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It begins with a simple proclamation: “it was a restless moment.” A restlessness that governs two forlorn lovers as they navigate the confines of rigid social norms and embattled desire. Hong Kong, 1962: Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into the same cramped apartment complex. In between claustrophobic hallways and narrow staircases, they exchange stolen glances. We quickly come to learn they are both married, yet we never meet their respective partners. Instead, we hear their voices from tiny bedrooms and see their silhouettes as they interrupt a game of Mahjong. The film, which premiered 20 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival, is In the Mood for Love. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai, one of the most entrancing auteurs of cinema, the film was set to premiere in a restored 4k version at the now-delayed Cannes Film Festival. Regularly listed as one of the greatest films in cinematic history, In the Mood for Love was nominated for the Palme D’or and swept many awards for best picture, from the César Awards to the Hong Kong Film Awards.
In the film, time is elusive, yet moments are expansive. Brimming with intense emotions, and punctuated with slow-motion scenes saturated with color, Wong constructs a lucid yet telling narrative in which two strangers come to learn of their spouses’ infidelity. Using a mixture of carefully placed mise-en-scene and an almost obsessive attention to sartorial choices, Wong relies on atmosphere, instead of direct discourse, to chronicle tumultuous love. Whether through Li-zhen’s dazzlingly patterned floral Cheongsams, which symbolize sensuality and confinement, or the iconic soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi — its melody imbued with a timeless sadness that signifies a coming anxious encounter with Mo-wan — Wong is a master of affect.
Time, we come to learn, is the greatest ailment. Wong blurs the line between past and present liberally, focusing on repetitive events and the desire that unfolds between mundane pursuits. In Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema, scholar Pam Cook studies Kar-Wai’s distortion of the temporal, noting the use of extremely tight framing to convey the importance of key moments. With so many of Mo-wan and Li-zhen’s encounters being fleeting, such sharp foci invites the audience to live in the turbulence and intensity of each specific moment. Whether insidious love and longing, or fears of infidelity, the audience comes to know when a moment between Chow and Su is a defining one.
While In the Mood for Love is riddled with nostalgia — a theme that stretches across Wong’s filmography — it does not solely create an idealized reality. With the film’s highly impressionistic reconstruction of Hong Kong, it is easy to get lost in the beauty of its cinematography. However, in between its picturesque pangs of desire, are signifiers of Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and political landscape. Whether it is the ungodly small rooms Li-zhen and Mo-wan inhabit in their apartment complexes or the Siemens clocks that signify a corporate bureaucratic lifestyle, the grueling economy of Hong Kong sits constantly in the backdrop.
In 2019, the New York Times prepared a report on Hong Kong’s staggering wealth inequality, outlining that 210,000 Hong Kong residents live in one of the city’s thousands of illegally subdivided apartments measuring just up to 48 square feet. Keeping these numbers in mind, it is important to highlight that, when not preoccupied with romance and infidelity, Mo-wan and Li-zhen each spend long hours in their corporate office. Their work habits and crammed domestic quarters represent an urban history of income inequality in a city that now infamously boasts the world’s longest work hours alongside some of the highest rents globally.
Near the end of the film, the tone becomes more haunting and philosophical, ruminating on the relationship between life, destiny, and politics. In a particularly poignant scene, the romantic saga collides with Hong Kong’s sociopolitical dimensions when Li-zhen runs dramatically towards Mo-wan’s hotel room, numbered 2046. The staircase she crosses becomes a profound metaphor for her own hesitation and dread, while 2046 also alludes to the year before Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems,” agreement with China officially ends. The eeriness of this scene sits more heavily now, as Hong Kong has passed a restrictive new security law and the threat of further diminishment of civic freedoms looms large.
In the Mood for Love (2000), dir. Wong Kar-wai, is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
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