In the Mood for Love

(Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)



The obsession it provokes by its insignificance, this is precisely the unique sign – equivalent in its intensity to a whole series of moments of which at the same time it forms an abstraction.
– Pierre Klossowski (1)

Michael Galasso's haunting string theme appears (by my count) eight times in In the Mood for Love – mostly accompanying slow motion views of its main characters walking to the noodle shop, at work, and so on. Such musical repetition is not new for Wong Kar-wai: I remember being driven batty by the cover version of California Dreaming the first time I saw Chungking Express (1995). The device has something in common with the narcotic swooniness of the repeated theme in Marguerite Duras' India Song (1974), and also with the mounting intensity of the ever-turning score in Hou Hsaio-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Each of these artists has their own general aesthetic of repetition, covering images and narration as well as sounds and music. In Hou, as Fergus Daly remarks, "Repetition can thereby undo the linearity of narrative filmmaking, replacing development with passage and modulation. By way of repetition, every axis becomes unhinged". (2)

There is an element of Hou (and also Tsai Ming-liang) in In the Mood for Love – a focus, new for Wong, on the unspectacular and repetitive gestures, spaces and rituals of everyday lives. This repetition, however, serves a different purpose. We need to get at it through Wong's very particular approach to fiction and especially characterisation.

Much has been written about the elaborate shooting methods that create multiple – or virtual – versions of Wong's films. In the promotional doco on the making of In the Mood for Love (which contains several tantalising glimpses of unused material – including the all-important love scene!), Wong mentions several earlier ideas for the project. He toyed with making a film in which Cheung and Leung would play every character, including the extras who pass by; then he considered starting (as he often has) from a group of several stories, in which different couples would, in turn, all be played by his star duo. In the doco Wong also mentions that, during the shoot, he often had Cheung and Leung play each other's respective, shadowy spouses (I am uncertain as to whether such shots remain in the final cut); it is also said that, in the process of playing out scenes in different ways, he would switch the lines given to the actors.

From all this, it's clear that there is more than a touch of Alain Resnais to this project (Smoking/No Smoking [1993] comes to mind). And also Jorge Luis Borges' great allegory of infinite or virtual fiction, "The Garden of Forking Paths", (3) especially when Wong gives us what seem to be alternative outcomes to or versions of the same scene. The use of the Nat King Cole version of "Quisas, Quisas, Quisas" – "Perhaps" (also sung by Omara Portuondo in Buena Vista Social Club [1999]) – cues us to the fact that Wong has stepped into the realm of conditional or speculative narration (the grand model for which remains Last Year at Marienbad [1961]), where characters as figures or positions can be multiplied, reversed, pulverised. This game is not necessarily dependent on the supposed dreams and desires of its fictional beings. Again, the method is not exactly new for Wong. Nicole Brenez has discussed how, in Days of Being Wild (1990), "protagonists are, as in a dream, dissolved definitively into their double (...) But their double or substitute possesses the same force and the same narrative consistency as they do. They do not represent an 'other' or possible version of the character (...) rather, they signal that the constitution of an identity is not the last word of these figures". (4)

At least ninety-per-cent of film criticism limits itself to a humanist-individualist-existentialist perspective: that is to say, it fixes (in a kind of narcissistic or tormented identification-projection) upon the specific, embodied beings on screen who love, suffer and recall. And, of course, In the Mood For Love does function on this level – not its best level, for me – as a muted melodrama of thwarted desire, pained yearning and melancholic memory, somewhat Sirkian in its very controlled mise en scène (doors, walls and window frames imprison the characters in every shot, foregrounded objects glow brighter than they do), and rather like Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) in its long-ago evocation of the socially conditioned tact or restraint that kills love and hollows out lives. But such identification is indeed not the last word of these figures. (Isn't it a bit banal, for instance, to declare that Wong's films are about memory, meaning simple reminiscence?)

Wong seems to me to join a different tradition of screen characterisation, closer to Resnais or Raúl Ruiz than cinema's incurable romantics. The difference – a fundamentally philosophical one – is easily pinpointed. Within the humanist view of experience, each individual comforts him or herself with the absolute, irreducible uniqueness or originality of their feelings (however pained) – "no one else feels as I do at this moment". Another approach is to view all people as figures within a pre-structured game or book of life, the "same old song", as the English version of Resnais' title (On connaît la chanson, 1998) has it. The question of living then becomes a process of recognising – or surrendering – to this pre-givenness and fundamental non-uniqueness of individual experience, to this "eternal return" which shapes us.

And it is not even as precious individuals that we would experience this flow; rather, as conglomerations of moments, echoes, gestures, postures, behaviours. Pierre Klossowski and Gilles Deleuze have offered arresting meditations on this Nietzschean principle. (5) Ruiz puts it well: "When you get older, say after forty years, you can have this sort of impression when you meet new people that are so similar to people who are dead, and in some way they are the same people. I think this is what Klossowski is talking about when he talks about the eternal retour. These movements, these intensities, are repeated, and so in some way the same person is there, suggested with the movement of a hand, for example". (6) This view of things, often mistaken for coldness when used as a generating principle for fiction, can in fact be a rather light-hearted mode of liberation, a freeing from the tormenting prison of the individualist ego. Resnais and Ruiz are, after all, comic directors!

The philosophical notions of a book of life or game of love allow us to tie together into a meaningful pattern much of what happens in In the Mood for Love, as well as how it is presented: the repetitions on all levels, the incessant mirroring and shifting between characters, the "what if" ritual of make-believe between Mr Chow and Mrs Chan that keeps tripping us up as we try to follow (and invest ourselves in) the romantic plot. There is also another key level – insufficiently grasped or followed through by Wong, in my view – that structures the hierarchy of elements in the film. "I'm not like you", "we won't be like them": the movie is full of these remarks by one or other of the protagonists as they contemplate their unfaithful spouses or their various friends, acquaintances and colleagues. They hold on desperately to their specialness, their difference from "ordinary'" folk (signalled in every way: their looks, their bearing, their solemnity, their "star status") – and it is this determination which removes them not only from the sphere of sin and social transgression, but also the possibility of love itself.

That is the paradox they are caught in which condemns them to misery and the primal Wong condition: disconnected solitude. Wong's entire aesthetic form lets us see it another way: these lovers are exactly like everyone else – like each other, like their partners, like the chattering rabble, like every one else before and after them who has ever succumbed and suffered. Everyone feels the way they feel, at all moments. The play on the overheard voices and glimpsed silhouettes of the shadowy spouses confirms this sense – not to mention the droll, Lubitschian device of the gifts, clothes and accessories that (on the plot level) give away the infidelity, while (on a deeper level) stir the increasing indefinition of these screen figures.

Unfortunately, Wong apparently had a particularly hard time trying to mark an ending within the flow of this eternal return. To solve the problem he invented – and sticks late in the film – the business of Mr Chow's secret (and all the other "perhaps" hidden secrets which cascade forth at the end). This device of the secret has the sorry effect of smuggling back in the very illusion of aristocratic specialness that the film seeks, in other ways, to undermine. The secrets held in the bosom by Mr Chow and Mrs Chan separate them once and for all from all those "vulgar" people who merely eat, chatter, go to the whorehouse and seek cheap travel fares. The torment of Wong's characters here links, unexpectedly, with the classic dilemma of Scorsese's heroes: to never be like the mass of human others, to smash the reflection in the mirror that reminds one of this inescapable fate. And, in such a frayed context of "the humanist subject" at the edge of recognising its own oblivion, secrets are one of the best ways of reloading the old-fashioned circuit of spectator-character projection – that part of the cinema experience "given over to silence and to a relative aphasia as if it were the ultimate secret of our lives while perhaps really constituting our ultimate subjection" (Jean-Louis Schefer). (7)

MORE Wong: Fallen Angels, Happy Together, 2046

© Adrian Martin April 2001


1. Jean-Maurice Monnoyer and Pierre Klossowski, "In the Charm of Her Hand", in the special issue Phantasm and Simulacra: The Drawings of Pierre Klossowski, Art & Text 18, July 1985, p. 43. back

2. Fergus Daly, "On Four Prosaic Formulas Which Might Summarize Hou's Poetics", in Martin & Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations (London: British Film Institute, 2003). back

3. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths", in Labyrinths (London: Penguin, 1970), pp. 44-54. back

4. Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier (Bruxelles: De Boeck Université, 1998), p. 185. back

5. Cf. the essays by Klossowski and Deleuze in David B. Allison (ed), The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1977). back

6. "Never One Space: The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz", interview by Adrian Martin and Christopher Tuckfield, Cinema Papers, no. 91, January 1993, p. 60. back

7. "Schefer on Cinema", Wide Angle, vol. 6 no. 4 (1985), p. 56. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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