IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE directed by Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong, 2000)
There’s a zen concept that maintains that it is better to travel well than to arrive. If you apply this to loving relationships you could argue that it is better to preserve a state of longing than succumbing too soon to carnal urges. In this way you could prolong a heightened sense of expectancy and put off that moment when the reality fails to match the imagined bliss.
The unrequited love story at the heart of ‘In The Mood For Love’ made me think in such philosophical terms and to speculate on the pros and cons of platonic relationships in general.
Set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, it follows the story of Mrs Chan and Mr Chow. They are next door neighbours who move into their respective apartments on the same day. They soon discover their spouses are lovers prior to this joint change of address.
We hear the voices of her husband and his wife but, as we never see them ,it almost seems that Chan and Chow are themselves a married couple going through a rocky patch.
Their shared situation of being cheated upon is a point of connection but also adds a complication to their relationship - “If we do the same, we’ll be no better than they are”, she argues and, reluctantly, he appears to agree.
They live in extremely cramped building with narrow corridors and no real privacy. If they were to have an affair everyone in the apartment block would know about it immediately. It’s a place where it is hard to keep secrets.
The two role play imaginary scenes with their cheating spouses, adding another layer of ambiguity to their own relationship. Do they have feelings for each other than the ‘convenience’ of finding that their ports in the storm happen to live next door?
There is a lot of talk of coincidence in the movie, yet the fact that people in the city seem to live and work in such close proximity means that there is a higher possibly of lives intersecting.
The question of honor is an understandable explanation as to why they start out as just good friends but , in any conventional movie, the obstacles would gradually fade and the two would get closer and desire would triumph. We await the scene where their feelings get the better of them and they fall helplessly into each others arms but we wait in vain.
Director Wong Kar-wai appears to enjoy teasing the audience by keeping us guessing as to whether the two will have an affair or not. Apparently he even filmed love scenes which he later cut, partly, he says, because he hates the prettiness and predictability of love stories.
While love remains a mood rather than an activity, there’s no shortage of glamour and sensuality. Tony Leung Chiu-wai cuts a dash as the stylishly detached Mr Chow while Maggie Cheung as the slim and graceful Mrs Chan shows off her immaculate figure in a never-ending sequence of floral print silk dresses (cheongsams); she even wears these elegant gowns when going out for takeaway noodles.
On the soundtrack, the languid and repeated refrain of Yumeji’s Theme by Umebayashi Shigeru and the songs of Nat King Cole, sung in Spanish, add to the slow, restrained tone of the movie where repetition and routine is central.
Near the end, when the action jumps forward four years, we see a brief clip from newsreel footage of General De Gualle’s 1966 visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia where the French president spoke out against US war in Vietnam.
The final scenes take place in ruins of Angor Wat, an ancient monastery in Singapore where the solitary Chow follows a custom of speaking a secret into a hole in the temple wall then sealing this with mud so that what he has confessed remains unknown.
This ending left me confused, which may have been the director’s intention. On reflection I suppose it suggests that the story of suppressed emotions should be seen in a broader social and cultural context. My limited knowledge of Chinese history means I can’t speculate further on what this wider message could be.
All in all, it’s a curious movie that probably needs to be seen more than once to appreciate fully. Like most of the movies I’m watching at the moment, it’s in the BFI/Sight & Sound list of the best 50 movies of all time which shows that it has many influential admirers.