In the last decade, Wong Kar-wai has been arguably the most influential filmmaker of his generation. Sight and Sound saluted him as the Innovator of the Nineties, “who broke new ground and changed the medium irrevocably.” This romantic stylist’s latest work, In the Mood for Love, is also his biggest commercial success to date, and elevates him to the mainstream of international art house cinema. Significantly, it is both a quintessential Wong Kar-wai film and a departure from old practices.
The international success of Chungking Express (1994) required Hong Kong filmmakers to come to terms with Wong’s success in recasting the grammatical norm of local cinema: his brand of interior monologues, step-printed slow motion, and other techniques were widely adopted—sometimes even parodied—in genres as diverse as thrillers, romances, and comedies. His thirst for innovation hit its stride with Ashes of Time (1994), but his costly, improvisatory working method (shooting without a script, leaving footage on the cutting room floor) raised outrage in a recession that had hit the local film industry in 1993.
In the Mood for Love was supposed to be a low-budget quickie (like Chungking Express) that would help Wong’s company through its cash flow problems in the wake of the costly Happy Together (1997). It stars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai as two neighbors who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair. The original plan, to divide the film between scenes in the sixties and scenes in the nineties, was partially inspired by Liu Yi-chang’s short story “Dui Dao” (a.k.a. “Intersection” or “Tête-Bêche”). The story alternates between the roamings and stream-of-consciousness thoughts of two contrasting characters—one an old immigrant from Shanghai, the other a young girl. As the adaptation became completely set in Hong Kong in the sixties, Wong again began running over budget and far behind schedule.
In the Mood for Love can easily be seen as a belated follow-up to 1990’s Days of Being Wild (in fact, Maggie Cheung plays a character named Su Li-zhen in both films). With the same setting in the sixties, both films share Wong’s oblique autobiographical touches in their portrayal of Shanghai immigrants. Mood even incorporates the music that Wong heard on the radio as a child—from Peking and Cantonese operas to Shanghai pop songs, from Latin music to Nat King Cole. However, Mood has quite a different artistic agenda than Days, replacing shadowy, soggy, green tones with an eruption of colors. For the first time, Wong has organized an exquisite chamber drama around a married, thirty-something perspective. Flamboyant details of decor, props, and costumes are contrasted with veiled psychology, innuendoes, and oblique references to explore subtle changes in the main characters’ relationship.
But the link between the two films is a certain kind of claustrophobic romanticism as Wong abandons his favorite structure of crisscrossing disparate characters and parallel plotlines, opting instead for one that focuses on the interaction between two characters. Mood’s emphasis on the sensuous texture of the image, the static quality of the compositions, and the elegant succession of concealed spaces may be related to Wong’s choice of cinematographer: shortly after shooting began, Christopher Doyle was replaced by the more visually placid Mark Li Ping-bin, a longtime collaborator of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Indeed, the cramped rooms, narrow hallways, and limited perspectives are all metaphors for secrets hidden behind facades, and passion suppressed by the constrictions of the time, which are also suggested by the series of extraordinarily high-collared floral qipao dresses that Li-zhen wears. One way or another, Wong’s films are about submerged passion and hidden desires. But here the confinement is both sociological and psychological.
We see only the backs of Li-zhen’s husband and Mo-wan’s wife; their voices are only heard off-screen. The absence of the spouses allows Li-zhen and Mo-wan to “become” their doubles (a conceit first signified by the identical ties and handbags). The process is completed when they role-play as the adulterers, a desperate performance designed to illuminate the origins of the affair. The use of doubles as a structuring principle in Mood can also be traced to “Tête-Bêche,” which is a philatelic term, referring to a pair of postage stamps, one inverted in relation to the other. The prominence of mirrors in the film doubtlessly contributes to this motif, at times subtly suggesting that two couples inhabit the same space. (Wong’s script-shirking methods enable repeated modification of his work, including the removal of scenes that don’t fit strictly into the “Tête-Bêche” binary structure.)
Mood was shot in Bangkok, meticulously recreating the back alleys and noodle bars of 1960s Hong Kong. But the final sequence switches to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, after inserting the newsreel footage of President Charles de Gaulle’s 1966 visit. This ending introduces a historical perspective and raises the whole affair to a universal level. On a conceptual level, Wong’s insistence on the individual’s search for identity and a place in history becomes evident. His work deals with primary emotions, and Mood echoes the end of an era with pure melancholic power.
Li Cheuk-to is General Manager of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the author of Notes on Hong Kong Cinema of the Eighties and Gallery of Vivid Images.