Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Wong Kar-wai | 花樣年華(In the Mood for Love)

rehearsals for abandoning love

by Douglas Messerli

Wong Kar-wai (writer and director)  花樣年華(In the Mood for Love) / 2000, USA 2001


Superficially, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love, might appear to be a thwarted love story. Two neighboring couples, renting adjoining rooms in an apartment building owned my Mrs. Suen, the Chows and the Chans coincidentally move in on the very same day, many of their possessions becoming temporarily intermixed—a forecast of events to come. Both Chow and Chan’s wife are business people who often travel, leaving their spouses alone for long periods at a time. Lonely, the two, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a journalist, and Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), a secretary, individually visit the local rice kitchen to take home food to eat alone in their rooms. 
     Early on in this film, Wong portrays their comings and goings—accompanied by the senuous music of composers Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi, and songs sung by Zhou Xuan and Nat “King” Cole—become a series of something like slow-motion dances, a bit like flamenco and passo double movements, as the attractive loners pass each other on the streets and in their apartment halls. Not only are they forced to take stock of one another’s comings and goings, but, as the days pass without the return of either of their spouses, they begin to notice other things, Chow that his wife has a purse she has purchased in her travels very similar to one Su Lizhen carries, Mrs. Chan noting that Chow wears a tie, purchased by his wife, very similar to the one which her husband claims was given to him by his boss. Sadly, they must face the fact that their spouses as seeing one another.
     Before long, the beautiful Su Lizhen (wearing absolutely stunningly slinky Chinese dresses popular in the Hong Kong of the 1960s) and the well-groomed Chow begin meeting.

     At first, determined not to behave like their spouses, the two create an intense platonic relationship, discovering that they share a great many interests, including an enjoyment in martial-arts serials, which Chow soon begins to write, Su Lizhen reading them and making suggestions. The two also share a love of certain foods and music; both like films. 
     But as the director himself has noted, they are not as innocent as they might first seem. Like the characters of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Scottie and Madeline, they circle round one another dangerously toying with various dramatic possibilities in their own lives. At first, they simply try to comprehend how their spouses originally fell in love with one another, as Chow and Mrs. Chan play out, almost like school children, various versions of a first meeting. 
     Those dramatic scenarios soon turn to more serious ones, wherein Su Lizhen acts out her demand that her husband (played by Chow) admit that he has a mistress. If it begins as a kind of toyful acting-out of anger and suffering, it quickly grows more serious as the couple discovers that, despite their best intentions, they too are falling in love. The fact that they continue to resist their own attraction and wrap their increasing meetings in a series of secretive encounters aiming at protecting themselves from suspicion by the other boarders in their building and from their office mates, only creates further tensions that increase their frustration and would-be lust.

      In a sense, while their spouses have been more open and honest about their relationship, Chow and Su Lizhen rehearse again and again their abandonment of love. Given their spouses seem to have left forever, one might have thought that this almost perfectly matched pair might find joy and pleasure in one another. Instead they torture one another until not only is Chow forced to take a hotel room, but becomes determined to leave Hong Kong for Singapore to escape the emotions he now deeply feels. 
      Su Lizhen equally suffers from the secrecy of their romance, and when, finally, Chow makes a call asking if he were to have two tickets might she join him, after a period of resistance, she suddenly runs to his room, arriving too late.

     In any normal “love” story she would have quickly followed him to Singapore, and they might have been joyfully reunited. But in Wong’s tale, the two merely continue to punish one another and themselves through their abandonment of love.
     A year after Chow has left, he discovers in his Singapore apartment a cigarette in an ash-try with lipstick upon it, and realizes that his room has been visited in his absence by Su Lizhen  Dining with office mates, Chow has the following discussion.

              Chow Mo-wan: In the old days, if someone had a secret
                                        they didn't want to know what
                                        they did?
              Ah Ping: Have no idea.
              Chow Mo-wan: They went up a mountain, found a tree,
                                         carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret
                                         into the hole. Then they covered it with mud.
                                         Would leave the secret there forever.
              Ah Ping: What a pain! I'd just go to get laid.
              Chow Mo-wan: Not everyone's like you.

Later that evening Chow receives a telephone call, clearly made by Su Lizhen, but she never speaks and hangs up soon after.
       Years later, at Angkor Wat, where he is visiting, Chow stares into a hole in the ancient edifice, whispering for several moments into the gal before filling it with mud. Clearly he has now buried the secret and his own now empty past.
        Visiting his old apartment in Hong Kong at a later date, he finds his friends who were living in his old abode, have moved away. As he turns to go, he asks who lives next door and is told that it is inhabited by a woman and her son.
        He leaves without realizing that it is Su Lizhen. Whether the son she now as in Chow's from their one night together or from her former husband upon a temporary return home we never discover. But it is clear that she continues to face a life without an adult lover. If the couple's refusal to give in to their passions might be perceived by some as representing a moral high ground, it surely can be seen my most of us as a lack of courage to live life to its full--which also, just maybe, explains why their spouses have left them in the first place.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2001

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