I would like to start at the end: Fa yeung nin wa’s (In the Mood for Love) male lead, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), whispers a secret into a hole in one of the stone walls of the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. As he leans toward the wall, his mouth murmuring inaudibly into the crevice, the camera glides around him, and the film’s haunting theme song fills the otherwise silent space around him. The final act of a film built on lingering, lavishly layered images, and an equally enchanting soundtrack, then has Mr Chow walk briefly through one of the temple’s hallways, only to exit, in shadow, both the frame and what remains of the narrative through a doorway.
After Mr Chow’s exit from the film, the camera holds the frame-within-a-frame image of the temple at dusk, seen through the very doorway Mr Chow just passed through. In the subsequent set of images the camera travels aimlessly, unhurriedly across the now vacated premises: through its hallway interiors and around the age-old exteriors, briefly pausing at the now mud-and-grass covered hole where Mr Chow has left his secret, sealed forever. Thus, quite unexpectedly, Angkor Wat becomes a character in the film. More precisely, the film’s protagonists – now absent from the screen – are upstaged by its passageways and the stone structures that have, for the most part, withstood the test of time.
The timeless is not a central theme in Wong Kar-wai’s work; in fact, his oeuvre is best known for its obsession with the contingent, the impermanent, the passing moment. As Rey Chow has noted, this sequence feels like the companion piece to those in Chun gwong cha sit’s (Happy Together, 1997) featuring the Iguazu Falls, “suggesting a type of perseverance and endurance that far transcends the bounds of the human world” (1). But it also suggests that the structures of this film, the myriad passageways and interiors that we have seen Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen/Mrs Chang (Maggie Cheung) meander through, are as much the protagonists of this film as the characters. These spaces orchestrate Mr Chow and Mrs Chang’s meeting – first in the hallway that joins their adjacent apartments, and later on the narrow stairway leading to and from the noodle stand they both frequent. Encouraging a look back, the empty passageways of Angkor Wat remind us that the structures that organize the spaces that Mr Chow and Mrs Chang pass through are places that will, too, one day stand empty of the lives they once housed.
For Wong, film is a means of preservation, a substrate very different from the stone of Angkor Wat, but serving the similar purpose of keeping the past alive. Wong likes to mine the juxtaposition between the permanence of film and the impermanence of what he photographs. Unlike the ruins of Angkor Wat, the spaces of the Hong Kong photographed in In the Mood for Love are transient and themselves transitory. This is true starting with the neighborhood where Mr Chow and Mrs Chang meet, where immigrants from Shanghai have settled, in some cases ever-so-briefly before once again departing for other shores (to the United States, Singapore, the Philippines). This focus on the transitory nature of diasporic communities and on the impossibility of mapping stable coordinates of space and time make Wong the first true auteur of the post-national moment we still inhabit – driven as it is by the forces of globalisation, which have deterritorialised space and multiply displaced populations.
The impermanence of the moment and the imperceptible instant when change takes hold, are topics of endless fascination for Wong. A clear, even heartbreaking example in this film is when Mr Chow explains to Mrs Chang “feelings can creep up just like that”. And just like that, their platonic relationship turns into a story of an impossible love affair. In keeping with the wisdom already charted in Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994), Wong underlines his sense that “love is a matter of timing”. And though his characters meet in the perfect orchestration of coincidence – just at the right moment – mistiming otherwise besets their encounter.
In the Mood for Love, Wong has explained, was slated to start in a hotel room (and the shooting of the film in fact began there). Wong chose to transform an old hospital for British soldiers that was left vacant after the 1997 handover into the hotel room of his characters’ rendezvous. He did so, he explains, both because it resembled buildings of the 1950s and because it had to be torn down, so he wanted to preserve it on film (3). Mr Chow and Mrs Chang may or may not have given sensual expression to their affair in “room 2046”. This hotel room is a non-place; no certain geography for it is given (4). Number 2046 is the room Mr Chow rents to pass the time writing his martial arts stories or waiting for Mrs Chang (and to avoid the prying gaze of neighbors). “2046” is also a gesture to the future and the past. 2046 (2004) was ultimately the title of Wong’s next film and it refers both to that film’s fictional, futuristic non-place, “2046”, and to the year before the agreement with China that Hong Kong’s socio-economic and political structures will remain unchanged expires. In the Mood for Love, its hotel room and frustrated love affair, become the origin for 2046’s obsessive longing. “2046” is thus the symbolic companion to the physical thresholds, like the doorway Mr Chang exits from In the Mood for Love, that underscore Wong’s cinema.
Mistiming is, for Wong, also at the heart of history, and this film, unlike his others, takes up the topic of memory, of how history is remembered and recalled. 1962, the date for the beginning of this narrative, coincides with the year that Wong arrived in Hong Kong as a child from Shanghai. In the Mood for Love is thus both a work of memory and about memory – about the ways in which memory can hold the past in perfect stillness, like a photograph that might blur around the edges or a picture that can be composed and re-composed, at times painstakingly embellished, over time. Memory is changeable, more reliant on the texture of affect than on fact. Indeed, the texture, colour, and composition of the images – more than the narrative of its ill-fated love affair – are what invite multiple viewings of this film. The camera often remains at a remove from the action, watching from a distance, as if from behind a windowpane. The camera rarely enters into the frame; rather, it remains still, as if hidden behind objects, or tracks back and forth from side to side, as if condemned to remain on the other side of an invisible threshold: that past it can indeed see but not enter (5).
The closing sequence of the film – so disorienting in its sudden spatial shift to Angkor Wat as the film’s location – can seem, from the post-2046 vantage point, somewhat clichéd. The gesture of whispering secrets into holes as evocative music swells had become a convention of Wong’s work by the time of this film. History repeats at the same time that it transforms itself. The 1966 documentary footage of President de Gaulle arriving at Phnom Pehn’s airport is the only actual historical event depicted within In the Mood for Love. It marks the end of French Indochina and what will be the beginning of the Vietnam War. The film’s timeframe (1962-1966) spans two thresholds: both the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China and the eruption of the Vietnam War (6). The ending at the ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s ancient capital, which lay on a pilgrim route between China and India, aligns the film with an ageless history of movement, exile and dislocation. But this gesture also inscribes History’s propensity for repetition: the mournful tone that dominates the sequence at Angkor Wat presages the violent events that are about to unfold. The temple was itself once the stage of a massacre of Buddhist monks (note the young monk who is the only witness to Mr Chow’s spilling of his secret into the bottomless hole of Time).
Wong Kar-wai’s impossible romances – built, as this one is, on the nuances of substitution and repetition – underscore his sense of how the inevitability and impossibility of change cohabit any given moment. Any gesture that attempts to capture such an impossible configuration cannot but suspend time; and thus we are left to gaze at lovely images of a bygone era that are atemporally arranged, clocked only by Maggie Cheung’s impeccable and spectacularly patterned cheongsam dresses (7).
- Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007, p. 77.
- From the director’s commentary that accompanies a deleted scene, “room 2046”, included as an extra feature on Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD release of In the Mood for Love.
- The already elliptical temporal framework of the film is accentuated in the sequences at the hotel room. The film’s jump-cut editing style is most evident in those sequences showing Cheung’s interrupted climb and descent of the hotel’s stairway. On “non-places” as a mark of our global modernity see Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso, New York, 1995.
- The closing intertitles of the film tell us two things: 1. “That era has passed, nothing that belongs to it exists anymore.” 2. “He remembers 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.”
- 1962-65 is the interlude coinciding with Mao’s Socialist Education Movement. Gaining momentum by 1966, it would become known as the Cultural Revolution.
- The cheongsams Cheung wears are also less a realistic wardrobe choice (as costumes evoking a specific moment in time) than a reference to the Chinese film stars of the past, those very stars that her character likely watches as she indulges herself in her favourite pastime: the movies. Su Li-zhen’s neighbour and landlady seem aware of this, when at one point one of them remarks: “she dresses up like that to go out for noodles?” Ironically, then, the only time-keeping device the film employs is itself anachronistic.
Fa yeung nin wa’s/In the Mood for Love (2000 Hong Kong/France 98 mins)
Prod Co: Block 2 Pictures/Jet Tone Production/Paradis Films Prod, Dir, Scr: Wong Kar-wai Phot: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, Mark Lee Ping-bin Ed, Prod Des: William Chang Mus: Mike Galazo, Shigeru Umebayashi
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ping Lam Siu, Tung Cho Cheung, Rebecca Pan, Lai Chen