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On the everlasting beauty of Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’

in retrospect

<p>Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love” tells the story of a man and a woman whose spouses have an affair together and who slowly develop feelings for each other.</p>

Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love” tells the story of a man and a woman whose spouses have an affair together and who slowly develop feelings for each other.

In many ways, Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” was the first real movie I ever watched.

Before that, I’d only seen Hollywood franchise blockbusters or teen drama rom-coms on Netflix with friends. Watching movies was more of a social event or an escape for me, and it mattered more what inside jokes my friends and I could pull out of the experience than why the characters were laughing or crying. I never connected deeply with any character or thought of cinema as anything more than over-acted action, over-dramatic drama and over-the-top special effects, even though at the time I was desperately craving a form of expression that would allow me to liberate all the angst and confusion I was feeling. I dreamed about a parallel world that could serve as a mirror to my reality, a mirror that can help me forget myself and see myself clearer at the same time.

That was a dark past that I’m now often reluctant to acknowledge, for I have been transformed into someone who annoys her friends with constant talk about films (and worst of all, old films and French films), film festivals, award seasons and obscure directors’ names. For the past three years, I have been so eager to shake off my shameful ignorance about cinema and to expand my “watched” list that I would rarely use my time to re-watch a movie — except “In the Mood for Love.”

I

The first time I ever watched “In the Mood for Love” was my first year of college. I was taking an Intro to Film Studies class then, where the professor screened a movie every week to illustrate the film concept or movement we were learning about. For the first week, the professor, who proved to have very good taste throughout the entire semester, assigned “In the Mood for Love.”

For some family reason, I was at home at the time and therefore missed the class screening. But I didn’t want to fall behind so soon and decided to just stream it on my laptop.

As I grew increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t find the movie on any of the streaming platforms I was subscribed to, Mom approached me curiously. “What are you doing?”

“I have this movie that I have to watch for a class. But I can’t find it anywhere.”

“What movie is it?”

“It’s called ‘In the Mood for Love.’ By Wong Kar-wai.”

“Wong Kar-wai?! Which one is it? What’s the Chinese name?”

I looked up from my frustration, a little surprised. In my memory, Mom never goes to the cinema, at least not voluntarily. What would she know about this odd Hong Kong director of whom I could not find a picture without his sunglasses?

“Umm… I don’t know. Let me find it… I think it’s Huāyàng Niánhuá?”

“花樣年華.”

She said it so firmly and beautifully, as if she had just taken it out of a dusty memory box that she had tucked away carefully for years. Then she went to search the TV stand drawers and magically produced a DVD.

“I have the movie here. Wanna watch it together?”

She put the DVD into the rarely-used player and we both found our cozy spots on the couch. A simple phrase in traditional, block-like fonts explained the setting —  Hong Kong, 1962. One of the two protagonists, Su Li-zhen, played by the magnificent Maggie Cheung dressed in her fitted flower-patterned cheongsam, glanced casually out the window and straight into my heart. 

Mom and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows, acknowledging the jealousy and amazed appreciation of female beauty that we both read from one another’s expression. Then actor Tony Leung entered, habitually handsome, mannered, mysterious and a little melancholic as his character Chow Mo-wan moves into the same apartment building and thus begins a love affair with Su. I looked at Mom again, but this time she paid no attention to me. She stared at Leung’s profile as he smoked silently with those deep and turbulent eyes, his jawline, the curve of his lips and the arch of his nose gradually engulfed by the rising smoke.

I smiled. I could almost see that little girl who stared at the poster hung above her bed in the same dreamy way.

II

My subsequent viewing experience can be described as “inexplicable.” I was intrigued, amazed, mesmerized and then perhaps just hypnotized. I was nervous to witness the real power of film for the first time, bewildered by what I was seeing on the screen and ashamed with my previous ignorance of this magic, this strange feeling.

The ambiguity. The gaze. The unsaid words. The passion that smears the screen. I looked at Mom again, her eyes now shining in the dark living room. It must be wonderful to be able to move people like this.

Intrigued by the silence downstairs, Dad came down and peeked into the living room. Immediately identifying what we were watching, he sat down on the couch, too.

Unmindful of the additional audience, Cheung swung down a set of damp, narrow stairs to a noodle stand, dangling a green food container between her fingers. Her figure was hugged by a silk cheongsam, her tilted face kissed by the lone fluorescent lamp hanging from above. A cello moaned in the background, its beats tapping on her footsteps. A polite glance exchanged with Leung. Or wait: Did it actually happen, or was it just embellished by memory?

I quietly glanced at Dad to see if he had also become trapped by this memory, but found him instead looking at Mom, who still could not remove her eyes from Leung — who, at this point, was staring at the rose on Cheung’s cheek under warm, yellow light.

Déjà vu.

This movie came out in 2000, one year after I was born. Could I have seen this exact scene, both the one on screen and the one in the living room, when I was just a baby wrapped in Mom’s arms, listening to Nat King Cole’s “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” as my lullaby? Or was I ultimately the one who fell for memory’s tricks and fabricated a moment? Like the two characters to satisfy all their yearning, loving and yearning for love?

Quizas, quizas, quizas.

III

It is extremely hard to fully explain or grasp the impact “In the Mood for Love” has had on me since, including my discovery of cinema, my self-reconciliation, my connection with my family and my subsequent creative pursuits. All I know is that the lights, shadows and the said and unsaid feelings in this movie have been forever burned into my brain, always reminding me of how this artistic medium can be both so vividly and ambiguously beautiful.

Dad later joked about Mom’s crush on Leung (surprise) and how she was said to look like Zhou Xuan, an iconic Chinese singer who sang one of the theme songs in the movie (I checked the photos – they do look very similar in some ways).

Now, a movie poster of this Wong Kar-wai masterpiece hangs above my bed in my dorm, and I sometimes lose myself staring at it, too, even though I still haven’t asked Mom whether she had done the same in her youthful years.

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