Culture  Plotless renditions

Revisiting why we love Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love

Dawson College’s Tsinema Club recently screened Sinophone filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 movie In the Mood for Love. The film is about two married individuals, Mr. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan/Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) who discover that their spouses are cheating on them with the other’s spouse. To understand how the affair may have developed, Mo-wan and Su decide to role play as the other’s spouse. Eventually, the two develop feelings for each other but are unable to express them in fear of societal obligations and their personal moral high grounds. The narrative follows their fate through a series of unspoken yearnings and missed connections. The film foregrounds a unique storytelling technique for period melodramas. The breadth of history and emotion come together in a minimal interior space through sound and visuals.

Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the plot is propelled by the socio-economic conditions of the newly middle class. The city is experiencing rapid urbanization and immigration resulting in cramped accommodation where families share private space. This creates a forced intimacy between the tenants in the same apartment building, such as the protagonists. The two couples – the Chans and the Chows – move into adjacent apartments on the same day. The fate of the couple is foreshadowed early in the film when their belongings keep ending up in the wrong apartment. The incident also establishes the central role commodities will play later in the film.

Hong Kong’s mercantile culture is heavily responsible for creating an organic association for the two protagonists. Over the course of the movie, Mo-wan (Leung) and Su (Cheung) unceremoniously run into each other borrowing books, taking out food from the noodle shop or requesting the other to order a rice cooker from Japan. Their interactions are limited to the functionality of these objects, until one day, when Mo-wan notices Su’s handbag. They realize that this handbag and Mo-wan’s tie were gifts from their spouses but were also owned by the other’s spouse. This prompts Mo-wan to take Su out to a diner where they discover that their spouses are cheating on them with the other’s spouse. Again, the importance of commodities in Hong Kong’s social life is signified with how these props determine the fate of the narrative.

As the movie progresses, we witness the two protagonists falling in love with each other. “We won’t be like them,” Mo-wan keeps reminding Su. The courtship barely has any dialogue. Instead, Wong Kar-wai delivers to us a brutal meditation on melodrama; the film is melodramatic because of its emotionally powerful content and brutal because of the script’s failure to recognize the heavy emotion of the affair. Wong Kar-wai documents this conflict with a combination of slow waltz music and intricate set designs. The repetition of the signature theme song and use of bold colours embody the rapture at hand for a love affair bred out of another love affair. The characters’ lack of visible emotions is substituted with sensuous shots taken mid-height or focusing on a singular body part such as the hand.  It makes one think of only one thing: the film is purposely repressive in form and in content. The audience observes Mo-wan and Su through mirrors, windows, and door frames; sometimes separated by walls, sometimes separated by the curve at the end of a staircase. We never even get to see the face of the spouses. The film’s form is just as fragmented as the nature of the affair. While the characters experience emotional constraints, spectators feel this through narrative and visual constraints.

The latter part of the affair between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen becomes rather gendered. Su must sneak around to avoid gossip. Her landlord advises her against frequently staying out of the house until late. The situation escalates when Mo-wan and Su start meeting at a hotel room to collaborate on a martial arts serial and they realize their desires for the other. Even this confrontation is explored through Su breaking into tears while Chow maintains an emotionally indifferent stance on the affair. Finally, when Chow confronts the affair, he does so by offering to run away from gossip. Su declines, citing her moral obligations as a family maker. At the end, we observe Su still holding onto her unrequited love for Mo-wan and yet unable to change her situation. She remains in her relationship with her cheating husband and has a son with him as well. This twist in the affair focuses on the predicament of women in taking agency of her own fate.

The complexity with which Wong Kar-wai weaves conflict and history makes In the Mood for Love a remarkable study of style and form even seventeen years after its release. It captures the human condition in an extraordinarily limited interior space. Rarely does one come across a movie title that says so much about the experience of film watching. In this film, the director is straightforward in his mission to  give viewers a mood instead of a plot – and that is what makes it so memorable.