In Hong Kong, 1962, Su Li-zhen, Chow Mo-wan and their respective partners rent rooms in adjacent flats. The two gradually become aware that Li-zhen’s husband is having an affair with Mo-wan’s wife and begin to seek solace in each other’s company. They work through their shared pain by roleplaying scenarios, such as imagining how the affair began or confronting the unfaithful other half. Mowan eventually declares his growing love for Li-zhen but the terrifying prospect of gossip splits the two, with Mo-wan leaving for a new life in Singapore.
Obsessed with passing time and infused with a romantic vision of a vanished past, In the Mood for Love is a typical Wong Kar Wai film. However, by dispensing with the hitherto characteristic use of voiceover narration, Wong instead finds alternate routes into his characters’ inner lives that widen the potential of cinema to investigate memory, perspective and emotion.
Early on, as the new pairs of neighbours move in on the same day, removal men inadvertently mix up their property. This proves prophetic as their space, relationships and identities will all eventually become intertwined. Later, it is the doubling of the unfaithful spouses’ handbags and ties that alerts Li-zhen and Mo-wan to the affair. Significantly, Li-zhen’s husband and Mo-wan’s wife are never shown face on to the camera, but are usually presented via telephone, separated from sight by door frames or reversed in mirrors. This has the effect of presenting the pair as ‘other’ – outside of the film’s main narrative thrust and deliberately distanced from the spectator. Wong suggests that through this device we see ‘both relationships – the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship – in the one couple’ (Rayns 2000). This absence also elides a structural distraction: if we cannot see them, then we judge them not as individuals but as catalysts for our protagonists’ emotional experience. Wong also circumscribes the issue of presenting a couple who can reject characters played by Cheung and Leung, two of Hong Kong cinema’s most glamorous actors.
We are nevertheless given glimpses into the ordeal of the absent pair. The suffocating, cramped environment and lack of privacy from gossiping neighbours and colleagues that wound Li-zhen and Mo-wan’s relationship must affect them too. Wong allows us a brief insight into their difficulty through a thorny shared phone call shortly before they disappear from the film altogether. This mirrors the silent call between Lizhen and Mo-wan near the end. We are also teased with a fleeting shot of Mrs Chow weeping in the bath. This too is later echoed when Li-zhen allows herself a brief cry after a lecture from her landlady. In both scenes, the edit prevents the moment from lingering, tightly reining in the screen time allotted to the women’s parallel outpouring of emotion. The crucial difference is that Li-zhen’s anguish is based on what she desires, rather than has acted upon. She experiences a simulacrum of the other woman’s experience, resulting in genuine grief.
Equally, after Mo-wan and Li-zhen have mutually confirmed their knowledge of their partners’ affair, we watch them walking down the street, flirting with one another. Genre and narrative expectations lead us to suppose that their own amour has been stirred but Li-zhen suddenly stops. She criticises Mo-wan’s portrayal of her husband. The scene begins again as before but with minor differences. We now realise that they are pretending to be the adulterous couple initiating their affair, the result of a seemingly throwaway question from the prior scene as to how the relationship began. This sequence operates both diegetically (the couple have a second go at their role play) and non-diegetically as the cut and recommencement also stirs us to become aware of film as a medium: it appears as if two slightly different takes have been left in the final edit.
A corresponding sequence occurs later when they imagine Li-zhen confronting her husband with her suspicions. This time Mo-wan disapproves of Li-zhen’s performance and the scene begins afresh until Li-zhen breaks down in tears at the pain this has caused her to feel. Perhaps bookending the sequence where the affair starts, this game suggests a scene where the affair may end. Later, she and Mo-wan rehearse their own imminent break-up (on-screen) before it actually happens (off-screen). Now typically, the imitation informs genuine emotion and replaces the actual event.
Throughout, the couple are terrified of the gossip their seemingly chaste relationship will stir, though their genuinely adulterous spouses appear largely to avoid this. Likewise, Li-zhen’s employer’s own affair is ironically organised through Lizhen’s helpful diarising, acquisition of gifts, and advice on ties. Meanwhile, Mo-wan’s boorish friend Ah Ping is unashamed of openly discussing his bad debts and visits to a brothel. Much of the disapproval Li-zhen and Mo-wan fear comes from within, further internalising the repression and anxiety of what others might say, rather than what they do say.
Public and private space within the film is carefully constructed to reflect its central characters’ emotions. Wong conveys an overcrowded Hong Kong through cinematography and set design that cramps (however elegantly) the characters, trapping them in doorways or pressed against furniture. Maggie Cheung is squeezed into 22 different ornate cheongsams to play Li-zhen, lending her the air of a work of art: sculpted, desirable, unobtainable.
Cui Mengyang has noted the importance of costume in the shot where Li-zhen briefly faces her love rival seen arriving from behind for a game of mah-jong. Li-zhen’s characteristic, high neckline cheongsam contrasts with Mrs Chow’s Westernised, low-cut dress. Li-zhen’s elaborate, untouchable hair diverges from the other woman’s fashionable 1960s flips. Mrs Chow also arrives with a seductive wiggle in contrast to the elegance and poise that Maggie Cheung brings to her role. This fleeting sequence, states Cui, verifies Wong’s method of ‘expressing certain meanings or feelings by veiling them and showing them also partially’ (2007: 44). One could add that this is exactly the function of Cheung’s elaborate dress in itself.
Wong also uses those cheongsams to steer the narrative through some editing that seems designed to misdirect the spectator. The usual rules of shot-reverse-shot are uprooted when what seems to be a continuous scene is revealed as taking place over different times, signified only by a sudden change of dress, perhaps suggesting how repetition and ritual dominates the Li-zhen/Mo-wan relationship.
Similarly ambiguous, the film’s final intertitle meditates on the distance between the past, memories and the present:
“He remembers those vanished years.
As though looking through a dusty window pane
The past is something he could see but not touch.
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
Have we then been privy to Mo-wan’s perspective? This presents us with a conundrum: the couple miss each other during the penultimate sequence of Mowan’s return in 1966. He fails to learn of Li-zhen’s separation from her husband and motherhood to a child which we could reasonably (though not certainly) surmise is his. How could this be taken from Mo-wan’s perspective? Wong has wrong-footed us with ambiguity and ‘blurred and indistinct’ feeling over narrative logic.
Further levels of perspective/playfulness also invite us to question, yet buy into, the unreality. Li-zhen’s ascent of the stairs to Mo-wan’s hotel room, a venue for the possible consummation of their relationship, is shot from multiple angles that contradict a sense of continuous direction. Logically, she is travelling toward her destination but the editing gives the impression of her hesitation and internal moral conflict. Mo-wan’s closing of the door on her departure also brazenly signals the number 2046, alerting the spectator to the date of Hong Kong’s absorption into Mainland China, a verfremdungseffekt that sits oddly in such a film steeped in emotion, stepping beyond the narrative to point forward to a key date in a future reality, rather than a nostalgic past. A domestic audience would certainly note the significance. While Mo-wan is a native of Hong Kong, Li-zhen is an immigrant from Shanghai, an aspect that hints at a reading of the film made in the context of the period of handover to the Chinese mainland. It is therefore perhaps significant that it is Mo-wan who becomes displaced and leaves Hong Kong to live abroad.
2046 (2005) is also the title of Wong’s sequel to In the Mood for Love, which contrarily avoids continuation of narrative, genre, style and characterisation. Mo-wan’s character is wholly inconsistent with Leung’s portrayal of him in In the Mood for Love. He is effectively an entirely different man, indistinct, albeit with the same name and memories. Looking backwards, Maggie Cheung’s character is also a supposedly 10-years-older version of her role in Days of Being Wild (1990). As that film is set only two years earlier, the logical impossibility again reinforces Wong’s ‘blurred’ portrayal of remembrance.
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar suggest that In the Mood for Love is ‘not exactly about a lost love but, more precisely, about an obsession with what might have been. [Combining] allegorical potential with nostalgia and the desire for different futures’ (2006: 43). This implies that from the English title, it is the act of being in the mood that takes precedent over the love itself. Another untrustworthy aspect of the film’s approach to memory, nostalgia and an imagined past comes in its Bangkok location shoot, which evidently seems to have better resembled a bygone Hong Kong than Hong Kong itself.
Whether concerning changing cultural identity or an individual (and therefore perhaps more universal), wider sense of a lost past, the film wallows in its carefully constructed sense of nostalgia through lavish visual presentation, casting of beautiful actors, dreamy construction and lingering soundtrack. The overall effect suggests a feeling of what Pam Cook calls ‘prosthetic memory’ (2005: 4), a deliberately nostalgic evocation of an idealised past that requires suspended disbelief, ‘predicated on a dialectic between longing for something idealised that has been lost, and an acknowledgement that this idealised something can never be retrieved in actuality, and can only be accessed through images’ (ibid). In the Mood for Love goes further by being a film that is not only conscious of this but at pains to signal it to the spectator, national and international, becoming consciously self-reflective. ‘The obsessive desire to recapture the past, accompanied by the knowledge that it cannot be retrieved, is at the heart of Wong’s evocation of the diasporic experience of the displaced Chinese communities’ (2005: 9).
Further complicating our reading of the imaginary space of In the Mood for Love is the inclusion of deleted scenes placed outside of the body of the film on the DVD release. Their presence questions the nature of authenticity in cinematic narrative: should we watch these scenes as ‘missing episodes’ from ‘what really happened’ – most importantly, the consummation of the Mo-wan/Li-zhen relationship that the stand-alone film leaves ambiguous? Or are these to be purely read as rejected ideas that exist wholly outside of the narrative? In the current era of the commercialisation of the director’s cut, these questions are arguably facile but perhaps worth considering in the context of a film so steeped in the values of subjectivity.
Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the role-playing Li-zhen and Mo-wan become performers commenting on performance in a highly stylised, romanticised past. These two fine actors convey the complex emotions of the characters with absolute conviction, making them highly artificial yet utterly believable. In the Mood for Love stokes the intellect whilst pulling at the heartstrings. The unveiling of subjectivity in cinematic narrative has never been so sumptuously presented.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Hong Kong, France. Production Companies: Block 2 Pictures, Jet Tone and Paradis Films. Director and Screenwriter: Wong Kar Wai. Cast: Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (Su Li-zhen), Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Chow Mo-wan).]
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006.
Peter Brunette, Wong Kar Wai, Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Pam Cook, Screening the Past Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema, London & New York, Routledge, 2005.
Mengyang Cui, The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai: Chinese and Western Culture Differences in Narrative Cinemas, Florida, Universal Publishers, 2007.
Tony Rayns, ‘In the Mood for Edinburgh’, Sight and Sound, August, 2000. Available at: http://old. bfi. org.uk/sightandsound/feature/55 (accessed 29 June 2013).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.