In the Mood for Love
Ambiguous Manifestations of Love
In The Mood for Love would seem to be a subtle film about a complex love affair but also a complex film about a subtle love affair as it follows a tentative, perhaps sexual relationship between our two leading characters Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung). While the categorical assignation between Chan and Chow's respective spouses remain offscreen, the possible assignation between Chan and Chow remains constantly onscreen. What is kept offscreen however is the clear nature of their relationship - director Wong Kar-wai shot a sex scene between them but chose to leave it out of the final film. Does this mean that we can take production history into account and say that clearly they were lovers but Wong wanted to make it more implicit than explicit, but undeniable nevertheless, or should we insist that what matters is on the screen and not beyond it: unless we have the scene in front of our eyes we shouldn't make assumptions? We needn't insist that there is nothing outside the text, nothing beyond what we see on screen, to feel that the most useful way of approaching In the Mood for Love is to assume that since Wong left it out we're best ignoring the categorical reading it would have provided if left in. Equally, we wouldn't claim that because he left it out this means they haven't had sex. We just don't know, just as we don't know what Mrs Chow and Mr Chan look like as Wong keeps them offscreen. No doubt they have faces, and perhaps there is footage of Wong having shots those faces, but they are not evident in the final film and so their absence remains part of the film's structuring eschewal.
Speaking of the latter, Wong says, in conversation with Tony Rayns, he decided not to show the husband and wife "because the central characters were going to enact what they thought their spouses were doing and saying. In other words, we were going to see both relationships - the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship - in the one couple." (Sight And Sound) The structuring principle is absence, so it would be very remiss indeed to impose upon the film a presence based on production history rather than narrative event. Shelly Kraicer in Cineaste believes that Wong's films, reject "simple constructions of self-in-other and other-in-self [and} whose boundaries are not policed like well-behaved analytic categories, but are rather blurred, permeable, malleable, illusory." Bringing in production history isn't wrong initself, it would just give in this instance to our understanding of In the Mood for Love a firmness so much of the film seems to demand we resist
We can see this isn't only the case on the diegetic level but also in the form as well. In one scene a third of the way through the film, Chan and Chow are eating at a restaurant and we may notice that the cheongsams Chan wears changes twice in the restaurant and once again in the taxi afterwards. Yet this suggests it isn't the same night at all but three different occasions: that film grammar asks us to take as one event but that the specifics of mise-en-scene asks us instead to see as three. As if that isn't enough, Wong also plays havoc with the 180-degree rule without creating a new rule out of its breaking. At one moment Wong cuts from Chow sitting screen right and Chan screen left before a cut shows the reverse. But this isn't the moment that cues us to see that we are now in a different scene: the clothes remain the same. It is a few moments later that the clothes change, and it is a few moments later again that the rule is once more broken as Chan is back on the right and Chow on the left.
Why does Wong do this? If we try to provide a categorical answer we would be simplifying the complexity of Wong's instincts, but to say it is arbitrary wouldn't be good enough either. Better to think of Wong's film as an examination in what the mood of love happens to be and, by way of explanation, we might think of a line from Terrence Malick's To the Wonder where a character says "what is this love that loves us?", a line easy to mock and very hard to film, but perhaps a sentiment that many a director who wants to explore a feeling that cannot be reduced to narration searches out. When someone talks of the love between two people they usually mean the love that exists in each one for the other, but perhaps Malick and Wong want to capture that betweenness, the space that is generated that can't be located so readily in the two people themselves. Such a claim risks obscurity, and Malick more than Wong flirts with it, but for our purposes we can see that Wong manages to activate through various allusive techniques a love that seems to fall between so many fissures that we can't quite work out what the status of this couple happens to be, nor do we need to do so. They would seem to have love whether they are lovers or not, as though love is a precious thing made all the more precious by their indecision towards it, and Wong's elusive way of capturing it.
When Wong says he wanted to show us the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship in the one couple, another way of looking at it is that he wanted the adulterous offscreen and categorically having an affair, and the onscreen couple having a non-affair all the better to capture the love that loves, the mood of love rather than its enaction. It is clearly being enacted by the adulterers and is much less clearly being enacted by Mrs Chan and Mr Chow, but the adulterers are invisible, while Mrs Chan and Mr Chow are constantly on screen. Yet often their onscreen presence invokes the offscreen couple, as they sometimes play the roles of the adulterous pair all the better to work out what their own feelings are for each other and for their respective spouses. When we see Mr Chow going for Mrs Chan's hand in the back of the taxi after the restaurant scene(s) we have quoted above, does he do so as himself or as Mr Chan? Is he making a pass at Mrs Chan or is he playing at Mr Chan taking the hand of his own wife? To make a pass would seem inconsistent with Chow's character, taking into account Tony Leung's remarks about the film's follow-up and semi-sequel, 2046. "He asked me to do the same character, but in a very different way. That character was already inside me - his body language, his kind of tempo, his voice...he asked me to play somebody else, like a new man." Wong was looking for a "mean, dark, Bukowski kind of man this time" Leung said in a Cineaste interview. Perhaps a man closer to the husband we never see in In the Mood for Love. When after an earlier dinner sequence Mr Chow puts his hand on Mrs Chan's and wonders if they should stay out, she turns away from him in disdain and says that her husband would never say that. Is this Mrs Chan admiring her husband's behaviour, which by this stage she has half-gleaned is hardly impeccable, or has she and Chow already started playing the roles of their spouses as lovers? Later on, more than halfway through the film, we see Mrs Chan speaking to what we assume happens to be her husband as we see him from behind. She finally seems to be confronting him over the affair, but then the camera reveals that it is a mock-rehearsal between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow as Chow tells her when her husband confesses she will have to slap him a lot harder than her half-hearted gesture towards him. The scene comes shortly after we might have assumed they have embarked properly on a love affair - a moment when Mr Chow invites Mrs Chan to a hotel room and we watch her confusion as she arrives at the hotel and then seems, in a brilliantly edited sequence of desirous indecision, to spend time there with Mr Chow. Just after this indecision we see Chow in close-up smoking a cigarette in what may be read as a post-coital moment as the film then cuts to a long shot from down the corridor as Mrs Chan leaves the room. This would appear the most telling moment when the assignation would have taken place, but the scene of them playing at the adulterous couple would seem to counter it. When she asks Mr Chow as Mr Chan if he has a mistress he says that he does and Mrs Chow responds saying she didn't think it would hurt as much as it does while she then hugs Mr Chow. If they have become lovers this scene doesn't make a lot of sense, but what exactly has been happening earlier in the hotel room if they haven't been making love?
What it unequivocally does, cinematically, is allow Wong to show the two relationships in the one relationship. She is horrified that her husband is cheating on her as Mr Chow momentarily plays the husband, but she can also hug Chow seconds later as he is again the friend to whom she can turn. But is this her determination to turn the friendship into something more, or her determination to keep it exactly where it is as she knows she needs a friend at a time when she realises she doesn't have much of a husband? We get lost in the interstices of their relationship not simply so we can speculate on the nature of their affair (which wouldn't be that simple either) but so that we can find both filmically and ontologically a freshness: a new approach to the image cinematically and an unearthing of a problem ontologically.
We can turn to the latter first and see that Wong is musing over the question of love. If the Greeks well knew that love could take many forms, from agape (a universal love) to eros (sexual love), from philia (friendship) to ludus (playful love), from pragma (long standing love) to philautia (which often takes the form of narcissism) we usually expect from a film that one or another will be prominent, even if over the course of a narrative more than one will be activated. It might be that two people start out as friends (philia) and that it develops into the erotic (eros). It might be that someone's husband leaves for another woman (eros) and finds meaning in acts of kindness (agape), or someone self-obsessed (philautia) shows themselves capable of loving a mother and her child (eros and pragma). Yet just as Wong can say he wanted to show the two relationships in the one affair, so we see that he also absorbs the various different forms of love within the one relationship without making clear exactly what relationship takes place. When in Jerry Maguire or About a Boy we witness selfish men finding love for a woman and her child we watch as the film moves from philautia to eros and pragma. In Eat, Pray Love, Julia Roberts is freshly divorced and eventually finds universal love in India. And so on. But In the Mood for Love doesn't move from one love state to another. It constantly evokes the various modes more or less simultaneously. When Mrs Chan and Mr Chow are pretending to be their spouses we have playful love, and moments afterwards friendship. In what seems like an assignation in the hotel we have hints of erotic love, and yet the whole film seems to be contained within an atmosphere that allows for a very particular type of universal love. Critic Robert Koehler may have believed that the line from To the Wonder about love loving us should have been snipped, saying "nobody tells him that a line, like that narrated by Olga Kurylenko...sounds idiotic and needs to be rewritten" but that might have been a vital, thematic line to Malick no matter how daft it sounds to Koehler's ear. If there are films whose love we cannot locate so readily as we can in a romantic comedy, then we might wonder what is this love that loves us? Wong's question we believe is a little different but still greater than the one two individuals might have for each other. What is this love we have that love must respect might be close to Wong's formulation. By accessing the various forms of love rather than one in particular, or in a particular order, Wong gives both to his characters and to the film a constant, ongoing enquiry into the nature of love as Mr Wong and Mrs Chan seem determined to protect themselves from the dishonesty and insensitivity of their spouses, while Wong is no less determined to finds a means by which to express the mood for love in various manifestations.
How is this achieved formally we may wonder, and we can think of the frame, the cut, music and costume. Shot mainly by his then regular cinematographer, the Australian Chris Doyle, but with additional work by Mark Lee Ping-Bing, who often worked with Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong very much frames the film. Obviously, all films are framed, whatever the ratio, but while many films possess a frame they don't use it. The frame contains the action but it doesn't call attention to the image itself. There are numerous ways in which filmmakers can make the frame apparent, from early cinema's use of the Iris shot to Fassbinder's interest in framing characters within door frames. It can be evident in the manner in which a director uses off-screen space as a character comments out of frame but may never, or belatedly appear on screen. The out of frame can sometimes be used very well in comedy, where a hand might appear on screen grabbing some food after we've assumed the greedy figure has finally eaten enough. It wouldn't be so funny if he were still in the frame and had stopped eating, and then starts again.
But how does Wong use the frame? We can think here of Mrs Chow's employment. First we have a shot of the reception area where Chow's wife works framed as a frame within a frame, with the camera situated so that we see a green phone in the medium distance through what seems to be an oval window that we only partially see. Then we see her talking on the phone to her husband, with her back to us, and see again partially through what would seem to be another oval window. Then the film cuts to Mr Chow arriving to pick her up from work but is told she has already gone. The shot is almost identical to the earlier one where we first see the reception, and Wong holds the shot even if we might expect it to be reframed to accommodate the receptionist he talks to. We do see the back of the man after Chow leaves when he enters the back of the reception area which is also within shot. The film cuts to Chow looking morosely thoughtful in a shot that splits the screen in two by virtue of the wall he stands against taking up half the frame; the other half showing us the street. What we see here is Wong framing the feeling: the narrative through-line is more or less that Chow wants to see his wife and his wife doesn't seem much to want to see him, and Chow wonders why that might be so. There are many ways to film such a scene, and many of them wouldn't consider the framing except pragmatically. We can easily imagine a shot counter shot between Mr Chow phoning and Mrs Chow answering. Mr Chow going to her place of work and in finding her absent receiving a sympathetic look from the receptionist and then after he has gone we get a cutaway to the receptionist with a look that indicates he knows more than he is letting on.
But Wong doesn't want to show us the drama, he wants to frame the feeling, wishes to suggest that emotions are unique things, and perhaps wishes to convey that uniqueness with an original shot choice. We needn't see this at all as symbolism (which can often fall into the predictably abstract instead of the predictably concrete) but as a proper composition of affect. We feel Chow's forlorn pain as a compositional rather than symbolic response. If the cut to a fireplace after lovers start to kiss or a dove flying off into a sky after an innocent character is shot are very obvious examples of symbolic response, then many a great filmmaker will be looking for a similar affect while eschewing not only the obvious symbolism but eschewing what we might usually call symbolism altogether. Perhaps a critic will come along and read symbolism into the moments in In the Mood for Love we have described, but it would be surprising if such a response could convey the singularity of Wong's vision. But by describing the shots themselves we can perhaps get a little closer to exploring Wong's importance as a filmmaker and the sort of sympathy, or empathy, he can generate for his characters. A cutaway back to the receptionist would have left us in little doubt how we should feel, but cutting away to Chow standing against the wall on one side of the frame, slightly low in it, gives us a very strong sense of the forlorn without needing symbolism or another character to express it.
The scene immediately afterwards consists of Mrs Chan buying noodles. The film offers slow motion and music as it introduces us to Chan as if this is her first appearance in the film. It is a star entrance from a certain point of view but we might see this point of view as Mr Chow's retrospective one: the moment where his feelings would begin to shift from his wife to Mrs Chan. But of course Chow isn't to be seen at all, as we watch Mrs Chan go down into the basement bar and pick up some noodles, coming back up again as Wong leaves her behind to focus on a shot of another wall framed right down the middle - half wall; half empty dark stair-well, before Chow enters the frame and goes down to eat noodles that he will eat alone. No doubt Mrs Chan is dining alone too, and we may notice this must be a regular occurrence. After we see Chow eating, the films cuts to Chow descending the stairs and Chan ascending them: Chan is in a different dress and we can assume this is a different day - this is now their regular habit.
This is where Wong takes full advantage of the cut to create a fluidity in film form that needn't be too beholden to the demands of narrative momentum. If we insist on seeing films as concrete scenes we might see this as one night in the characters' lives. Chow feels rejected, Chan lonely and they both go separately off to eat noodles one night. But we realise this is more than one evening and could incorporate several as the film contracts time into habit. We sense this has become their solitary routine and it is out of this routine that another will form when they start to go out for dinner together as Wong will again contract several scenes to give the impression of one. We see here the use of the cut is as important as the use of the frame.
But what about the music? Wong relies chiefly on Nat King Cole and the film's composer Michael Galasso in a score that manages to find its romance in the former and its yearning in the latter. Galasso is used about nine times, Nat King Cole five and there is also the use of a Chinese song running through the film's 98 minutes. But while Galasso often accompanies the characters in silence and where the image is usually slowed down, Cole comes in often while the characters are speaking to each other (as in the diner scenes). It is as though Cole gives to the characters their capacity for romantic possibility; Galasso the recollected yearning of opportunities not taken but a meaningful encounter that might be much more significant than any desire that would have been expelled. It doesn't mean we have to see the film as a film about a subtle affair or a subtle film about a non-affair but somehow in between, yet with the emphasis, acoustically, musically on the unrequited. If Wong can say that he wanted to show the affair and the non-affair in the one couple as he keeps Chow and Chan's partners off-screen, equally he can say he wants to put on screen Mrs Chan and Mr Chow's requited and unrequited passion simultaneously, and that the music is central to this. If we see Galasso's score reflecting the unrequited, and Cole's the romantically explored, then nevertheless Galasso's music is used almost twice as often as Cole, and it seems fair to say that while Cole's music is wonderfully used in the film, it is Galasso's score that sums up the film's final elegiac tone.
If Galasso's score has since become famous, Cheung's costumes have become no less so. Interviewing Wong Kar-wai in Bomb magazine in Liza Bear says "how did you develop Maggie's look. It is very iconic", adding 'it looks like you chose to describe the passing of time, days or hours, through the changes of costume", and especially Maggie Cheung's. Wong replies, "we had 20-25 dresses for the whole film." As Wong notes, Mrs Chan's constant change of clothing is partly because of her interest in Mr Chow - she wants to look good for him. But it also manages to create a complex relationship with continuity too. It isn't uncommon for films to register a shift in time through a shift in clothing or hairstyle. If a film cuts from people with straight hair and flairs to a New Romantic look we know we have passed from some time in the seventies to the early eighties. But Wong is looking for a much more nuanced approach to temporality than that, as we have noted in the diner sequence where Mrs Chan's costumes change twice, and then for a third time when they are outside afterwards. While Mrs Chan wants to look her best, we aren't likely to think this enthusiasm for impressing would demand costume changes in a restaurant bathroom. It allows Wong to indicate like any film that wants to register the passage of time, a different moment. Yet Wong does so more subtly than just about any filmmaker before him: anyone who isn't given to paying much attention to what people wear is going to miss the temporal shifts.
One of the most ostensibly superficial aspects of cinema becomes in Wong's hands one of the most complex. What he offers is editing couture, a point Pauline Kael missed when in a much-quoted essay from the mid-sixties she discussed fashion and high art film. At one stage in the essay she refers to a couple of audience members watching La notte, "she had obviously come to the wrong sort of "art" film, and she was trying to give a conventional narrative interpretation of the story. Determined not to admit that she had led him to the theatre by mistake, she was soon reduced to a desperate admiration of the scenery and clothes." ('The Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties') It might be useful In the Mood for Love if someone inclined to follow the costumes pointed out to someone who isn't that paying close attention to the clothing is a way of following the film. What might seem like the decadent desire to parade fashion can at the same time be the filmmaker's wish to dissolve the categories of time and space into the specificities of couture. In films like Alain Resnais's Alain Robbe-Grillet scripted Last Year at Marienbad or Robbe-Grillet's L'immortelle, what people wear impacts on what we think we know: it is high art meeting haute couture which can create three spectators simultaneously. One could 'superficially' love the costumes and fail to follow the plot; another could see there was no plot as they failed to pay attention to the costumes. But as with In the Mood for Love, a third viewer would see that the point is to follow the costumes to follow the story: to see that what people are wearing is important in understanding what we are seeing. In Last Year at Marienbad, for example, there is a scene when the man tells the woman that she must remember a moment the previous year when she was standing next to the balustrade. But she is wearing the same costume in the 'flashback' as she is wearing in the present, suggesting that this isn't a flashback at all but faulty recollection and projection. In another scene not long after, the man is wearing a suit and tie as he tries to persuade the woman to join him. "Come with me" he says as he holds out his hand. The film cuts and they are inside by the staircase, his hand held out in a similar gesture. Has she agreed to go with him, at least as far as the house? But he is now dressed in a tux with a bowtie - we can't assume there is continuity between the two shots.
Often enough critics point out errors in films - a gas canister appearing in the back of a chariot in Gladiator, cars at the back of a battle scene in Braveheart, or less obviously an Irish kilt worn by Colin Firth in The King's Speech when a Scottish one would have been chosen, or Johnny Depp wearing a coat that just wouldn't have been designed in the thirties in Public Enemies. But these are accidental anachronisms, just as some films have deliberate ones - the modern sunglasses in Django Unchained suggesting an assertive artistic license on Tarantino's part, or the typewriters and cars in Jarman's Caravaggio. Yet what Resnais, Robbe-Grillet and Wong seek is a perceptual freshness, giving texture to one of Wilde's remark that "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances." (The Picture of Dorian Grey) We have to judge by appearances indeed and the costumes create a relationship with form that usually the cutting is expected to satisfy and that the costumes augment. We usually know when a film cuts from one scene to the next that time has past: a different costume can make this categorical. But if a film cuts within the scene and the costume changes, or the film suggests a completely different moment in time and yet the costumes remain the same, we are invited think more specifically about our perception of the image.
When asked in the Tony Rayns Sight and Sound interview about the film's repetitions and variations, Wong replied: "I'm trying to show the process of change. Daily life is always routine - the same corridor, the same staircase, the same office, even the same background music - but we can see these two people change against this unchanging background. The repetition helps us to see the changes." Wong offers an interesting paradox to the possibilities of transformation. Is change not usually predicated on transformation rather than repetition: a story that will propel us through a series of incidents to a new place? Yet what Wong would wish to convey it seems isn't the transformation through time but its passage as duration. We can't help but invoke philosopher Henri Bergson here when he notes that we can imagine two humans, the first that would dream his life instead of living it, drawing "upon a multitude of the details of his past history." Conversely, we have the man who is in constant action, who repudiates memory altogether and become "a conscious automaton, he would follow the lead of useful habits which prolong into an appropriate reaction the stimulation received." "These two extreme states", Bergson sees, "the one of an entirely contemplative memory, which apprehends only the singular in its vision, the other of a purely motor memory which stamps the note of generality on its action, are really separate and fully visible only in exceptional cases." (Matter and Memory) In normal life, Bergson notes, they are interpenetrating and in cinema we can see it more as a continuum, with a film like In the Mood for Love very far away from even the most meditative of action films. Wong distances himself and his characters from the capacity for action and this is partly why it makes sense that he eschews the sex scene. It is too close to actualisation in a film that plays up virtualisation: that it is much closer to the dream than to the deed, without quite becoming obviously oneiric. Wong asks us to see time passing but without the categorical action.
This is why we can see the film as both a subtle film about a love affair, but just as easily a film about a subtle non-affair. It both retreats from and pushes further into the problem addressed by Last Year at Marienbad. Where Resnais' film generated an ambiguity so completely that its affect was chiefly in the form rather than in the situation, In the Mood for Love balances out the affect between characterization and form, between the importance of the formal properties of the material to produce feeling, and the immediate diegesis that might have us asking such banal questions as if they've made love and if so when. Such questions might seem naive responses, too narratively focused responses to so complex a work of art as Wong's film, but to pretend that it isn't a dimension of the experience would be naiver still. On the other hand, Last Year at Marienbad asks a more abstract question and formulates it very abstractly indeed. Did something happen last year at Marienbad or this year? To ask such a question is already to enter the realm of an epistemological nightmare, to wonder what has happened to being for such a question to be posed. To muse over whether a couple we might know have yet become close is a common enough enquiry and In the Mood for Love not only isn't above it, but generates many of its affects out of it. As Wong says, "I think these two characters are drawn together by this suspicious gossip and they bond. They have a secret they don't want other people to know...they want to be decent, they want to be respectable." (Bomb)
While Wong offers a sociological approach to their apparent sexual diffidence, other people-centred options offer themselves. Tony Hughes-d'Aeth reckons in 'Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Love' "the logic of their perversion is clearer. As it is with any pervert, the game is to displace actual (ie. consequential) sex to its fantastic version. (Film History) Hughes-d'Aeth adds "Belonging to the imaginary, the primal scene is strictly wordless. Each spouse attempts to channel the wish of his or her rival, to enter into a direct identification, at the level of speech, with the one who defeats them. (For Mrs Chan this is Mrs Chow, for Mr Chow this is Mr Chan.)" Our purpose isn't to agree with Wong, or Hughes-D'Aeth, only to say how easy it is to read the film through society and characterisation. Such an approach to Last Year at Marienbad would be unproductive if not impossible. Nothing might stop the psychoanalytically inclined writer to see trauma in Last Year at Marienbad, but to do so they would have to entertain the level of abstraction the film is working within, that conventional notions of characterisation are hard to find, just as the abstract environment of the large house and grounds, half out of time and space (Marienbad doesn't exist as an actual locale as Hong Kong obviously does) refuses ready perceptual coordinates.
If we talk about an advance and a retreat, it rests on Wong taking the problem of radical ambiguity and colloquializing it without cheapening it. The film throws us into a situation that we cannot reduce to the categorical, but it can leave us musing lightly at the same time about what we can only speculate over. We will have many examples from life of situations that we only know partially, and perhaps one of the measures of cinema as a mainstream form is that these types of ambiguities that we live with, the type of stories that remain half-formed, are in cinema formed and unambiguously concluded. Wong would seem to have made a film much closer to our conventional cinematic expectations than Resnais, but not to the detriment of the problem Resnais and Robbe-Grillet opened up. How to generate a sense of time far greater than the coordinates of character and situation; how to throw characters into time rather than generating characters who would seem to be creating it: to showing repetition over transformation. By the end of In the Mood for Love we might find ourselves very moved, but by what exactly? By the characters whom we only half know, or perhaps even more by the cheongsams and the noodle pots, the ties and suits Mr Chow wears, and the curtains of the hotel room. When Wong says that "all the clothes in the film are tailor-made" we can read this is as superficial perfectionism or a profound identification of the object. We are more inclined to believe it to be the latter and to think of a letter by that most Bergsonian of writers, Proust. "We think we no longer love the dead because we don't remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears." It is as though Wong wished to make a film that could make us cry over the equivalent of old gloves.
© Tony McKibbin