In the Mood for Love: The romantic imposters of Wong-kar Wai’s transcendental narrative

The general consensus is that In the Mood for Love is one of the greatest love stories ever made. This is because, in many ways, In the Mood for Love is the greatest love story never made.

Rahul Desai February 05, 2021 09:55:50 IST
In the Mood for Love: The romantic imposters of Wong-kar Wai’s transcendental narrative

The reason Wong-kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love transcends the conventions of storytelling is because, for once, it’s the betrayed who hijack the moods of love.

The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.

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A man moves into a room of an apartment with his wife. A woman moves into a room next door with her husband. Their landlords are generous and gossipy. The weathered man works long hours and longer cigarettes; he rarely sees his wife. The well-groomed woman works overtime in a male-dominated sector; she rarely sees her busy husband. Their dinners are remote and lonely. But time stops when they pass one another in the cramped doorway. Their eyes often meet in the smoky living room from behind their partners’ shoulders. Their dormant marriages — defined by the unease of colonial Hong Kong — drive them to one another.

At first, they resist temptation; they refuse to be usurped by the primal pull of infidelity. They don’t want to be like the rest. But then they concede. Love happens to them while they are busy making other plans. They meet in hotel rooms, away from prying eyes, encouraged by the silence of the unsaid. The present is their only future. It’s them against the world. The washed colours, the bleeding-red walls, the surreptitious meetings, the guilty glances, the lyrical frames, the artful rain — theirs is the stuff of movies.

Only, Wong Kar-wai’s movie is not about them. In the Mood for Love is about their unsuspecting spouses, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung), who soon bond over the spilled milk of betrayal. In short, it is about the timid background of other heart-soaked movies. Two peripheral partners unfamiliar with the spotlight of suffering are thrust to the forefront of a doomed romance. Yet, he is also the man who moves into a room with his wife. She is also the woman who moves into a room next door with her husband. Time slows when they pass one another in the cramped doorway.

I first watched In the Mood for Love in 2007. I was all of 21, in the middle of a film-making course. But I’d be lying if I said I was looking to widen my understanding of cinema. I was in fact looking to widen my perception of love. You remember how it feels at 21. At that point, love thrives on a sense of limitlessness. It can be anything, anywhere, anytime, even when its romance resists the attire of a story. Back then, I wasn’t so seduced by the famous look of the film. All I concluded — much to my reticent relief — was that one needn’t be in a full-blown relationship to experience the intoxication and tragedy of one. That a narrative without a resolution is still a narrative worth living. It was a soothing pat on my socially awkward back. Over the years, I held onto this perspective. I thrived on the buildup — the promise rather than the process, the almost instead of the absolute. I didn’t feel the need to revisit the film, lest the pragmatism of adulthood unlearned my memory of sentiment. I never stopped to think about the irony: a film about the perils of feeling had morphed into the visual epitome of feeling itself. I never looked beyond a surface that suited my flaws.

In the Mood for Love The romantic imposters of Wongkar Wais transcendental narrative

In the Mood for Love (2000)

It wasn’t until I became the man in the first paragraph — the drifter in a couple at sea — that the film suddenly revealed itself to me. During this brief phase, I felt it all: the washed colours, the bleeding-red walls, the surreptitious texts, the fleeting glances, the lyrical frames, the artful rain. I felt the guilt but also the gall. Equal parts reckless and radiant, it felt like the stuff of movies. But we were the ones hiding from the cameras. The reason Wong-kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love transcends the conventions of storytelling is because, for once, it’s the betrayed who hijack the moods of love. For once, it’s the fallen who wear the colours of camouflage. Mr Chow and Mrs Chan often enact their version of how they think their spouses met and spoke. They play the roles of the people who played them. At some level, this is their way of telling the film that the least they are owed — if not an actual romance — is the sensory language of one. The very least their evasiveness of emotion deserves is the cinematic candour of passion.

And so that’s what they get. The haunting camerawork, Shigeru Umebayashi’s iconic score and the stream-of-consciousness editing mark Mr Chow and Mrs Chan’s twist of faith. Mundane acts like eating, walking and visiting the noodle stall turn into musical winks of fate. Even the lilting violin solo of Yumeji’s Theme is built on a chorus of three string-plucks — as if to audify their status as the ‘third wheel’ of a marriage. We only hear but never see the cheating spouses, because the two wronged protagonists have stolen the visual grammar of their affair. It’s as though the integrity of love has hijacked the romanticism of its rashness. The beauty of course lies in this contrast: the individuals are at odds with the treatment of their serendipitous coupling. Their gallant intimacy is at odds with the ornate handling of their honour.

He is a journalist who is blind to the unfurling of his own story, while she is a secretary desensitised to the mask of her male boss’ two-timing. The two spend time together under the pretext of collaborating on a martial arts story, but what they’re truly doing is reframing the storyline of marital art. The movies seldom afford people like Mr Chow and Mrs Chan the intensity of brimming companionship. It rarely allows them the decoration of agency.

But this particular film lends the unseen the burden of sight. It lends rubble the allure of an ancient Roman wall. At first, they resist temptation. They don’t want to be like the rest. But even when they concede, they refrain — and their resistance remains draped in the shadows of sensual filmmaking. The general consensus is that In the Mood for Love is one of the greatest love stories ever made. This is because, in many ways, In the Mood for Love is the greatest love story never made.

Read more from 'The Viewfinder' series here.

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