Cannes Classics 2020: Recounting the ravishing poetry of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which turns 20 this year
In The Mood For Love is the definitive film of Wong kar-wai's career.
One of my favourite film anecdotes has Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich talking about Greta Garbo. The younger filmmaker said, “Isn’t it a pity with all the movies she made, she did only two great ones!” And Welles said, “Well, you only need one.” He should know. He made Citizen Kane. He made many, many movies afterwards, but in a sense, he needn’t have bothered. Had he made Citizen Kane and retired, he’d still be… ORSON WELLES! “Well, you only need one.” In the case of Wong Kar-wai, that one movie would be In the Mood for Love, which turns 20 this year.
You could describe this great film in a number of ways: humanistic, profound, stylistic, melancholic, musical, tragic. But above all, I think it’s a poetic film, and poetry is what the film opens with. We get a prelude: “It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.” What is this “restless moment”? Is it something about the film’s location and time frame: Hong Kong, from 1962-66? The male protagonist — Chow — is a journalist, after all. He’s presumably covering the “restless moments” of the time.
The director told Indiewire that he wanted to make a film about this period, because it’s 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. So like the Chinese communities in the film, there are people from Shanghai and they have their own languages and they don’t have contact with the local Cantonese.” Late in the film, there is an explicitly political stretch: documentary footage of Charles De Gaulle arriving in Cambodia in 1966.
But the “restless moment” that remains upfront is a summation of the key plot point, which could loosely be described as unrequited love. This is a languorously paced film, and this “moment” — between the leads, Chow and Su — swells to fill its running time. Chow falls for Su in the oddest way, when they realise that his wife is having an affair with her husband. This scene of mutual realisation is the stuff of high drama, but it plays out like a poem. Chow and Su are in a restaurant, casually probing how much the other one has caught on. What confirms the affair isn’t anything overtly physical or vulgar: say, a handkerchief with another woman’s perfume. It’s the most mundane of things. In Chow’s case, it’s a tie that his wife bought him, a tie that resembles the one Su’s husband likes to wear. In Su’s case, it’s a handbag that’s a replica of the one Chow’s wife carries.
Even their meeting is most mundane. Chow and Su choose the same day to move into a cramped building, and some of their things — mundane things like books, furniture — get mixed up. With colour and shadows and music and two extraordinary leads (Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung), In the Mood for Love works these bits of everyday ordinariness into ravishing poetry. Even the exact passage of events resembles a poem that you might have to read a couple of times to fully “get”: say, the significance of the lipstick smeared cigarette Chow finds in his ashtray. But it doesn’t matter because the “mood” of the title envelops you so thoroughly.
Part of this mood is created through Su’s wardrobe, a series of cheongsams whose colours contrast vividly with the drabness of the building, the drabness of the nosy people around. Watching Su walk by, a neighbour comments, “She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?” But like unhappy, unfulfilled women in the movies — think of Sridevi in English Vinglish, parading around in Sabyasachi saris — Su’s not-a-hair-out-of-place look is a facade for the turmoil inside. Describing the Sridevi character, Sabyasachi told The Telegraph, “She’s a simple middle-class Indian woman who has had no global exposure… it was a look that someone insensitive would call behenji... It’s prissy and very matchy-matchy… Here was a woman who doesn’t know a world beyond saris.” That’s Su, too.
The most subverseive aspect of the film is how Chow and Su fall in love without actually wanting to fall in love. After discovering that they both know about the affair, Chow and Su walk home. She says, “l wonder how it began.” A little later, she says, “It’s late. Won’t your wife complain?” Chow replies, “She’s used to it. She doesn’t care. And your husband?” Su says, “He must be asleep by now.” As we are still in “real time” — i.e. walking alongside Chow and Su — we are shocked when Chow places his hand on Su’s and says, “Shall we stay out tonight?” The first time I saw the film, I thought he was making an overture. But then, Su gives him a hard look and says, “My husband would never say that.”
And we see that they are play-acting. They are imagining how their spouses got together. And this play-acting slowly turns real. Their feelings escalate to a point where they decide to “rehearse” how their separation will take place. (From play-acting about their spouses, they’re now play-acting about themselves.) Maybe she’ll say he’d better not see her again and he’ll tell her to keep a closer eye on her husband and walk away after holding her hand one last time. The “maybe” is because the director doesn’t give us the actual scene of separation. Like the affair, we are left to imagine it.
The ending, too, we are left to imagine. In one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Chow cups his hands over a hole and says something. The action harks back to the time he told a friend what people did in the old days when they had a secret they didn’t want to share. “They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.” As in the film’s beginning, we get a stretch of text that resembles poetry. “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
But the closing visuals are not of Chow. We are left with the magnificent ruins of the temples, one of which will hold this man’s secret till the end of time. There’s something breathtakingly poetic about these visuals of stone after deathless stone, this sense of permanence: the body will perish, but its essence or soul will last forever. This ending is similar to the one in the film Wong Kar-wai made just earlier. In Happy Together, another ill-fated romance, the Tony Leung character is seen dwarfed by the monstrous Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border. It’s a place he’s wanted to visit with his boyfriend, but like Chow, he’s now alone, and there’s only a memory of being in the mood for love.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Twitter.
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