Su Li-zhen Chan : “You notice things if you pay attention.”
Heed that wisdom. “In the Mood for Love” (2000) by maestro Wong Kar-wai is on my top-ten. The list shifts, but this one always remains in it. I’m not alone in claiming this film to be one of the greatest: in 2016 the BBC surveyed 177 critics from across the globe – and it made second place of all 21st century works. It’s one I’ve visited many times, and, at every turn, I discover new details – new nuances – and my admiration for it deepens.
It’s a poem. Kar-wai takes the title of the film seriously and creates a set of tones and feelings. There’s an unparalleled sensuality in this chamber piece of emotions. I don’t recall an artist being able to capture the pain – the loneliness – the longing – the heartbreak – as well as the intoxication of falling in love- the way this director does. He – both visually and sonically – articulates a set of complicated feelings. To this day I cannot hear a Nat King Cole Song without immediately visualizing sequences from this movie. Speaking of music, there are passages that are choreographed to music by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi – and it’s so suggestive. Anguish never looked and sounded so good.
It takes place in a socially conservative British Hong Kong of the 1960s where friendships between men and women – in particular if they’re betrothed – yield suspicion. Su Li-Zhen rents a room in a crowded apartment building for her husband and her to occupy. As she’s sealed the deal, Chow Mo-Wan shows up looking for a room for his wife and himself – crossing paths with Su. Having missed the opportunity, the landlady tells him that there happens to be a room for rent next door. Both parties bring their belongings and furniture on the same day – creating a bit of confusion for the movers who mistakenly drop things at the wrong adjacent abode. “What a coincidence, moving on the same day,” declares Mrs. Suen – the landlady. It’s a detail worth remembering for missed opportunities and twists of fate will become a recurring motif.
Su works as an assistant at a shipping company, and her husband is often on business trips. Both landlords are exiled from Shanghai and spend their time cooking and eating together and playing mah-jong. Su finds herself alone – and although she’s encouraged to join the community – she prefers to wallow in her solitude. Chow faces the same dilemma. He’s a journalist – and his wife works late and is rarely at home. Chow and Su cross paths with one another on their way to the noodle vendor or in the narrow corridors of the apartment complex. Their brief encounters only underline their loneliness.
Both start to suspect that their spouses are committing adultery. Over an innocent dinner, they decipher that the spouses are with each other. Chow notices her purse. Su points out the tie he’s wearing. “Actually… My husband has one just like it,” she tells him. “He said it was a gift from his boss. So he wears it every day.” The two start meeting to reenact how their cheating spouses met. “I wonder how it began,” she says. At a restaurant, they pretend to be out on a date and imagine the conversation their spouses must have had when they started their liaison. “I’ve no idea what your wife likes?” she asks. It eventually leads to them falling in love but they urge each other to remain platonic. “For us to do the same thing,” he exclaims, “would mean we are no better than they are.”
The way this has been put together by director Kar-wai is so seductive. The pace of the film is dreamy – emphasizing those instances in which characters nearly brush shoulders against each other. Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the camera will go into slow motion as they individually go about their days, expressing their isolation. The way that individuals are framed by corridors, doorways, and windows emphasizes their sense of containment. Then notice his editing during the moments in which they play-act their spouses’ betrayal – he jump cuts between artifice and reality. It all unfolds like a memory. He utilizes colors in saturation – specifically the color green – in a similar way that Hitchcock did in “Vertigo.” This is a fascinating aspect because there are times that as romantic as it may seem – their secret rendezvous can also be interpreted as an obsession. The missed opportunities and unfulfilled occurrences continue through time as the narrative moves ahead – finalizing in a poignant coda in Cambodia.
Kar-wai has a very unique aesthetic – a true original. One of his trademarks is the usage of step-printing technique. So he basically duplicates multiple frames and it creates this lyrical effect of agitation in movement – like the gentle flapping of the wings of a butterfly.
Cho: “It’s only a rehearsal. This isn’t real.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Ping Lam Siu, Tung Cho ‘Joe’ Cheung, Rebecca Pan, Kelly Lai Chen and Man-Lei Chan
Bringing “In the Mood for Love” to the Screen
“We started the film in a different way. At first, we called the film “A story about food.” The story of ‘In the Mood for Love,’ in fact, is actually one of the stories about these two people, neighbors, who are buying noodles all the time. Later on, I realized that the reason I wanted to make this project is only this story, so I expanded it. It was supposed to be a quick lunch and then it became a big feast…At the beginning, I thought this is an easy film, because we had two characters and the whole film is about these two persons, and then I realized it was much more difficult than my previous films with 10 characters, because we had to put a lot of details in it. We shot the film [following the characters from] 1962 to 1972 and in the editing room, I think the film stopped at 1966, which is the film you see now.
I always 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. And they have their own movies and music and rituals. That is a very special period and I’m from that background. And I want to make a film like this, and I want to recreate that mood…I always wanted to call this film, ‘Secrets’ or something about secrets, and Cannes said, “No, there’s already so many films with Secrets.” So we had to find a title. We were listening to the music of Bryan Ferry, called ‘In the Mood for Love,’ so we call it ‘In the Mood for Love,’ why not? Actually, the mood of the film is what drives these two people together.” (indiewire.com)
The Making of “In the Mood for Love”
The director made “In the Mood for Love” as an unofficial sequel to his 1990 picture “Days of Being Wild,” in which Maggie Cheung plays a character with the same name, but the plot sprang from a four-page Japanese story written in the 1960s. This was given to the actors in lieu of a script; every day, they would receive scenes with dialogue to be shot later that day, and they were encouraged to improvise. ”Sometimes we would shoot the same scenes with the dialogue between myself and Tony reversed,” Maggie Cheung told a reporter. ”Or we would film the same dialogue but on a different set.” The painstaking methods, coupled with an Asian financial crisis that interrupted the flow of money to the production, meant that “In the Mood for Love” took fifteen months to shoot. The schedule overrun forced cinematographer Christopher Doyle to depart mid-production; he was replaced by Mark Lee Ping-bin. The film shot almost entirely in Bangkok, with just a couple of actual Hong Kong locations. Hong Kong’s rapid urban transformations meant that in 2000 very little of it even remotely resembled the Hong Kong of 1962. An epilogue was also filmed at the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
Maggie Cheung required four hours of makeup and costuming each morning; she wears a different Chinese dress, or cheongsam, in each scene, with fabrics that purposefully complement or clash with the décor around her. Art director and film editor William Chang Suk-Pin said that “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) was a big influence in terms of design. “The colors I am using,” he said, “are very vivid, to contrast with the characters’ restrained emotions. These contradictions are also in the lines they speak. Everything that Maggie and Tony say to each other can also mean its opposite. Are they rehearsing their love, or is it real? It’s quite complex. ”We’re always seeing them through doors, windows, or corridors,” he added. ”There’s no direct contact with the characters. We’re looking at things from afar. It gives you space to think and feel rather than just identifying with the actors.” Wong Kar-wai echoed this point when he later said, ”I sometimes treat space as a main character in my films. ‘Chungking Express’ (1994) is about a Hong Kong street corner. The same with ‘In the Mood for Love.’ I had to know the apartments and the streets intimately. They are the silent witness to the whole story.” (tcm.com)
Tony Leung on Creating the Character of Chow Mo-wan
“I wanted to do something different from my previous work, I wanted to do as minimal as I could this time round without any facial expression and not much dialogue. I tried to project a character like that with very minimal expression, but I found it quite difficult at the very beginning. It’s quite hard, it’s quite painful, that you can not release your emotions. I couldn’t find a reason why this character wants to get close to Maggie’s role. At first this character is normal working class, a very decent and gentle person, he keeps everything inside, very good at hiding his emotions, so there’s no facial expression, you cannot see any emotion on his face. In the middle of the movie I thought I could make it more complicated. One day I spoke to Kar-wai and said: “Can I play a bad guy?” The reason why I want to get close to this woman is I want to make a revenge on her, try to manipulate this woman. So it ends up I feel quite sorry for what I did to this woman. So at least I have something to get hold of to make this character more complicated, not just a victim of the adultery.” (sensesofcinema.com)
About Cinematographer Christopher Doyle
Christopher Doyle is an award-winning cinematographer. Works like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love have been met with international critical acclaim, and have found a firm footing in Chinese cinema and international cinema in the West. Christopher himself reveals as much about the construct of the film world, as his film’s do the construct of life. Unperturbed by the prescriptions of Hollywood, Doyle’s power lies in his freedom for improvisation, sense of movement, and ability to think on his feet. Treating the frame as a space for discovery rather than a place for projection, Doyle’s is energised by the stories of Hong Kong and is also known by his Chinese identity Du Ke Feng, meaning “like the wind.” He is a rare and enigmatic personality reveals to us that just as much creativity unfolds behind the camera as in front. Christopher Doyle wrote, shot, and directed “Warsaw Dark,” “Away with Words” and “Hong Kong Trilogy,” an experimental portrait of three generations of Hong Kong people. He is famed for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai and few people talk of “In the Mood For Love,” “Happy Together” or “Chungking Express” without mentioning Doyle. He has made more than twenty films in various languages as well as over fifty Chinese-language films. Among Doyle’s sixty awards and thirty nominations are the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “In the Mood for Love,” as well as the Osella d’Oro for Best Cinematography for “Ashes of Time” at the Venice International Film Festival. On May 26, 2017 Doyle was honored during the 70th Cannes Festival with the “Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography” award, in tribute to his successful and influential career. Filming in Hong Kong during the turbulent Umbrella Revolution protests, Doyle lent his voice to the political movement fighting for greater democracy and political autonomy in Hong Kong. (advance.org)
About Writer and Director Wong Kar-wai
Born in 1958 in Shanghai, Wong moved to Hong Kong with his parents at the age of five. Unable to speak Cantonese, the local language of Hong Kong, the young Wong had trouble communicating with people, let alone making friends. It was the same for his mother, and cinema became the refuge for the migrant mother and son. “It was something that could be understood beyond words. It was a universal language based on images,” he told Tirard. As a film enthusiast, Wong found himself at the right place at the right time. The New Wave of Hong Kong cinema began in 1979. Young directors with Western influences – such as Ann Hui, Tsui Hark and Patrick Tam – began making films that distinguished their work from mainstream studio productions by the likes of the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. Wong’s journey to become a film director began at this point. After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic with a degree in graphic design, he signed up for the scriptwriter training scheme at local broadcaster TVB in 1981. A year later, he began writing scripts for films, which included “Final Victory” (1987) directed by Patrick Tam; the script earned him a nomination at the seventh Hong Kong Film Awards. Wong put the visual sensibility he had developed as a child into good use when he left the TV station to make his own films, at a time when the local film industry was at its peak. Two years after John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow,” which made the gangster genre a box office hit, Wong made his directorial debut with “As Tears Go By” (1988), a subtle and yet highly stylised gangster piece about two young thugs, played by Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. “As Tears Go By” laid the foundation for Wong’s subsequent work. Rather than being plot-driven, Wong’s films told stories through images and mood. He took this a step further in “Days of Being Wild” (1990) – set in a reimagined 1960s Hong Kong. It starred an ensemble of the biggest stars at the time, including Leslie Cheung as a disillusioned playboy, with his lovers played by Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau.
…By the mid-90s, Wong had established himself as one of the best film-makers in the region, with “Chungking Express” winning him all the top accolades at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1995. The city’s film industry was still a thriving and lucrative business but it was apparent that Wong wanted a bigger arena. While John Woo had already begun his Hollywood career making action movies, Wong won the Fipresci prize at the Stockholm International Film Festival for “Chungking Express.” It also earned praise from Quentin Tarantino, who was said to have pulled the strings to ensure the film’s overseas distribution. Making a name on the international stage was possible, and going to Hollywood wasn’t the only way. “Happy Together” arrived just before British rule over Hong Kong ended, and the city became the centre of global attention. The film sealed Wong’s star status, winning him best director at the Cannes Film Festival – the first Chinese person to receive the award. The early years after the handover remained largely prosperous, as if little about the city had changed, and 2000 saw the release of In “The Mood for Love,” a romantic drama set in 1960s Hong Kong that is widely recognised as Wong’s finest work… “In The Mood for Love” ends in 1966, a watershed moment marking the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution, and a year before the outbreak of the Hong Kong riots. The final scene has Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s character whispering his secrets into the tree hole, remembering the vanished years. It marks the end of an era and the dawn of an unknown future, true in the film, as well as for Wong’s film-making and the fate of Hong Kong. “In 10 years’ time the line between Hong Kong film-makers and Chinese film-makers will be very thin,” Wong told me in an interview in 2006. And his predictions came true. The post-handover era saw an abrupt change for Hong Kong’s film industry amid the astonishing growth of the mainland Chinese market, which was like a gold rush for many film-makers.
Wong was already ahead of his peers. Beijing Film Studio was one of the companies that produced “Ashes of Time.” The futuristic romantic tale “2046” (2004), a loose sequel to “In the Mood for Love,” had participation from Shanghai Film Group. And beyond mainland China, Wong ventured into the West, producing “The Hand” as part of the 2004 anthology “Eros” alongside Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh, and his first English-language feature “My Blueberry Nights” (2007), which starred Norah Jones, Jude Law and Natalie Portman. “You learn many lessons, and what’s important is to find your audience instead of assuming there is one,” Wong told me. He found that audience with “The Grandmasters” (2013), a biopic of Bruce Lee’s master “Ip Man” that is an allegory of the world of Chinese martial arts. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Zhang Ziyi, it took Wong nearly a decade to complete and was his biggest commercial success to date. It was an epic film that managed to be true to its intentions while appealing to Chinese-speaking communities around the world. Some Hong Kong film-makers have been criticised for diluting the local character to appeal to the mainland. Ultimately, Wong is among the few who found fame despite never courting a particular audience. (bbc.com)