Wong Kar-wai’s greatest film, In the Mood for Love, premiered at the end of Cannes, in the new century, and for that reason, has always felt very epochal. Rarely, it seems, does much time pass without some part of it, a moment, an image, dart in and out of my own consciousness.
Nowadays we are most likely to encounter older works again and again on either computer screens, tablets or high end monitors. Criterion has issued a new high-definition upgrade of the film. That alone justifies getting lost in the movie’s cool and insinuating visual textures, the dark and velvety blacks, the piercing reds and diaphanous blues that Wong weaves into a musical and heartbreaking lyrical rhythm.
I’ve interviewed Wong a couple of times and the quotations for this essay are drawn from our conversations. “It was a restive moment,” the title card reads, at the start of the film, a Hong Kong of the early nineteen-sixties, when the city was altered by the rising number of Chinese émigrés flooding the city. Wong colors the movie with some of his own private history.
He was born in Shanghai, in 1958, and moved to the city with his family. Wong is the most Proustian of directors whose recurring theme is the irretrievability of a lost Eden. Like Jim Jarmusch, Wong is a romantic pessimist whose movies circle around ideas of solitude, loneliness and cultural dislocation. It’s a great theme, but also a potentially off-putting one because it is all predicated on what is felt rather than expressed.
Wong explained his own assimilation into Hong Kong culture was that of an outsider. As a young kid, his sanctuary came in the form of novels and the cinema. He read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Balzac. "I would spend every night in the cinemas because they showed old American films,” he told me.
"My films are about a Hong Kong of my own impressions," he said. "I like the night, because it is quiet. The only thing you hear are the radios. The other reason is very practical because Hong Kong is so crowded. If, like us, you work without permits, normally you work at night, very late."
Wong made his reputation with films like Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express, expressive and flamboyant movies that created excitement with their speed and kinetic verve. In the Mood for Love radically shifted inward, brooding, romantic, sorrowful, about an affair that never quite ignites. In the Mood for Love marked a vital and necessary move away from Wong’s signature aesthetic that made his reputation, extending his art in new and invigorating directions.
This virtuoso moviemaker withholds the very impulses that have defined his movies—their flamboyance, movement and intensity—in favor of an emotionally complicated moral and emotional interplay of two lost dreamers. The story is constructed as a fugue and grounded in recurring patterns and repeated motifs structured around images and elliptical camera movements.
Wong’s classical, even conservative work becomes his most liberating, a work composed almost entirely in precise and haunting imagery. Thwarted desire or love that cannot be consummated is the critical theme of Wong's work. Here it takes on an intoxicating, poetic poignancy, the story detailing the deep friendship that develops between Su (Maggie Cheung), a secretary for an export firm and Chow (Tony Leung), a journalist, who meet when they both vie for the same apartment. Su and her husband, who works for a Japanese company, and Chow and his wife, move into their new apartments, opposite each other, on the same day.
Though she works at an export company, Su is deeply unhappy and desperately lonely because of her husband's prolonged absences. Chow’s wife is also largely absent given the demands of her profession working at a hotel. Su's sanctuary from her grief and escalating loneliness is the cinema. The two strangers establish a wary, tentative friendship, complicated by her fear at what might result if their respective landlords discover the two are spending so much time together.
In Wong’s oblique visual design, the characters are almost constantly splintered, captured from distance, with key or visually distinctive parts obfuscated by the nearly abstract imagery. In the Mood for Love unfolds almost exclusively at night, in the shadowy, brooding spaces of rain covered streets, the darkened interiors of cabs, and the small, tight spaces of their apartments. This only further heightens their longing for love and makes palpable the absence and incompleteness of their lives.
In the movie's key scene, set in a restaurant, the elliptical script suddenly makes explicit what Wong has only previously hinted at. Su and Chow finally acknowledge their partners are engaged in an affair. Wong's indirect underplaying heightens the feeling of hopelessness and pain. The nature of their relationship suddenly changes as well; the two carry out their own form of illicit or furtive connection, but not as an act of revenge but an attempt to understand what drove their partners to turn away.
In this Brechtian arrangement, Wong explores not the freedom and excitement of transgression but the sadness and abandonment occasioned by their betrayal. The camera work, by the master Christopher Doyle and Mark Lin Bing Ping, captures a reverie, a meditation on desire and attraction evoked in the physical contrasts of their bodies. Cheung is sinewy and angular, projecting a feral intensity; the shots of her restricted in the dress of sixties middle-class Hong Kong woman is acutely revealing. (This movie proves, after Stanley Kwan’s extraordinary Actress and Olivier Assayas’ pop masterpiece Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung was the actress of the decade.) The immaculately and impossibly handsome Leung is possessed with a liquid sensuality that perfectly serves the quietly sad and introverted Chow.
Wong has long been fascinated by and drawn to characters defined by solitude and social estrangement, people whose solipsism and extreme individuality push them to the margins of society. The emotional register here is part of that continuum, coursing through Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Happy Together; these are works ravishing to look at though devastating in their emotional implications, linked by their lost opportunities of emotional and physical engagement.
I said at the time, Wong breaks our hearts with images, songs and Maggie Cheung's face. As we await Wong’s long-gestating The Grandmasters, I am thrilled at the chance to go back in my own time.