Guest post by Chris Forrester.
The unremitting power of memory has always been central to the films of Wong Kar-Wai — stories of lost love and deep yearning that hinge on their capacity to channel something specific and powerful about the way time renders the most fleeting encounters with love profound. And if there’s one memory even the Hong Kong auteur can’t shake, it’s that of a never-forgotten love affair between neighboring spouses in 1960s Hong Kong.
In the Mood for Love, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was initially conceived as a triptych of stories — “A Summer in Beijing” — but would ultimately be reshaped into one: that of a man and woman in neighboring apartments who learn that their spouses have initiated an affair together and struggle to reckon with the pain of infidelity. Over the course of the film, that shared reckoning rather fluidly becomes something more as a series of conversations, a number of which coyly obscure the characters’ true emotions as they reenact potential moments in their spouses’ affair, grows into a bond, and then a secret, and ultimately a great loss.
It is perhaps the ultimate portrait of lost love, because it aches with the pain of desires both acted upon and not. And Wong, ever a master of his own powerfully impressionistic mode of filmmaking, renders it as a series of fleeting moments that are at once both incredibly sensual and melancholic. As with most of his films, it is tied inextricably to a memory of a time and place, brought to life by his careful attention to the minutiae of the characters’ day-to-day routines and the spaces they frequent, such that it feels remembered even as it unfolds before us.
But what makes In the Mood for Love so vital to Wong’s career and identity as a filmmaker, beyond that it is regarded as his own best works and one of the best films of the 21st century, is that it forms the centerpiece in an informal trilogy of films that has provided a backbone of sorts to the director’s entire oeuvre.
The first was 1990’s Days of Being Wild, a loose romantic ensemble that follows a pair of women traumatized by the same man, a Hong Kong playboy named Yuddy, as they seek medicine for their emotional ailments in the form of new love. It was the director’s second collaboration with Maggie Cheung, who for the first time here inhabits the character of Su Li-Zhen, the elusive central figure of the trilogy.
In a number of ways it marks the founding of Wong’s signature aesthetic; drawing on a stylized cinematic language reminiscent of music videos, his is a voice that prefers to linger on the sensation of specific moments rather than recount the particulars of narrative.
That’s especially true of In the Mood for Love, the most formally rigorous work of his career, in which nearly every movement of his camera emphasizes space and the way his characters occupy it: an apartment building’s tight halls, the stairs to a nearby noodle stall, the deep red interior of a hotel room. A sense of trappedness pervades the film.
As the two leads (Maggie Cheung, again, and Tony Leung) pass one another time and again in the halls of their apartment and at the noodle stall they frequent, the space seems to urge them towards one another. Their encounters, and ultimately the love that develops between them, is fated. So too, perhaps, is the infidelity that brims offscreen between their partners.
Wong is so fixated on the two leads that he never makes characters of their spouses, and only infrequently gives attention to the host of coworkers and other tenants who surround them. It’s that that heightens the borderline erotic thrills of their will-they-won’t-they dynamic, creating something powerfully sensual from the way the two navigate a purely platonic — or is it? — relationship and birthing something consummately devastating from the way that it is ultimately unwound by the tides of time and change.
Space is also key in the film’s breathtaking final sequence, which sees Tony Leung’s character visit the ruins of Angkor Wat to whisper his secret — that of the affair that never was — in a crevice. The ruins provide a beautiful space in which to stage this quietly devastating moment. Like the halls of the apartment where he met Su Li-Zhen and the stairs to the noodle stall that foreshadowed their relationship, its halls are tight and dim; there exists the same sense of fatedness as pervaded their relationship. But these age old ruins emphasize the enormity of time and the smallness of this relationship within it. In keeping with an old legend, he fills the hole with mud and leaves it behind forever. It is forgotten, as all things are.
The specter of Maggie Cheung looms large over 2046, the third film in Wong’s trilogy, about women entering and exiting the life of an aging science-fiction author. The author is Chow, Tony Leung reprising the same role he played in the two previous films, and the women are many: Lulu, a returning character from Days of Being Wild who lives in an apartment numbered 2046, the same as the hotel room Chow and Su frequented in In the Mood for Love; Bai Ling, 2046’s next tenant; and a mysterious gambler (Gong Li) who also bears the name Su Li-Zhen. But almost wholly absent from the film is Maggie Cheung, the original Su Li-Zhen whose hauntingly beautiful personage Chow has never been able to shake. She appears only in brief flashbacks, shot during the filming of In the Mood for Love.
2046 is, in a number of ways, not only the consummation of Wong’s trilogy, but also of his career; a careful synthesization of all his previous works and fascinations filtered through the prismatic lens of a delirious science-fiction epic. It chronicles, in addition to a number of affairs which cement for Chow that he has lost his one true love, snippets of his science-fiction writing about a train to the year 2046. Many of Wong’s previous collaborators appear. And it is also perhaps the codex to his body of work in the way that the story of a storyteller who spins extravagant, fictitious narrative yarns about unattainable loves and desires from a deep yearning for lost love easily comes to be understood as a parable for Wong’s artmaking.
In Wong’s films, sex and desire are not only thematically vital, they’re interwoven into the making of the text. Works of exquisite beauty and deep, almost profound yearning, they are as much about the desire to satisfy that longing as they are about the beauty and energy of their performers themselves. If Chow in 2046 has become something of a stand-in for Wong himself — a writer who translates yearning and desire into emotionally heightened, fantastical meditations on the same — then perhaps 2046 is as much about Wong’s desire to move forward as it is Chow’s.
“He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see, but not touch.” — In the Mood for Love
Wong, too, remembers those years, committing their fleeting intensity to celluloid as if to preserve cherished moments. And they are not vanished, nor can they ever be. They are memories of a time and place and feeling — as personal to him as powerful to us — immutable in their power, immaculate in their design, unforgettable in their entirety.
Chris Forrester worships at the church of Claire Denis (and really wants you to reconsider High Life). Also a devotee of Michael Mann, Dario Argento, Wim Wenders and Andrea Arnold, he’s a journalism undergrad, a film student at heart, and a lover of genre movies.