In the Mood for Love (花樣年華, Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

“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)

Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳, Wong Kar Wai, 1990)

“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever” laments a lovelorn heroine in Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy ‘60s romance Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳), somehow neatly encapsulating the director’s entire philosophy. The heroes of Days are obsessed with minutes, seconds, hours, years, the barely perceptible passing of time. Clocks pervade the frame, their violent ticking the most prominent element of Wong’s strangely barren soundscape, a constant reminder of a life slowly etched away ceaselessly beaten towards an inevitable conclusion. 

The hero, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), describes himself rather poetically as a bird without legs cursed to fly and fly meeting the ground only once at the moment of his death, an overly sentimental metaphor for which he is later taken to task by the equally rootless Tide (Andy Lau Tak-wah), a former policeman turned sailor who wonders if it’s just a line he uses to seduce lonely women with boyish sadness. We might wonder the same thing as he picks up the lonely Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Macao émigré apparently unable to sleep, by telling her she’ll see him in her dreams before forcing her to look at his watch for a whole minute as if that after 3pm on April 16, 1960 were now a sacred date forever etched in time. She thought that sounded “so sweet”, but as he later tells her Yuddy is not the marrying kind and she too is trapped inside that moment, often framed behind bars or the tiny window of her box office booth before the door is cruelly slammed on her romantic delusion seemingly by automatic operation of the clock. 

In a twist of fate, Li-zhen meets Tide during his previous life as a policeman when she makes a fairly embarrassing attempt to get back together with Yuddy after he reacts coolly to her suggestion of marriage only to discover him with his new love, cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau Kar-ling). “I’m not gonna be as stupid as her” Mimi insists flouncing out of his apartment only to find herself just that, making a desperate visit to Li-zhen at the stadium after the affair has ended to tell her to her back off only for the rather unsympathetic Li-zhen to point out they’ve both been deceived, “he treats all women the same”. 

A perpetual lothario Yuddy moves from woman to woman without touching the ground, but his rootlessness is seemingly born of maternal disconnection in his ambivalent relationship with the Hong Kong sex worker who raised him but refuses to disclose the identity of his Filipina birth mother supposedly a noble woman who for unknown reasons paid a foreigner US$50 a month to raise her son. Like the other women in Yuddy’s life, Rebecca (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) does her best to tie him down, apparently unwilling to reveal his origins in fear he’d leave her, but also mirrors him in her constant quest for affection bought from a series of younger men and apparently one older who threatens their relationship in inviting her to a new life overseas. Ironically enough, she soon tells her son to “fly, fly as far as you can” all the way to the Philippines, though Yuddy already suspects he’s been a flightless bird all along, dead from the very beginning.

Yuddy’s search for closure and identity ends disappointment and a painful lack of resolution, as does the nascent romance between the policeman and the box office girl, her mistimed phone calls amounting to a literal missed connection while Tide ponders lost love from foreign seas, and Mimi tragically chases the ghost of Yuddy all the way to Manila pined for by Yuddy’s self-conscious friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) left behind alone. Trapped in the timeless present, they are each denied either past or future, lost in a lovelorn dream of perpetual longing. As if to ram his point home, Wong shows us another clock and then another man we’ve never seen before (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he gets ready for an evening out, crouching slightly in what appears to be a shallow, sub-divided garret making it clear that these stories have no endings, flying and flying until they hit ground and seemingly born in the air. A woozy, zeitgeisty journey through mid-century loneliness, Wong’s second feature leaves its melancholy heroes consumed by nostalgia for an ill-imagined future unable to escape the cruel tyranny of an interminable present. 


Transfer: Among the more faithful of the recent 4K restorations, Days of Being Wild nevertheless shifts to a slightly greener hue in keeping with the house style adopted for the series, adding to Wong’s sense of melancholy nostalgia and perhaps in keeping with Doyle’s original artistic vision.


Days of Being Wild 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.

Original trailer (unrestored, English subtitles)