Lost in the Movies: In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love

Last summer I wrote, "2046 in its punch-drunk highs and disappointing lows serves to retroactively paint In the Mood for Love in a glowing light, actually improving the memory of its poetic romance." Indeed, watching In the Mood for Love again, this sentiment rang ever more true. 2046, Wong Kar-Wai's sorta-sequel, is a more overtly passionate, punch-drunk film, dizzying as it spans years and displays its character's imaginative approaches to remembering the quiet love affair which In the Mood presents. When reviewing 2046, I commented that In the Mood was the better film: more subtle, richer in its connotations. But it now seems to me that, while this may be true, 2046 is the film I prefer; or rather, I like the films more in conjunction with one another than separately. The romance seen onscreen in In the Mood is poignant, often sweet, and evocatively moody but its power becomes more apparent (to me at least, on this particular viewing) nearer the end of the movie, when the lovers part, and even more so in the follow-up, in which Tony Leung's character struggles to remember and re-connect with his memory, filtered now through the scrim of frustrated nostalgia and yearning romanticism. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for lost causes.

In the Mood for Love
introduces us to two mild-mannered apartment dwellers, neighbors actually, in 1962 Hong Kong. Both are quiet, both seem like nice people, both are married. Because of the latter fact, they tend to ignore one another. The same cannot be said of their respective spouses. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) realize what's going on when they delicately and indirectly broach the topic to one another: Mrs. Chan compliments Mr. Chow's tie, asking where he got it - turns out his wife bought it for him while she was away. Earlier, Mr. Chow told Mrs. Chan he liked her purse. Could he get one like it for his wife? Though she's evasive at first, eventually she comes out with it: her husband bought it, overseas. Mr. Chow nods. He thought so: his wife already has the same purse, as it turns out. And Mrs. Chan's husband, it seems, has that very same hard-to-find tie. What's more, Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are both out of town at the moment. The two cuckolds assess the grim situation with dignity, though we have already seen Mrs. Chan (more astute than Mr. Chow, or at least less in denial) weeping over the realization that the absent spouses are having affair.

This is a wonderfully clever way to bring two lovers together, but Wong soon one-ups himself. As if they're little kids, emulating their older siblings (but not too closely, lest they get burned by the fire they're playing with), Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan play-act their spouses' first rendezvous, ostensibly trying to figure out how and when they first came together. It is already quite clear that - as the fire metaphor suggests - the couple are not entirely play-acting. There is definitely a spark between them and, we're led to suspect, it's more meaningful than that between his wife and her husband - who are left offscreen, but nonetheless leave the distinct impression of insensitivity and selfishness.

What's more, it's never entirely clear if Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan consummate their romance, which eventually comes out into the open. Mr. Chow invites Mrs. Chan to a hotel room, number 2046, which will lend its name to the sequel (a play on words, since the follow-up also includes sci-fi subplots set in the year 2046). After a brief conversation, she turns to leave and then freezes in the hallway, mid-step. She is realizing, perhaps for the first time, that her life is in her hands, and she is not simply a leaf blown by the winds of fate. If she wants to go back to that room, and she does, then she can. It's her choice - life opens up before her, however briefly. (During this moment, we see only her back, motionless in the sumptuous corridor).

Apparently Wong shot a sex scene - along with many other, more passionate (and also some goofier) scenes - before disposing of it. Perhaps he felt that, by focusing on the physical attraction, he was bringing the couple close to the presumably irresponsible and shallow spouses. Instead, he focuses on the shy, yearning quality of the characters' companionship, their spiritual connection, but also their reserve and fear, which may elevate their possibly platonic romance to Platonic level, but which also pulls them apart in the end. One early scene finds Mrs. Chan forced to stay in Mr. Chow's room all night (the neighbors have come home early, and even though Mrs. Chan's visit was innocent enough, it will cause a scandal if she's seen leaving Mr. Chow's apartment). When Mrs. Chan finally is able to return to her room (which she shares with one of the neighbors, who stayed up all night playing cards), she waits until her roommate has left and yanks off her high heels, moaning as she massages her feet. In her mind, to even remove her shoes in Mr. Chow's home would have been beyond the pale.

I've focused on the plot, whose simple creativity I had forgotten since first seeing the movie, but what most distinguishes In the Mood for Love is its style. Wong will happily cut away from the mundane workplace or the cluttered home for romantic interludes: gorgeous instrumental strings, vibrant colors, and slinking slow-motion turn events like a card game or going out for the groceries into tone poems, dedicated to the snatched moments of heartbreak or romance in everyday life. As I suggested initially, these intoxicating breaks play even more poignantly in memory, when the timid lovers are separated by their own timidity (particularly Mr. Chow's). The film continues after they separate, depicting a (only imagined?) near-encounter several years later, and then a few re-visits to the old apartment building, coupled with the revelation that Mrs. Chow now has a son and Mr. Chan must abandon all dreams of reunion.

Oddly, In the Mood for Love ends in Cambodia where Mr. Chan visits a temple and whispers his secret into a crack in the stone wall. Wong shot the film improvisationally, trimming it down in post-production (in a way he did not with 2046). As a result, the film has a focus and tightness which has led many to proclaim it Wong's best work. But the Cambodia sequence is a reminder of the wildness lingering under Wong's sense of control (those ancient, crumbling temples - which evoke the decaying splendor of past times - but also footage of De Gaulle's royal reception in the late 60s, on the eve of American bombing and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge - open up whole new avenues of connotation and association, many hard to pin down). And just as the wordless Cambodian excursion reminds us of the director's restrained passion, so it serves to evoke a whole hidden world of the characters' passion, the yearning, the deep-welled longing which flows beneath their social restraint and personal decorum.

I said that, for the moment, I felt as if I preferred 2046 with its overt romanticism, but I think In the Mood lingers in memory (and makes 2046's strengths possible) because it too carries these currents, only more subtly and thus, when they are tapped into or stumbled across, even more powerfully.


Anonymous said...

An elegant mature rumination on a painfully beautifiul film, MM.

To fully appreciate the sad irony of the final visit by Mr Chow to Mrs Chan's flat a few years later, it should be explained that he does not knock on the door though he wants to and having left his wife, and then we, but not Mr Chow, learn that not only has Mrs Chan a child but that Mrs Chow is also free after breaking with her husband.

I have written poems on both In the Mood for Love and the more enigmatic 2046 here and

Joel Bocko said...

That's a good point, Tony - actually, though I watched In the Mood twice in the past week I somehow missed out on the moment where she explains her divorce (though I recall it now from my initial viewing). In some way, though, this feels less like a missed opportunity than a fate-accorded tragedy. Then again, the brilliance of the films is that they leave both interpretations open.

I did see & appreciate your In the Mood poem but didn't realize you'd written one on 2046 too. I'll revisit both.

Anonymous said...

Movie Man, i have slowly come to the surprising realization that 2046 may well be the greater film. You have written a wholly engaging and sensory piece here, and while you do exhaustively examine the 'plot,' you do specify that it's the 'style' that's most vital and intrinsic here. I loved this:

"Wong will happily cut away from the mundane workplace or the cluttered home for romantic interludes: gorgeous instrumental strings, vibrant colors, and slinking slow-motion turn events like a card game or going out for the groceries into tone poems, dedicated to the snatched moments of heartbreak or romance in everyday....."

Beautiful defense of this lingering and mody film, and the tone pooem idea is indeed the center of Tony D'Ambra two magnificent poems, which deserve a wide audience.

Joel Bocko said...

Sam, care to elaborate on that? Is it sort of a Godfather/Godfather II thing whereby the second film is very reliant on the first for its associations, but because it's building on it and dancing around the edges - riffing on a familiar theme - it achieves an even higher level of greatness? I still suspect that In the Mood is the "greater" film but am coming to believe 2046 is my favorite of the two.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion here.

I too feel that In The Mood For Love is the better film, but the imagery of 2046 resonates subconsciously and is more innately satisfying - that does make sense?

Joel Bocko said...

Definitely - I think that's what I'm trying to get at. I admire In the Mood more, but enjoy 2046 to a greater degree (not that I don't admire and enjoy both).

Anonymous said...

the footage of De Gaulle's royal reception at the end of the movie is a big mistake, an irrelevant colonialist political foreign sequence unrelated to anything in this movie.

Joel Bocko said...

Anon, thanks for the comment. It struck me as out of place too but as the whole film is shifting into a kind of displaced mood (what with the cut to Cambodia and the strange sequence where he whispers he secret) I accepted it as part of a general "loss of bearings" at the end of the movie, but in retrospect you may have a point. I'd have to see it again to reassess. Such a digression may have felt more in place in the "sequel" but then again, maybe it works at the end of this film as a bridge into 2046...

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree, only because I love Faye Wong and think her presence in this film makes it special. I think her scenes as the android are simply brilliant. The way WKW uses music in this movie is genius.

I purchased the movie and soundtrack.

Mood for Love is brilliant too but it's the difference between driving a Porsche and driving a Ford Fiesta

Joel Bocko said...

Anon, thanks for your input (though I think you might have meant to post this under the 2046 post?). I've increasingly come to wonder if perhaps 2046 isn't perhaps as good as or better than In the Mood - I'd have to watch both again to determine. I like your vehicular analogy even if I have to take your word for it (not a car person at all)!

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