”.

  1. Kent Jones, “Of Love and the City”, Film Comment, (January/February 2001). 
  2. Steve Erickson, “In the Mood for Love: Haunted Heart”, The Criterion Collection, (2 October 2012). 
  3. Stephen Teo, “Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love: Like a Ritual in Transfigured Time”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2001).   
  4. Li Cheuk-to, “In the Mood for Love”, The Criterion Collection, (4 March 2002). 
  5. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  6. Joanna C. Lee, “Music from In the Mood for Love”, Notes on the Music,  In the Mood for Love, The Web Site, Wong Kar-Wai, (n.d.).  

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