In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-Wai
There is no one for me to talk to about this film,
so I am putting this review in a hole in a wall
and covering it with mud and straw.

— Cold Bacon, 2000

"There is nothing but emptiness, the empty existence I exchanged for the truth."

Lu Xun, 1926

Now when did they stop making movies like this? No really, I haven't seen a movie this good since, well, his last film. In the Mood is a stylistic masterpiece for so many reasons, the most obvious being the sheer beauty of it. Wong Kar-Wai's camera immortalizes everything in frame, from cigarette smoke to droplets of rain, from noodle steam to the grill of a small metal fan. And unlike the oppressive floating bag speech in American Beauty, In the Mood just shows you the damn beauty without the instructions. And what about that dress she had on during the umbrella scene? Hey now. And the narrow red hallway in that hotel. So Il Notte in Shining color. And the music? It proved once and for all that you don't need Yo-Yo Ma to have a good cello soundtrack. Now you could argue there's just too much beauty, too much music and slow motion, not enough kung fu flying and shit. In which case, I guess you win.

The next of WKW's talents is the ability to move the camera. It's not as if lots of other directors don't do this. They do. And the results are often bad. But with the help of Christopher Doyle, long time colleague and camera savant, WKW does it in a way that recalls masters like the great X and the inimitable Y. Next would be the humor. Any great film (besides Ran and Raging Bull) should offer a fair chunk of humor. The bit about the drunken master being 'written in' satisfied this criteria and recognized the serendipity involved in the creative process. [drunken master] A great film could also have surprises. I think I was fooled multiple times by those play rehearsals. And that little slap she gave him was exquisite. Also, the friend (who deals with his problems the sensible way, by going to a brothel) was an amusing contrast to the restraint of the two unlovers just like the simple minded little quail in The Chuang Tzu.

Where does he think he's going?

“In the bald and barren north, there is a dark sea, the Lake of Heaven. In it is a fish which is several thousand li across, and no one knows how long. His name is K'un. There is also a bird there, named P'eng, with a back like Mount T'ai and wings like clouds filling the sky. He beats the whirlwind, leaps into the air, and rises up ninety thousand li, cutting through the clouds and mist, shouldering the blue sky, and then he turns his eyes south and prepares to journey to the southern darkness.

The little quail laughs at him, saying, 'Where does he think he's going? I give a great leap and fly up, but I never get more than ten or twelve yards before I come down fluttering among the weeds and brambles. And that's the best kind of flying anyway! Where does he think he's going?" Such is the difference between big and little.”

- From The Chuang Tzu

Finally, WKW not only chooses a theme with universal importance, the struggle between repression and indulgence, but he handles it with fairness and consistency. Donald Barthelme handles it like this:

“Mother, have you noticed that this society we're in tends to be a little…repressive?”
“What does that mean, Eugenie? What does that mean, that strange new word, ‘repressive,’ that I have never heard before?”
“It means…it's like when you decide to do something, and you get up out of your chair to do it, and you take a step, and then become aware of frosty glances being directed at you from every side.”
“Frosty glances?”
"Your desires are stifled."
"What desires are you talking about?"
"Just desires in general. Any desires. It's a whole…I guess atmosphere is the…word…a tendency on the part of the society…”
"You'd better sew some more pillow cases, Eugenie."

- From Donald Barthelme's, Eugenie Grandet

Upon seeing the film, a Western response might be to rail against a repressive society for making it hard for these two good-looking people to exercise their love, so we can watch. But In the Mood is great because it doesn't take sides, or if it does, at least it doesn't force you to choose. But it is that repression which is internalized that is more compelling for American viewers. America, where one is not actually prevented, but rather is encouraged almost, at least in theory, to run off with whomever one's family dislikes the most. It is this conflict between personal restraint (two Big Macs) and indulgence (two Big Macs and another Big Mac) that speaks to at least six or seven American viewers. So if you must rail, you might as well rail at the characters themselves and not China or the Capulets or what have you. But please, go easy on a man. It's hard sometimes.

It is a restless moment.
She has kept her head lowered,
to give him a chance to come closer.
But he could not, for lack of courage.
She turns and walks away.

That era has passed.
Nothing that belonged to it exists any more.

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.

From a long time ago:
I want, if I can, to describe my remorse and grief for Tzuchun's sake as well as for my own. This shabby room, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the hostel, is so quiet and empty. Time really flies. A whole year has passed since I fell in love with Tzu-chun, and, thanks to her, escaped from this dead quiet and emptiness. On my return, as ill luck would have it, this was the only room vacant. The broken window with the half dead locust tree and old wistaria outside and square table inside are the same as before. The same too are the mouldering wall and wooden bed beside it. At night I lie in bed alone just as I did before I started living with Tzu-chun. The past year has been blotted out as if it had never been—as if I had never moved out of this shabby room so hopefully to set up a small home in Chichao Street.
Nor is that all. A year ago this silence and emptiness were different—there was often an expectancy about them. I was expecting Tzu-chun's arrival. As I waited long and impatiently, the tapping of high heels on the brick pavement would galvanize me into life. Then I would see her pale round face dimpling in a smile, her thin white arms, striped cotton blouse and black skirt. She would bring in a new leaf from the half withered locust tree outside the window for me to look at, or clusters of the mauve flowers that hung from the old wistaria tree, the trunk of which looked as if made of iron.

Now there is only the old silence and emptiness. Tzu-chun will not come again—never, never again.

In Tzu-chun's absence, I saw nothing in this shabby room. Out of sheer boredom I would pick up a book—science or literature, it was all the same to me—and read on and on, till I realized I had turned a dozen pages without taking in a word I had read. Only my ears were so sensitive, I seemed able to hear all the footsteps outside the gate, those of Tzu-chun among the rest. Her steps often sounded as if they were drawing nearer and nearer—only to grow fainter again, until they were lost in the tramping of other feet. I hated the servant's son who wore cloth-soled shoes which sounded quite different from Tzu-chun's. I hated the pansy next door who used face cream, who often wore new leather shoes, and whose steps sounded all too like Tzu-chun's.

Had her rickshaw been upset? Had she been knocked over by a tram?

I would be on the point of putting on my hat to go and see her, then remember her uncle had cursed me to my face.

Suddenly I would hear her coming nearer step by step, and by the time I was out to meet her she would already have passed the wistaria trellis, her face dimpling in a smile. Probably she wasn't badly treated after all in her uncle's home. I would calm down and, after we had gazed at each other in silence for a moment, the shabby room would be filled with the sound of my voice as I held forth on the tyranny of the home, the need to break with tradition, the equality of men and women, Ibsen, Tagore and Shelley. . . . She would nod her head, smiling, her eyes filled with a childlike look of wonder. On the wall was nailed a copperplate bust of Shelley, cut out from a magazine. It was one of the best likenesses of him, but when I pointed it out to her she only gave it a hasty glance, then hung her head as if embarrassed. In matters like this, Tzuchun probably hadn't yet freed herself entirely from old ideas. It occurred to me later it might be better to substitute a picture of Shelley being drowned at sea, or a portrait of Ibsen. But I never got round to it. Now even this picture has vanished.

- From Lu Xun - Regret for the Past

But before you go selling traditional etiquette down the Yangtze, think of its up side. Consider how you applauded [Tony] for insisting the guy keep the present toward the end. See, traditional manners can be fun. And consider your own love life. Don't you feel better about yourself when you can keep it to a little good night kiss at the end? I know I would. Herein lies the duality of this beautiful issue, which is faithfully represented throughout the film. On the one hand, everyone who's anyone openly mourns the death of etiquette. But at the same time, nobody is rushing to give up any of the freedoms that have replaced it.
“Though the cook may not run his kitchen properly, the priest and the impersonator of the dead at the sacrifice do not leap over the wine casks and sacrificial stands and go take his place.”

- From The Chuang Tzu

Another of the film's themes is marriage and divorce.

From the film:
Chow: "On your own, you are free to do lots of things. Everything changes when you marry. It must be decided together..." Su: "I didn't know married life would be so complicated! When you're single, you are only responsible to yourself. Once you're married, doing well on your own is not enough!"
From a long time ago:
Then Tzu-chun started looking resentful. This happened for the first time one morning, one bitterly cold morning, or so I imagined. I smiled secretly to myself, cold with indignation. All the ideas and intelligent, fearless phrases she had learned were empty after all. Yet she did not know this. She had given up reading long ago, and did not realize the first thing in life is to make a living, that to do this people must advance hand in hand, or go forward singly. All she could do was cling to someone else's clothing, making it difficult even for a fighter to struggle, and bringing ruin on both.

- From Lu Xun - Regret for the Past

Wong Kar-Wai's film does what the media no longer can, which is present both faces of an issue and let the viewer make an informed decision, some time or times later, of course, when the storm has cleared. Also, for the first time in a long time, we have a movie where the characters behave consistently. The final move in going to Angkor Wat (and in keeping it to himself) is by no means mere eye candy or some sort of contrivance for tears, but it is a logical continuation of the same behavior that brought him to that point. [angkorwat] But we still must not blame him, but either empathize or pity him depending on our own temperament. So basically, what I'm saying is Wong Kar-Wai rocks.

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