Repeating the Convenience Formula
Wong Kar-wai’s films repeat the convenience of a formula that audiences already know as “arthouse.” However, the Hong Kong New Wave became a marker of difference and served as postmodernism. It narrowed the gap between the masses and the cult. As a practice of convergence between art and action, the movement disrupts the larger generic economy. On the other hand, being a Hong Kong arthouse cinema, Wong describes Hong Kong’s popular politics.
The film made Hong Kong popular and served as the setting for fashion. It represents the crossroads of egoistic postmodernism’s demise, where the global celebration of the new and different takes place. With the blockbuster action produced by both John Woo and Jackie Chan in Hollywood, the film’s theme establishes such a structure and mood. Many of Wong’s films attribute the effect of suffocation to a fish-eye lens.
It became his hallmark, along with his unique understanding of loneliness and the city. Such themes place the city in a subjective light. It celebrates Wong’s style at the expense of Hong Kong specificity by pointing to the prevailing structure of Hong Kong’s feelings regarding modernity and proximity. The popular city appears only as a trendy atmosphere with modern themes.
The themes tell the story of cinema, becoming the fashion that composes the genre of the film.
The Universality of Art
In the Mood for Love maintains the universality of its formula as art, despite the Hong Kong modernity that once characterized Wong’s style as being the same site he uses. To erase the peculiarities of the city’s locality, he writes about the prowess of the film as a postmodernism movement, suggesting that the privilege of abstraction over the plot makes the audience engage in rituals that the director transfigures.
In theory, such an abstraction denies the politics of transfiguration, giving rise to a qualitatively new desire for modernity, association in community, and social relations. It demands investigation and seduces its meaning, as do most noble works while inviting the audience to re-obsess with its beauty and intimacy. The film contains sophistication and depth beyond any other film.
Despite his complex formal approach, difficult-to-understand stories, historical references, and autobiographical touchpoints, Wong often starts his productions with nothing more than sketchy scripts. It uses a trial-and-error technique that clashes with time constraints and budget deadlines. Wong completed the final edits the night before the premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, taking nearly two years to make the film.
He was forced to think more about his use of images when making the film than in his previous works, such as Happy Together and Chungking Express.
A Poem and a Song
In the Mood for Love has the organized structure of a poem as well as a song. It involved trying different things, frustrating his stars such as Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Regardless, no plot summary of the film can adequately capture the information Wong is holding back. Therefore, he communicates through impressions and subtle movements. The audience must be able to interpret and observe such things in the film.
At its core, the film explores the passionate romance between shipping company secretary Su Li-zhen and Hong Kong newspaper journalist Chow Mo-wan through a soft yet restrained narrative. Set against the backdrop of a period of Cold War strife that unfolds in the background almost unannounced, the film opens its narrative by introducing Mo-wan and his wife, as well as Li-zhen and her husband, who are moving erratically into a bustling apartment building.
On the same day in 1962, they joined a circle of people who had fled Communist Shanghai for Hong Kong. Although the urbanism of each character’s new paradise isn’t isolating, Li-zhen and Mo-wan meet each other in a polite but brief exchange. When they discover that their respective partners are cheating on them, they spend time together. While avoiding their mutual desire for each other because of the need to appear honorable, they feel pressured by their nosy neighbors.
The Tentative Sense
Wong instills in Li-Zhen and Mo-wan a sense of temporality, failed commitment, and a long-lasting sense of separation. Despite the tentative nature of Hong Kong, the couple has never tried to feel like they belong to each other; there is no sense of finality or immortality between them. It’s just a feeling that their state is temporary. The hesitant romance of Li-zhen and Mo-wan can be seen by the audience as a metaphor for Hong Kong’s identity transfer and impermanence.
Although Wong eschews narrative certainty, the film acts as a film of self-deception and secrecy. It’s not just the couple’s infidelity on what audiences call their business trip to Japan. Wong, on the other hand, brings them together by keeping a secret that they cannot discuss with anyone else, in the same way, that Li Zhen and Mo Wan, whom they left behind, react. They also struggle to conquer their silence.
As many Shanghai emigrants do, Mo-wan decides to fill his time as a book writer and rents another room under the pretext of a writing room to finish the story of his martial art. Li-zhen, on the other hand, agrees to assist him in writing the book. However, their closeness to each other increased their moral pressure.
The Hypothesized Structure
The relationship between Li-zhen and Mo-wan may have been shaped by hypothesized fantasies from conversations about their partner’s food tastes. When they eat together at a restaurant, they order what their partner will order. Instead of dismantling their barricades against one another, they ask inquiries such as what will they doing. In short, Wong uses memory to create a revival of the past that the characters imagine through the actual present.
When the two periods can no longer be distinguished, a vague impression of the time’s transcendental form will be created. Such a key approach is to act as the director’s subjective framework to avoid objectivity. It seeks to tell an off-screen story. On the other hand, the memory combinations of the characters use mental images that go beyond the narrative documentation with the camera.
It seeks to infuse a more abundant experience into the structural aspects of the cinematic narrative. Therefore, the narrative structure is no longer dependent on what is on the screen. Such a film method represents a powerful type of cinema in its ability to shock moviegoers from a sedentary state of mind to a world where human movement does not always map directly to time.
Breaking the Pattern
Simply put, it makes In the Mood for Love leaves its audience unsure of whether the events in the past happened in real-time or in arbitrary memory. With such a method, it moves away from the actual image, starting to enter a realm where the image becomes highly suggestive but ambiguous. In an instant, the film breaks its pattern and tries to bring out Mo-wan’s memory in the last scene.
Wong solidifies his film as an allegory of Hong Kong’s unrealized and ever-changing identity politics. For him, such an era is past and no longer belongs to him. In the final sequence, a visit to Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966 unfolds during a period of the cultural revolution as well as the anti-British mainland riots. Mo-wan has taken up a post in Singapore, while the riots have forced Koo and Mrs. Suen to leave their apartment.
On the other hand, Li-zhen comes looking for him at the apartment, although Mo-wan also does the same. He eventually appears in the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a 12th-century structure. At the onset, Wong sets the scene in a way that contradicts the typical Hong Kong scene. He captures the vastness of the historical site while offering an open space for the audience so that they no longer look back at Mo-wan’s memories.
The Historical Frames
Following such a tradition, Mo-wan whispers his secret, possibly about Li-zhen, down a notch while covering it with mud for good. Moreover, Wong has tied his romance to historical frames, from Angkor Wat to China in 1997, when he gained his sovereignty after becoming a territory. With such a sequence, In the Mood for Love leaves many unanswered questions, both experienced and documented through its lack of resolution.
Wong always throws mystery and melancholy at his audience. It is because his following films will prove to be “disappointing” when compared to his retrospective phase. Aside from the film being ranked among the greats of Sight & Sound and other film institutions, this is not surprising given that the audience’s considerations of intertextuality and interpretation are always required for the film to reach its full potential.
It provokes a pressing need, breaking away from sensory immersion at the same time, with the hypnotic yet intoxicating application of Wong’s form. The role of Hong Kong cinema as a form of marginal imperialism in Asia has always been a problem for people. Modern structures and discourses are reimagined as cosmopolitan images telling contemporary love stories. However, it also talks about the political passion of cinema, its story, and its appearance.
- Bettinson, G. (2014). The sensuous cinema of Wong Kar-Wai: Film poetics and the aesthetic of disturbance. Hong Kong University Press.
- Holland, E. W., Smith, D. W., & Stivale, C. J. (Eds.). (2009). Gilles Deleuze: Image and Text. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Lu, S. H. (2002). Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment. Film Quarterly, 55(3), 68.