Last week, the Center for Language Studies’ “Foreign Flicks” series screened “In the Mood for Love,” an atypical Chinese drama-romance whose brazen, erotic commitment to traditionalism prompts audiences to reconsider the role fidelity plays in modern love.
Written and directed by renowned Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, the film captures the thwarted love of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), two young professionals who move with their respective spouses into the same apartment building in Hong Kong. Both quiet, introspective and impeccably dressed, their relationship intensifies from one of casual friendship to co-dependency after they discover that their spouses — both thought to have been on “business trips” — are having an affair abroad. They ultimately fall for each other but refuse to act on their feelings on principle, not wanting to be like their unfaithful spouses.
The film was universally adored by critics upon its release in 2000, with Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times going so far as to dub it “the most breathtakingly gorgeous film of the year.” It was most lauded for its bold stylistic composition — the ornate visuals and rhythmic slow-motion sequences that succeed in making the lovers’ repressed desire intensely palpable. There remains a certain ceremony to the film that is often lost on modern love stories, as instanced by the scene in which the elegant Su walks out in an elaborate cocktail dress, her swaying hips scored by a string orchestra. Similarly evocative are the scenes that emphasize the gravity of the neighbors’ in-passing encounters — exchanging pleasantries on the stairwell is scored as though it is a dance.
Another tactful choice employed by Wong is to never fully display the couples together on-screen — each character only hears their correspondent partner on the other end of the phone or from behind a door saying things like “I’ll be home late tonight.” Not exclusive to the couples, the dialogue between each of them is consistently sparse and cryptic:
“Bring two handbags for my boss,” says Su to her husband before he departs for Japan.
“You know why.”
Wong uses these brief exchanges to reinforce the stoicism of the neighbors’ unorthodox relationship and contrast it starkly against the ostensibly “principled” world they live in. Wong artfully demonstrates hierarchical principles that govern social interaction through scenes that depict neighbors and co-workers practicing rehearsed-sounding politeness and humility. But it is also a world steeped in tacit understandings, which is established early on, when Chow repeats, “I’m not like you,” to his brothel-frequenting best friend.
The tension between the two worlds leaves the filmic lovers, friends and ambiguously related individuals suspended in a fascinatingly erotic, ambiguous limbo. Are they touching behind closed doors? You can’t be certain. The ball drops when their spouses return. Chow moves to Shanghai, Su has a child, and their lives go on as planned. Neither Chow nor Su divorce their spouses, but they continue to pine for each other in silence. The movie ends with a powerful scene of longing: Chow whispering about his love for Su into a hole in the wall of an ancient ruin. Presumably years after Chow is long gone, the camera pans through the ruin, eventually settling on the hole, which has vines growing from it. Not all is lost, the vines communicate, and the screen goes dark.