Canon Entry - In the Mood for Love (2000)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Adultery has long been popular subject of many works - Anna Karenina, Fatal Attraction, etc. Often they are about people trapped in loveless marriages, looking for a way out. When the cheated on partner is featured in the film, it’s often unsympathetically. I personally don’t get the popularity of movies about adultery, so maybe it wasn’t surprising that a film about adultery that I really love is about the cheated on people instead.
The traditional story about adultery is not the only trope Wong Kar Wai subverts. It is a romance without consummation. A nostalgia piece about a time that very few people remember and may possibly not have existed. The film takes place in Hong Kong in the early 1960’s. For someone unfamiliar with the language and culture, it kind of doesn’t matter since so much of this film is set in narrow interiors. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) both move into the same apartment complex on the same day. They are renting rooms within larger apartments, so there is very little privacy and the neighbors can’t help but to become involved in the two leads’ lives. Both have spouses who work long hours and travel often, so they are often alone. Their acquaintance is mostly casual, with no hints of romance. Soon, however, they deduce their spouses are having an affair with each other.
Connected by this betrayal, they become strange bedfellows. They become obsessed with the relationship, imagining how their spouses met and who came on to whom. They start play-acting as the cheating couple, but soon real, unexplainable emotions start creeping into their interactions. Originally, to emphasize this role-playing, Wong Kar Wai had wanted Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung to play the cheating couple as well, but he wisely realized that this would have been unnecessarily confusing.
Wong has said that this was a nostalgic film for him and that the world and buildings that exist in this film no longer existed. We see images and witness events in this film as if we are living in the same cramped quarters as the leads are. Either we are really close, almost between the two of them or we are observing them from different rooms of the house in an illusion of keeping our distance. It’s hard not to become a voyeur in such intimate circumstances and the enclosed nature of this film only enhances our voyeuristic tendencies.
Even the more artistic, more cinematic moments are grounded in the reality this film establishes. It would be easy to dismiss the many slow-motion scenes with that indelible Yumeji’s theme playing over as pure pretentious artifice, lending importance to a scene that doesn’t seem to have any. Of course you can interpret it that way, but you would be wrong. It’s worth noting that there are relatively few of these scenes. The editing is actually quick and judicious for the most part. There’s a clear homage to the French New Wave with the multiple jump cuts of Su Li-Zhen ascending and descending the stairs at Chow’s apartment. When these slow-motion scenes come, they serve almost as relief, to remind us that this film takes place from a certain point of view and that it is essentially a film about nostalgia.
I don’t know why romances are such a particular favorite of mine. Perhaps it’s because I know just how much performance goes into presenting a certain image of yourself to your romantic partner and that such a charade can’t last. I feel like the films that acknowledge this artifice are the ones that have the best grasp of romantic love. A film that comes to mind besides this one is Roman Holiday, which is so much more poignant and wonderful because the princess doesn’t end up with the handsome news reporter. It acknowledges that it is a pure, sweet fantasy that one should be allowed to indulge.
Audiences who are frustrated at a film like this in which the characters teeter on the edge of fully consummating their relationship emotionally and physically are perfectly entitled to feel that way. The characters know this too, at first subconsciously and then consciously. But they live in a world that is merely an expansion of the cramped apartment building that they live in. There is a pivotal scene in which Su’s landlady scolds her for staying out too late at night. She is an adult woman who probably should spend more nights out, but she realizes that while the landlady does not know the exact nature of Su’s actions (going out to see Chow at his new place), she is still correct about the transgressive nature of her actions.
So strangely enough, these characters are actually the most romantic characters I have ever seen in any work of art precisely because they do not consummate their relationship. Doing so would mean stooping to the level of their cheating spouses, and it would also mean sacrificing the very part of themselves that had attracted each other in the first place - their integrity and commitment. They are not made of steel though. There are a lot of near misses as they try to reconnect with each other as they visit the same spots but not with complete knowledge or good timing. Their romance exists as all the best ones do - in the air, perhaps whispered into a secret spot in a temple in Cambodia as Chow does in the end.