“To those who remember fondly”
— Wong Kar Wai
From the short film: Huay Yang De Nian Hua
Nostalgia feels inherent to period pieces. Filmmakers tend to try to capture different angles on this fleeting remembrance of the past. The angle could be autobiographical, in the way Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn, set in 1973, recalls and re-purposes memories into short anecdotes as if they were being told by someone on a lazy afternoon reflecting fondly on their childhood. Nostalgia can come in the form of identifying with a period you were never a part of, but feel is more relatable and primary to your development, like Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, set in the 1920s. Nostalgia can come from a reaction to great change as you look back fondly on the time right before that change, as seen in George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti about the end of the summer of 1962. What makes Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love so special is that it takes all these elements of a simple yet complex state of being and shines them through the murky prism of human memory.
In the Mood for Love (loosely based off of the short story Intersection by Liu Yichang) is the story of two married Shanghainese people living in a Shanghainese apartment in 1962 Hong Kong. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and their respective spouses all move into the apartment on the same day. As Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan become more aware of each other’s presence they both begin to notice their partners growing more distant and keeping longer work hours. They both soon come to the painful realization that Mrs. Chan’s husband is cheating on her with Mr. Chow’s wife. The two begin a relationship of their own, one that starts out of solidarity in which they act out imagined scenes of how their companions could come to have an affair behind their backs. They vow never to become like their spouses. However, the relationship becomes something more, and, while their affection is never consummated, these acted out scenes begin to blur into the reality of their actual feelings for each other.
This blurring effect is present throughout the movie. Time passes rapidly, with hours (sometimes days) passing between one scene to the next as if someone is recounting a story, skipping from one event to another, leaving out connective tissue they see as unnecessary. The movie also has this quality of being deliberately paced by having the viewer watch as the camera lingers on details the same way the same story teller will point out details they feel are more important than any consequence of cause and effect. This was intentional on Wong’s part. As he puts it, “We tried to recreate the film from our memories. And in our memories, everything moves much slower.”
The movie, while about these two lovers and their sensual inner lives, is also a mood piece about Hong Kong in 1962. That time and place held much value for Wong during the making of this film. Its inception sprung up at the time of British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. This led Wong to reflect on a time in Hong Kong history he was nostalgic for. Wong grew up in Hong Kong in the 60s. This was the period shortly after a large exodus of Chinese citizens out of China due to communist rule taking effect in 1949. Many, including Wong’s family, ended up in Hong Kong, where they found communities of people just like them, usually in small apartments. The film reflects this by having their surrounding neighbors and the two leads always eating meals together or playing spirited rounds of mahjong.
It is worth pointing out that Wong was only 5 years old during this time, so while the romance at the center of the film isn’t autobiographical, the tangible aspects of the period are the things the movie looks upon tenderly, such as the cheongsams Mrs. Chan wears or the restaurants Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan go to on their simulated but sincere dates. This attention to detail is also notable in the soundtrack. Chinese opera is occasionally heard playing in the background. Two or three songs are repeated over and over again producing a hypnotic effect: particularly Nat King Cole’s Spanish language rendition of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” which, along with other Latin songs, was very popular in Hong Kong during that time. Nat King Cole was Wong’s mother’s favorite singer.
While detailed, the film also has a sense of obscurity. You never see Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s spouses’ faces. You just hear their voices or see them from behind, making them feel akin to shadows or specters of a memory. You’re never quite sure where events are taking place due to how intimately the scenes are filmed—shot in close ups and mid shots, but rarely ever in wide shot. Wong states, “We have an overall impression of that time so, some of the details in the film, I think which are very much beautiful and nice as it actually was… but everything in the memory is foggy.”
This clash of nostalgia and memory is what makes In the Mood for Love feel hypnotic. You know you’re not getting the full story, but you can feel your senses being enraptured by the sensuous display on screen. The music, the food and the clothing all transport you back to a recollection from a more innocent time, but you can’t quite see the full picture. The movie sums this up thusly in the epilogue:
“He remembered 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.”
In the Mood for Love screens at IU Cinema on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. followed at 9:30 p.m. by Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad as part of the China Remixed Series. China Remixed, a Spring 2017 campus wide global festival, reflects all of the ways the arts and humanities of China impact IU, and IU in turn engages with the arts and humanities of China. The programs focus on contemporary arts and humanities—cutting-edge cultural activity and research that speaks to today’s world. Explore IU Cinema’s China Remixed events on our website. Discover other China Remixed events around campus on the Arts and Humanities website.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.