WTF ASIA 15: In the Mood for Love (2000)
Hey. Did you see Pacific Rim? It was pretty sweet, wasnâ€™t it? Well, if you liked that movie, youâ€™re gonna love this one. It is set in Hong Kong too, and is all about that visual language taking precedence over dialogue. Andâ€¦ermâ€¦if you can think of the routine of two people being like a giant robot controlled by two people and can think of an extramarital affair being like a giant destructive monster that the giant robot has to fight, then this film is just like Pacific Rim. And the male and female lead have great chemistry, but do not get together in the endâ€¦or maybe they doâ€¦or technicallyâ€¦whatever. This is In the Mood for Love.
It is Hong Kong in 1962, when many Mainland Chinese moved to Hong Kong and the little area started feeling an economic bump. The Chans and the Chows are moving into adjacent apartments on the same day, with Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow having to keep the moving people from putting furniture in the wrong apartment. Already, their lives are intertwined even if they do not acknowledge it. Mrs. Chow, or Su Li-zhen, has moved with her husband from Shanghai and brought with them the remnants of their wealth, including a seemingly unlimited number of dresses. Wellâ€¦she has moved to Hong Kong; he is apparently jet setting all around Asia for his job, particularly to Japan. Chow Mo-wan, not quite that rich, just needs a place to stay, even if everyone else in the place is an immigrant from Shanghai.
Both Mo-wan and Li-zhen are on the other side of 35. Though, far from old, they are no longer young, and have long since settled into what it means to be an adult. But what does it mean these days? Family and togetherness was once a given in Chinese culture, but here we see it already on the verge of breaking down. Mo-wan gets the apartment because the son of two of the residents has gotten married and moved out. Everyone seems to work late, so husbands and wives eating dinner together becomes rare. With Li-zhen not fond of cooking for just herself and Mo-wan having no one to cook for him, they could both have a group meal with their neighbors in the apartment complex. Instead, they routinely and independently go to a local food place and eat their meals alone. They occasionally pass by each other and maybe even say a word or two, but are just as likely to just miss each other. Is this what it means to be an adult? Just the same thing over and over again?
The movie shows these routines that Li-zhen and Mo-wan have each set up: there are bits of them at work, bits of them at home, bits of them speaking to their spouses (usually over the telephone), and going out to buy dinner. About 19 minutes into this 99-minute movie, there is a hint dropped that Mo-wanâ€™s wife may be seeing another man. Less than two minutes later, it becomes obvious that that man is Li-zhenâ€™s husband.
Okay. Really, movie? Yes, sure, Mr. Chanâ€™s riches may be seductive and having a mistress is a status symbol of rich men, but who would cheat on either of these two?
Apparently these two would:
Well, fine. Whatever. We never actually see their faces and rarely get more than their voices. This movie is not about them, anyways. It is about Li-zhen and Mo-wan, and how the possibility of their spouses cheating on them puts a damper on their routines. Literally, it rains the next time that they are shown getting their meals. It is when they are about to enter their respective apartments that they actually speak to each other, noticing that the otherâ€™s spouse has been away for a while. Not too long after that, Mo-wan asks Li-zhen to have dinner with him at a Western-style (or Western-style by way of Shanghai) restaurant. They start out talking about little items that the other has, with the explanation being that their spouses bought it for them from a foreign place and that it is unavailable in Hong Kong. Just as most things that we see and hear in this movie tend to mean more than what is on the surface, this little conversation reveals that Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow have been having an affair. Of course, they do not actually say that yet, but they know. We know. We have known for over ten minutes and they have known for longer than that.
Instead of going into a rage or breaking down in tears, they remain calm. Li-zhen wonders how it happened. As they walk back home on a different night, they comment on how their spouses no longer care that they stay out late. Mo-wan takes Li-zhenâ€™s hand and asks if they should stay out longer. Li-zhen pulls away and says that her husband would never say that. It turns out that they were playacting, trying to answer her question about what happened by recreation instead of explanation. They try again, with Li-zhen as the instigator, but she cannot say the words and walks off. So, they start again on another night, going to the same restaurant. This time, they order for each other, eating what the otherâ€™s spouse would eat. And again. Mo-wan calls her at work so they can talk about what their spouses might be doing. Their routine and pretend affair evolves further and further.
It becomes difficult to figure out whether they are speaking as themselves or as each otherâ€™s spouse unless they either talk about play acting or their jobs. Eventually, the line between pretend affair and love starts to blur as the two begin to fall for each other. While Mo-wan is a bit more open about his feelings, it is also apparent on Li-zhenâ€™s end. They each put up a front of propriety, but their emotions seep through. They agree that they will not be like the adulterers, but it is unclear as to the reason for such an agreement. Are they doing it to be better than them? Are they doing it because they cannot bring themselves to make that step? Are they doing it because their moral compass will not allow it? Are they doing it because each thinks that the other is too good to stoop to that level? Are they doing it because they are afraid of what will happen if they stop to that level? There are so many things beyond what is said, so many things unsaid, so many things left ambiguous. And so goes the story, with about as many multiple endings as The Return of the King. Will they? Wonâ€™t they? Of course they wonâ€™tâ€¦but maybeâ€¦
The story begins in 1962, the year that Mo-wanâ€™s Tony Leung was born and two years before Li-zhenâ€™s Maggie Cheung was born. This was also the year before director Wong Kar-wai arrived from Shanghai as a five-year-old. While the movie is not exclusively set in Hong Kong, it is supposed to show the Hong Kong of Wongâ€™s childhood. Though born in Hong Kong, Maggie Cheungâ€™s parents come from Shanghai, and she based much of her portrayal of Li-zhen on her memories of them from when she was young. There is a lot of attention paid to the music of the times, the architecture, and the clothes. Of particular note is the cheongsam, that Western-inspired dress that originated in 1920s Shanghai that has become the standard dress in the media to show a sexy Chinese woman. And this movie takes full advantage of that without actually resorting to the sexual part of sexy. The movie does not have to do that; Wong is content to simply fetishize his own childhood memories. And it is gorgeous. In this age of twerking, there is something to be said for a mid-sized butt in a cheongsam slowly swaying back and forth. Yes,Â it was a simpler, yet moreÂ sophisticated time.
On the one hand, this is a very nostalgic movie, looking back in fondness of those times of propriety, family, and community. On the other hand, it is clear that this point in time is fleeting and was already on its way out before the story even began. Family members are spending time apart, people moving in and people leaving, and, of course, extramarital affairs. It is already rather apparent that the two marriages had not been particularly happy from the start of the movie, and the main characters are rarely shown to be happy throughout. The other characters may be loud and boisterous and coarse and somewhat shady and always together, but these two characters are repressed and lonely souls. It is unclear if they are prisoners of their time or products of a better time that has passed them by. They are tethered to the notions of loyalty and marriage, to the notions of what good people are supposed to do, even as draw each other and themselves closer to temptation. They hold themselves and each other up to a standard that no one else seems to do so. Why? Is itÂ out of fear of what others will think and of what each other will think? Still, they live through these moments again and again, knowing that it cannot last forever. Yet., they do it so often that what was once fake became real; what was playacting becomes their lives. By the time the movie ends, Hong Kong is on the verge of experiencing a new influx of immigrants from China, though that is not part of the actual story. This is one story of a time between major changes, when the minor changes meant everything. The Chinese title of the movie is The Age of Blossoms or The Flowery Years, reference to the fleeting nature of youth. Our protagonists are too old to be engaging in this behavior, but young enough that the pull is still strong. They met each other too late and too early.
Everything minor matters. A look, a look away, a turn of a phrase, a sly remark about coincidences, the touch of hands, the time it takes to pull away, the scene that turns out to be about something else, the scene that starts late or ends early.Â They are surrounded, yet alone. There are places where there is no one around, and places where there are always people. Are those people ignoring our main characters or always looking? All of the context that is political and personal, the music and items from foreign lands that have become ubiquitous. Everything that is not said because it either does not need to be said or it needs to not be said. There is so much that I cannot hope to say all that there is to say.
The passage of time is rather subtle in the movie, except for some jarring jumps towards the end, there is rarely a blatant sign of when things are taking place. One might take notice of the food, mostly Shanghai style, that is made only during certain seasons. One might also notice the change in the charactersâ€™ clothing, which can happen between scenes that one might have otherwise thought took place within minutes of each other. Li-zhen wears a different cheongsam almost every day, which both denotes her status and her routine. It matters little exactly how much time has passed between scenes, only that time has passed and will continue to do so. It shows that this was not just a quick development between these two, even if it had been for their spouses.
There is a musical piece originally from a 1991 Japanese film that often plays during their routines of loneliness, and the visuals play in slow motion, like it is a dance. Sometimes the scene features both Mo-wan and Li-zhen, but the point where they might meet is off-screen. Gradually, though, it shows up as they grow close, until it plays when they are together and showing genuine emotion. There is a song with Nat King Cole singing in badly accented Spanish that plays at times when they update their routine together. There is another Nat King Cole Spanish song that (kind of annoys me) plays during what I suppose I could call the scenes where they search for each other, but are unable to connect.
There have been theories that this was a spiritual sequel to the film Days of Being Wild, another 60s film which Wong had made ten years earlier with Maggie Cheung. Wong said as much to Maggie while making the film and even had the character retain the name from the earlier film. This is not necessarily the case, though, and it could be that Wong said it as a joke or as a means of motivation for Maggie. And even if it was the case at the time, it may not have been by the end. The same with the follow-up 2046, which stars Tony Leung and features callbacks to this movie, but is only partly connected.
Like most Wong Kar-wai films, there was never a fully-written product ready at the beginning, and the finished product ended up being quite different from what was envisioned when shooting started. The Criterion Collection DVD has about 33 minutes worth of deleted scenes that could have drastically changed the tone of the film, along with a 51-minute documentary that shows pieces of additional scenes. All in all, I get the impression that the movie could have been at least twice as long if not for the copious amounts of editing. Wong wanted to convey only as much as was necessary, anything more would be too on the nose. Still, it is probably good that those scenes were acted out, if not filmed, so that the actors could get a better feel for their characters, even if they had no idea what Wong Kar-wai wanted, as is evident from thatÂ uncomfortably awkward Toronto panel that the DVD provides.
I think that I am going to stop now before I just start rambling. If you are put off by what sounds like some boring and pretentious romance story, then fine. Justâ€¦just give it a go. Because you are better than they are.
Next Time: I Like It Hot (2008: South Korea, approx. 110 minutes)
Time After Next: The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002: India, approx. 155 minutes)