Always In the Mood: The Enduring Appeal of a Hong Kong Classic

September 5, 2023 - 11:25am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love were written by Sarah Mae Fleming, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. In the Mood for Love will screen in a 4K DCP on Friday, September 8 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Sarah Mae Fleming

“We are physically and financially exhausted,” lamented Wong Kar-wai in the press kit for In the Mood for Love’s 2000 Cannes premiere.  What Wong called the “most difficult experience” of his career stands today as a classic of twenty-first century cinema—most recently securing the number five spot on the 2022 Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Despite the film’s critical successes, Wong’s grievances weren’t unwarranted. Shooting for the film started in 1998, and the subtitles for its debut were still unfinished on the morning of its Cannes screening. Wong had a bit of a reputation for preferring improvisation on set rather than having a firm script. His previous film Happy Together (1997) started production with merely two characters and a city to put them in, but “nothing else,” according to Wong. In the Mood for Love followed a similar method, as Wong rejected a traditional script and, in the end, created a film significantly different than his original idea. “It was supposed to be a quick lunch,” Wong explains, “and then it became a big feast.”

Initially, Wong had intended this film, first titled Summer in Beijing, to be three different stories involving love, music, and food. Facing problems shooting in Beijing, and specifically in Tiananmen Square, Wong abandoned two out of the three narratives and focused on the one set in 1960s Hong Kong. Even after focusing in on one story, Wong still embraced a more spontaneous method of directing, preferring to shoot scenes repeatedly to figure out where the narrative was going. He asked stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung to try seemingly endless versions of scenes and line readings. Sometimes he would direct the actors to switch their characters’ lines or shoot the same exact scene in a different location just to see how it felt.  Shooting, which was scheduled for three months, ultimately became a fifteen-month process complete with four separate wrap parties. Every time Wong thought he was done, he felt like he needed more. If it sounds to you like Wong could have kept working on In the Mood for Love forever, he’d agree with you. In order to put an end to the infinite tweaking and perfecting, the filmmaker settled on Cannes as a deadline, and yet Wong asked for a little extra time, requesting that In the Mood for Love be the last film screened at the festival.

The film’s lengthy production history seems to curiously dovetail with the languorous pace of the relationship between Leung and Cheung’s characters. Shanghai expats Mr. Chow (Leung) and Mrs. Chan, née Su Li-zhen (Cheung), rent rooms in a shared apartment building in 1962 Hong Kong. Over time, and with a keen eye for handbags and neckties, they realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. As they find themselves in the same boat, Chow and Su share dinners together and attempt to examine how their spouses’ affairs began. Soon, Chow invites Su to help work on his fiction, and they rehearse the emotional confrontations that they imagine having with their partners. Their affection for one another grows steadily, over bowls of noodles, in rainy alleyways, and down long, narrow halls. The blossoming romance is at times an agonizingly slow burn—one that builds so much tension that it may induce the sudden inability to breathe while watching one hand simply graze another in a taxi.

The faces of the adulterers are never shown. Instead, Wong fixates on Chow and Su’s quotidian routines, as they each go through the motions of their daily lives. Working with both trusted cinematographer Christopher Doyle as well as co-cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, Wong thrusts us into a world he describes as one he can “smell”—coils of cigarette smoke swirling into the dark sky, the increasingly elaborate patterns of Su’s many cheongsams, and frames saturated with warm light, striking shadows, and notably, the color red. Chow and Su are often imprisoned in the frame by walking down tight alleys, or ensnared by doorways, windows, mirrors, and walls that separate our protagonists, portraying a world that seems to be closing in on them. In the Mood for Love ends in 1966, coinciding with the year of the Hong Kong or Star Ferry riots—a period marked by the arrest of 1,800 people who protested the British colonial government’s decision to raise the fare of the Star Ferry foot-passenger harbor by 25%. To end the film in such a specific time of unrest and turmoil only serves to emphasize the streams of discontent and malaise that run through In the Mood for Love and intensify the resonance of the film’s final act.

The heartbeat of In the Mood for Love continues to pulse in surprising ways. The Best Picture winner at the 94th Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), features a notable alleyway sequence that pays homage to not only Wong’s distinctive style and penchant for cigarette smoke, but also the themes of lost love that characterize In the Mood for Love. You might also feel like you’ve stepped into a Wong Kar-wai film if you find yourself in Mood Ring—a dark Brooklyn bar that bathes its clientele in sultry red lights and boasts a neon “happy together” sign on its walls. Kyle Chayka, writing for The New Yorker, also notes the film’s aesthetic influence on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, as users post images of a glamorous Su, a smoking Chow, or a moment of electricity that passes between them on the stairs. Chayka writes that “such is the film’s strength that any single image is synecdochic for its atmosphere.”

In a 2000 Sight and Sound interview with Tony Rayns, Wong describes the ambivalence he felt going into the Cannes premiere: “Everyone came out of the test screening shit-faced, nobody said anything much, and I went back to my room and told my wife I thought we’d have problems next day.” The exhausting, unplanned, and massive feast of In the Mood for Love defied the odds to be completed. Investors backed out, Maggie Cheung begrudgingly flew across continents several times, and Wong himself needed the luxury of time to decide how his movie should end. Through it all, In the Mood for Love remains a resplendent and transcendent cinematic achievement—the film’s bold aesthetics and languid love story permeating so many that have been touched by it decades on.