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In the Mood for Love/ Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong / China 2000

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2016

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The film came second in ‘BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films of the 21st Century’. Nick James, in an editorial in Sight & Sound, made a personal argument that it should be in the first place. It is certainly critically highly regarded and has good rankings in many different listings: it has also won many awards. The International title in English comes from a popular song of the 1930s: recorded many times over the years. The Chinese title has a couple of meanings, one being ‘the flowery years’:  a ‘Chinese metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love’. The film uses Cantonese, Shanghainese and French [with subtitles] and the songs on the soundtrack come in several languages as well.

The basic story is simple and the main plot suggested by an opening on-screen title. Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, a married man and woman move into adjoining apartments. As they become acquainted they realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Despite this, their growing friendship remains platonic. Later in the film the man moves to Singapore and they are separated. They miss meeting each other later in Hong Kong. At the film’s end the man visits the Buddhist Temple at Angkor Wat where he performs a ritual relating to his memories.

The main setting is important. We are in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. There is a brief reference in the film to the unrest there in 1967 and demonstrations against the British occupation. In the same period Hong Kong was an emerging, dynamic market with a rapidly expanding population. One of the key aspects of the film is the sense of an overcrowded urban area with competition for living space. The characters are on top of each other and accommodation is a prized commodity.

Food is an important component in the film. We see characters at meals on a number of occasions. The depiction of food and eating seems to be a common motif in South East Asian films. And the communal aspects of eating is important here. There are a number of occasions when the landlady of the apartments invites one character to join them in a meal. But we also see characters eating alone and using taken out food: emphasising a sense of alienation for some.

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The two main characters are Su Li-zhen – Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan  (Tony Leung). They are two of the best known Hong Kong film stars internationally and have appeared in several films together. These include other films by the director Won Kar-wai and martial arts films such as Hero (2002).   Their performances and the relationship they create onscreen is important for the feel of the film. Moreover, throughout the film Mrs Chan is dressed in the traditional cheongsam dresses whilst Chow is uniformly in suits, though he at one point removes his jacket and at another both jacket and shirt. All these add to the strong sense of period.

This and the style of the film would appear to account for its appeal. It is very much a cineaste’s film, with a strong emphasises on visual and aural style. The cinematography by Chris Doyle [a Wong-Kar Wai regular] and Mark Lee Ping Bin is lustrous. It is also carefully constructed. The sense of cramped space and of society bearing in on the characters is strong, with characters frequently blocked in by lines, buildings and fittings. There are several shots that use mirrors for reflection. Long shots also suggest characters trapped by their environment. And the leisurely long takes that recur, notably in the final sequence at Ankur Wat Temple, produce a meditative feel. Much of the film relies on chiaroscuro lighting and the colour palette lacks saturated hues.

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The soundtrack and in particular then use of popular song adds to the feel of the film. The Chinese title track is “Hua Yang De Nian Hua”, a popular song from the 1940s. There are also several songs performed by Nat King Cole including “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” [known as ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ in an English rendering],  a popular Cuban song. The song ‘In the Mood for Love’, which inspires the international English-language title, does not appear in the film. The choice of songs adds to the wishful feel in the film and a sense of loss and transitory times.

The editing by William Chang is elliptical: moments are cut off whilst we are still following the action. And at other time shots are held beyond the point of the import for plot. This helps the feeling of ambiguity that pervades the film. The audience are listening in but never completely hear all the relevant information. The later point is emphasised in the final sequence, a sort of epilogue. When Chow visits the Ankor Wat Temple he whispers his secret into a cavity in a tree. We do not hear the words but we can guess at their import.

When we discussed the film students had a number of reservations about the film, though they were impressed by the production and felt the emotional effect of the story. Some felt that the film was too ambiguous and also found the style of the film inhibited involvement with the characters. It strikes me that In the Mood for Love is indeed a cineaste’s film. When I looked at the BBC Culture ‘top 100’ I saw that this Wong-Kar-wai film followed David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). That film is even more ambiguous and even trickier to follow than In the Mood for Love. The BBC list was compiled from responses from 177 film critics. This is a very specialist audience and, moreover, both directors are regarded as ‘auteurs’, beloved by critics. It would seem that In the Mood for Love is a classic with a specific and limited audience. It is worth adding that the film received a further outing in Leeds earlier this year. This was a screening organised by the Confucius Business Institute. The Institute is a parallel to the British Council, propagandising China’ economic potential abroad. Confucius was rightly criticised under the genuine Communist rule but has made a comeback under the ‘capitalist roaders’. The film does connect in some ways with Confucian morals which emphasise ‘correct’ social relationships and ‘family values’. However, at the end of the film, Chow is at a Buddhist temple, a movement that emphasises the transitory nature of our temporary life here; added to by an end-on-screen title. So I would be chary of subscribing Confucian values to this film: I doubt Confucius would have sympathised with the sense of loss that the film engenders.

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