Monday, May 2, 2011

Modern Film Classics: In the Mood for Love

A miracle cure-all was discovered in Hollywood. This magical elixir is guaranteed to alleviate pressure, banish heartache, raise self-esteem and, if its creators could make it so, cure cancer while also giving whoever drinks of this cure-all a makeover. This elixir is sex. And while everyone in Hollywood seems to have it on screen, no one seems to note that its ready availability makes it cheap and a total cheat. If it’s so accessible, why value it so much? Take away the materiality on flagrant display in film, and space invaders wouldn’t consider us a higher species on first sight (or second sight, for that matter).

The renowned auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 romance In the Mood for Love is aptly named. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (the incandescent Maggie Cheung) live in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Due to the crowded living conditions in the city, they live in single rooms in tenements. Their friendly, seemingly innocuous neighbours eat, sleep and have mah-jong marathons. Their spouses are always out of town at the exact same time, and they eventually discover through arbitrary clues that they are being cuckolded by the same two people.

Unlike baser animals in lesser films, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan do not fall into bed for a fitful bout of revenge sex. Instead, they attempt to understand how their spouses’ affair came into being. They playfully reenact (and mock) the imagined come-ons, which look very much like cheap pick-up lines and thereby make other romances look phony and pedestrian. They work late and dine out. He writes a wudan novel. She is a fan and helps him out. He helps her rehearse the moment when she confronts Mr. Chan about the affair.

This film isn’t devoid of passion, nor does it advocate abstinence. In the Mood for Love is structured for maximal containment of lust. The tenement is overcrowded and the neighbours are privy to the smallest detail of their daily dress and routines. Wong eschews panorama and outdoor shots completely (until the very end), and instead uses close-ups to frame his stars, with deliberately low ceilings to contain everyone. From the office to the crowded hallway to the bedroom, it’s so crowded, you can barely spread your arms out wide in any direction. Open space appears to be a concept with no physical manifestation. The soundtrack is populated by Nat King Cole and a lush orchestral score. If you disturbed a button on Ms. Cheung’s exquisite cheongsam, the resulting inferno would empty the tenement within seconds.

Wong does not allow his characters such easy release by denying them the obligatory love scene. They mutually decide not to consummate their love, not for lack of mutual adoration but because a quick roll in the hay would debase them, make them as low as their unfaithful spouses. Consider this: if they have sex, what’s next? Would it make them less angry, or betrayed, or hurt? Will it raise their collective self-esteem, allowing them to flee their marriages and run away together? Would they then they write a tell-all book to preach their happy message to the masses and live happily ever after? Please. It’s almost as if Wong were asking, if they have sex, then … what, exactly?

This begets even more questions on the narrative. Would these two people be better off if they followed the Hollywood textbook for romance? Would sex improve their lives the way a more mainstream film with infantile asylum refugees play-acting adulthood as protagonists would dictate? (Shall I page Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or that Twilight thing?) Or would it simply – and if you’ll follow my lead here – lead to the absurd conclusion that the elixir is not the cure-all? And that being faced with such a painfully adult situation and all its consequences would require not only a steely constitution to maturely approach, its attendant feelings aside? What? Exactly.

Watch these two minutes. It will give you the full flavour of film, in such a short time frame.