“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” So runs a melancholy title card placed a little before the conclusion of Wong Kar Wai’s Sirkian melodrama, In the Mood For Love (花樣年華). Extracted perhaps from the hero’s nascent foray into romantic fiction, the lines hint both at his plaintive sense of longing for lost love, and also to a changed Hong Kong which leaves the lovers stranded having missed their moment for happiness and thereafter trapped, like so many Wong heroes, in a perpetual evocation of the nostalgic past.
Set like Days of Being Wild in the Hong Kong of the early 1960s, In the Mood for Love is in a sense an anti-melodrama concerning itself with the other side of an affair as betrayed spouses find in each other a kind of solace which ironically leads to love but a love that can never truly be fulfilled. Reporter Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) first brushes past secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), sharing a name with the lovelorn box office girl of Days of Being Wild, when he attempts to rent a room for himself and his wife only to discover she has already taken it. The couple next door, however, are also looking to rent out their spare room now their son has married and so the pair find themselves next-door neighbours. Their respective spouses, seen only from behind and heard only on the other end of telephone calls or distantly from another room, eventually become more than that, their affair exposed as much as by their excessive business trips and suspicious overtime as by the rather crass practice of buying identical gifts for the illicit lover and legal partner, something also practiced by Li-zhen’s sleazy boss (Kelly Lai Chen) who enlists her husband to pick up a pair of handbags for wife and mistress.
Li-zhen’s husband Chan (Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung) seems non-plussed by the request but it perhaps gives him ideas, though not particularly good ones considering his mistress lives next-door, Li-Zhen pointing out to Mo-wan that a woman might not like a gift of a handbag identical to that of her neighbour before admitting she’s noticed his wife carrying just that, while Mo-wan is wearing the same tie as Chan who claimed it was a present from his boss which is why he’s been wearing it every day. Confronted on a similar point, Li-zhen’s boss makes a point of changing his tie before meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. Male adultery is, it seems, normalised and to an extent permissible as long it remains a secret even if openly. With her husband so frequently away, however, Li-zhen becomes a figure of suspicion, her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) warning her that her late night returns have not gone unnoticed while others marvel at her elegance, unable to accept she’s all dressed up just to buy noodles in the rain.
For all these reasons, the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen must remain chaste and pure even as they consciously role play their adulterous spouses. “We won’t be like them” Li-zhen insists, later echoed by Mo-wan’s admission that “I thought we wouldn’t be like them, but I was wrong.” He wanted to know how it started, and now he does. “Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control” he remarks in a speech which seems to echo Celia Johnson’s shattering revelation in Brief in Encounter “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people”. Like the old busybodies of Coward’s prurient, middle class England, the landlady acts as an enforcer of conventional morality, always on the look out for breach of conduct and believing herself acting in Li-zhen’s best interest even as her admonition leaves her in a moment of virtual collapse, grasping the doorframe for support as her eyes momentarily fill with tears.
Yet it’s Mrs. Suen’s eventual absence that informs us of a sea change. Years later, in 1966, she’s one of many in an apparent mass exodus fleeing the political instability in the wake of a series of riots against British colonial rule. Mrs. Suen is vacating her apartment to live with her daughter in the US where she may stay indefinitely. The Koos from next-door have already moved to the Philippines to live with their son, laying bare the ongoing expansion of the Hong Kong diaspora. Mo-wan eventually finds himself in Singapore, though fleeing emotional rather than political instability, eventually travelling to Angkor Wat in a failed attempt to exorcise his sadness, while Li-zhen, unable to act on her desires and trapped by patriarchal ideas of conventional morality is, like Happy Together’s Po-Wing, left only with memory living in the metaphorical past of Mrs. Suen’s apartment. Something has changed, a once impossible love may now be possible, but “that era has passed”. The couple have missed their moment, trapped on either side of an unbreachable divide.
For Mo-wan, “the past is something he could see but not touch” a subject of perpetual longing blurred and indistinct as if seen through a dusty window pane. Working again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s sweeping cinematography captures Mo-wan’s etherial existence through comparatively restrained composition and use of gentle tracking shots following the lovers as they repeatedly pass each other in shadow on the stairs or wander along the deserted, rainy streets of a midnight city. Like a long slow waltz, In the Mood For Love sends its protagonists spinning back towards opposite sides of the floor, trapped in a world which no longer exists and consumed by an irresolvable longing for the nostalgic past.
Transfer: presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio though like the other films in the series of 4K restorations featuring the near universal green tint in a significant change for a film known for sumptuous colour and particularly associated with the use of deep reds.
In the Mood for Love is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.
Restoration trailer (English subtitles)
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