(Hong Kong, 2000 | drama, historical, romance)
(In the first of this two-part essay, I talk about how In the Mood for Love gave me a nonbinary awakening. Check it out here.)
Joseph G. Kickasola’s essay, titled ‘It is a Restless Moment: Wong Kar-Wai and the Phenomenology of Flow’, in A Companion to Wong Kar-Wai, edited by Martha P. Nochimson, drew my attention to a characteristic of Wong Kar-Wai films that I had noticed (indeed, it’s impossible to not notice) the first time I had watched In the Mood for Love in 2019, but had subsequently forgotten as I got lost in the details and the thematic import of specific scenes. It is also something Wong Kar-Wai films share with Akira Kurosawa films, albeit in a differently organised aesthetic: movement.
“Flow” is something of a generic term, encompassing a range of meanings and factors (and so academics often avoid it), but it is also one of Wong’s greatest aesthetic virtues. … When we speak of flow, we are talking about an aggregate, mutable stream of multiple energies (temporal, perceptual, psychological, etc.) and all their attendant dynamics. … flow is a dynamic between self and world, as it is essentially a dance of “perceptual salience” or interest that the filmmaker is crafting for us. It is founded upon an experience of temporality… but it is not merely temporal. Rather, it is the modulation, control, and alignment of various perceptual, cognitive, emotional and sensual energies in time (including, but not limited to, our experience of time itself) in order to maximize their semantic potential.
Kickasola devotes the rest of the essay to analysing three scenes from two Wong Kar-Wai films, In the Mood for Love and The Grandmaster, and studying how the flow of those three scenes impact the audience. But more importantly for me, his analysis of flow and how it actively involves the audience into experiencing the present at a heightened pace and depth, ties into what Yomi Braester writes in another essay in the same volume, titled ‘Cinephiliac Engagement and the Disengaged Gaze in In the Mood for Love’:
… the disengaged gaze finds expression in Wong’s use of offscreen space. Important clues to characters’ actions and emotions can only be guessed, since they take place outside — often beyond — the visible frame. Onscreen developments are visually displaced, and in turn replaced, by the spectator’s ideation as defining the cinematic event. The inherent subjectivity of the form of film watching turns every incident into a random coincidence that engages the viewer in exploring its possible meanings.’
One hour, six minutes, and seven seconds into the film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan confront their shared realisation that they have committed the very sin they had sworn they would not in the early days of their relationship: they have fallen in love with each other, in earnest. Their once simple life as neighbours who just happened across each other has turned them into accomplices hiding the secret of their spouses’ infidelity together, friends commiserating and writing martial arts fiction together, and finally, lovers, as Mrs. Chan utters the line that had given her so much trouble when they had been play-acting, performing scenes from the lives of their unfaithful spouses — ‘I don’t want to go home tonight.’ The scene shows Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan try and fail to accept the fact that they had lost themselves in their spouses’ secret of forbidden love long ago; but it’s not merely romantic love as portrayed by Leslie Cheung’s character, Ho Po-Wing, in Happy Together. It’s not the flamboyant self-aggrandising romanticism that Rey Chow pointed out. It’s the purely subjective journey of coming to terms with the nature of love itself: one does not ask, “I wonder how it began?” and confine it to an intellectual exercise. In order to grasp love with it’s compelling, lawless current, one must either fall in love or remain a stranger to the mystery. The thing is, it’s not just a problem isolated to what Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan face in their lives. The entire film is built as the problem, and I had fallen headlong into the trap.
This is where I must confess with the self-flagellating candour of a Tamsyn Muir heroine: I had fallen too much in love with this film to realise the futility of imagining the authorial intent behind the story. I had told myself early on, while starting this series of essays, that I would not make the mistake of trying to come to a homogenous, objective conclusion about Wong Kar-Wai films, about their true meaning and politics. As it turned out, by the end of writing my first essay on those films, I had repeated exactly that mistake. I cannot escape my own subjectivity. I do believe it’s possible to look beyond oneself and approach another person or story as they are, and call them by their name. I do not believe it’s something I can do with Wong Kar-Wai films. They mean too much to me, and I can’t adopt an impartial, objective viewpoint of them. Besides, I’m not a Hong Konger. At the end of the day, I’m faced with the choice of accepting that what other critics have written about the politics of Wong Kar-Wai films is the truth, or denying that Wong Kar-Wai films are at all very political. It does make sense with the same sort of fatalism I found in the confession scene in In the Mood for Love; this is why, instead of becoming an academic, I became a writer. So, I’m going to pick a third option — analysing what I personally find in Wong Kar-Wai films. This also teaches me:
- Not to try and discover homogenising theories of truth behind a story that affects me this deeply;
- Not to try to evade the limits of my own subjectivity while writing or analysing a story.
So let’s go back to when I first watched In the Mood for Love in 2019.
I had come across a discussion of In the Mood for Love in Hsiu-Chuang Deppman’s book Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film while reading the chapter in the same book on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, dir. Ang Lee), my first great obsession with a Chinese-language film. I hadn’t heard of Wong Kar-Wai back then, and was only interested in finding out more because of the book’s discussion of Mrs. Chan and the feminist theme operating around her character. So, again, it was reading an intellectual treatment of a piece of audiovisual fiction that introduced me to said audiovisual fiction and changed my life forever. It happened first in 2015, when I read an essay on Clara Oswald in Doctor Who by a dear friend of mine that introduced me to the character, and subsequently to the show, the fanfiction series, my group of friends, and much of my circle of acquaintances on social media — a coincidence. When I saw In the Mood for Love, particularly it’s famous sequence featuring Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow visiting a noodle shop one after the other in slow motion timed to ‘Yumeji’s theme’, what struck me first was, in Yomi Braester’s words, ‘Wong’s signature mix of borderline kitsch and understated emotions’. The second thing that struck me was that In the Mood for Love is a film that can be straightforwardly remade into a Bollywood or Tollywood film, if any contemporary Indian film director possessed Wong Kar-Wai’s specific sensibilities. I could almost see it happening. The connecting element? An uncannily astute depiction of middle-class family life and values, filmed in some extraordinarily innovative ways. The world that Wong painstakingly built while shooting in Bangkok, the world of peeling cement walls disfigured with old graffiti, tall windows with vertical iron grilles on the streetside, incandescent light bulbs for street lamps, old-fashioned taxis with yellow roofs, Maggie Cheung’s proud coiffure, reminded me of some of the older parts of Kolkata that I had been to as a child, the older Kolkata I remembered from the ‘60s and ‘70s black-and-white Bengali films showing on Doordarshan Bangla in the afternoons. The sensation of being in a ‘Pan-Asian’ (as Thorsten Botz-Bornstein termed it in his book Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick and Wong Kar-Wai) dream that I was simultaneously included in and excluded from on account of being a South Asian woman, was very strong. The first strand of connective tissue between cultures here is, of course, exposure to British colonialism in both Hong Kong and India. But apart from that, Rey Chow explains some of this translatability between cultures as an aspect of Wong’s film-making:
In the case of Wong, ethnicity is at once more local and more fluid. Rather than being concerned with the Chinese nation, people, or culture as such, his interest is focused on the Shanghai community in the Hong Kong of the 1960s. This attachment to a group already in diaspora prefigures his film’s much more casual, tenuous relation to Chineseness as a geopolitical issue, and In the Mood for Love, despite it’s recall of a specific place and time period, stages an essentially human drama. … Precisely because Wong’s film does not consciously re-collect itself as Chinese even as it uses a small Chinese migrant enclave as its site of visibility, it achieves a relevance that is, arguably, trans-ethnic and portable. Chineseness, now displaced and dispersed in such ways as never again to form any cohesive continuum, has become an exotic, globally interchangeable part object, whose defining character is no longer simply history but also, increasingly, image, artifice, and commodity.Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (Columbia University Press, 2007)
Image, artifice, and commodity — it’s possible to consider this a partial reading of Wong’s nostalgia project in Hua Yang de Nian Hua. And there’s something to be said about how commodities shape the life of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, and the people they live with.
Hsiu-Chuang Deppman writes about how In the Mood for Love, like the novella it was adapted from, Liu Yichang’s 1972 work Intersection, subtextually deals with capitalism and it’s pernicious influence in the lives of the film’s characters. Of Liu Yichang and Wong Kar-Wai, she comments, “… they share anxiety over the ways a rapidly evolving capitalist economy in Hong Kong has redefined gender and class relations and disintegrated other familial values. … For Wong, a capitalist economy prioritizes work over family and changes the traditional structure of a marriage. Working married women become newly able to earn their financial independence and raise the standard of living, but at the same time they get trapped between what Janet Salaff calls the demands of “the centripetal family” and a modern woman’s personal desire for self-fulfillment.” Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s lives come to be centred around “symbolic gendered commodities” such as the electric rice cooker, women’s handbags, and men’s ties. Their, and their neighbours’, responses to these commodities form about half of the film and it’s theme of material culture. This is the context in which Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s relationship operates, and the article with which they attempt to fill that void in their lives, is serialised martial arts fiction. Funnily, the word ‘martial’ differs from the word ‘marital’ only by the displacement of the letter ‘I’. Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said about Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s dependence on historical fantasy as a means of navigating the boundaries of selfhood in the murky light of disintegrating marriages.
But, tempting as it is, literary wuxia isn’t the most compelling thing about Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s relationship. To me, that would be the relationship’s ultimate failure. One reason for it being so interesting to me would be that, if only the story had taken place in today’s Hong Kong with internet facilities and digital spaces accommodating flexible online relationships, I suspect Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s love for each other would’ve been more sustainable. But then, that’s just my speculation; maybe Wong Kar-Wai would have a different spin on digital relationships. The other reason is that looking at it from a conventional, liberal perspective, the doom of the relationship seems almost wasteful, unnecessary. Why can’t they risk social disapproval and just leave, make for a fresh start in Singapore, maybe, some place where not a lot of people know them or care enough? If finding a relationship that works this beautifully is so rare, why let it go just for the sake of appearances and tradition? One reason for this may be the dictates of genre. In her essay Beyond Postcolonial Nostalgia: Wong Kar-Wai’s Melodramas In the Mood for Love and 2046, Victoria Protsenko mentions the ties between In the Mood for Love and wenyi pian, a genre of melodrama that reached the peak of its popularity in the time when In the Mood for Love takes place, and is thus evoked by the film. ‘A typical wenyi picture of the time,’ writes Protsenko, ‘told a forlorn love affair: the protagonists, restrained by social and familial norms, had to renounce their feelings for the sake of propriety.’ But this explanation doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t fit with Wong Kar-Wai’s habit of picking up the trappings of a genre for a story only to run away with it and do something completely different.
Enter nonbinary me, trying to look at everything with new eyes.
To my understanding, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow had found themselves in a relationship that cannot be defined by the heteronormative institution of marriage, by the arbitrary heterosexual positions of ‘single’, ‘married’, or ‘divorced’. Infidelity had, paradoxically, disempowered and freed them at once. By a means of projection and performance, they had struck out from the gender roles that had defined them until the point in their lives when they reached a failure of heteronormativity (their spouses’ infidelity), and developed a bond of mirroring (in each other and the wuxia literature they imagined and enacted together) and transference that is, innately, non-heterosexual. It is a gender-nonconforming love that finds it’s freedom in the chaotic world of wuxia fiction. Marriage itself is the disillusionment in this arrangement, because marriage and how it contextualises gender actively hinders them from pursuing the bourgeois individualism that they both ascribe to, and the fluid state of desire that animates them. This had intensified to the point that when Mr. Chow feels jealousy regarding Mrs. Chan’s marriage, it signals an ideological break, a loss of faith or a repeated act of infidelity where Mr. Chow figuratively has gone back on his promise to Mrs. Chan that he would not want to be like their mirroring, unfaithful spouses with their rendition of a marriage between them. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s relationship breaks down not because they cannot break with social propriety, but because social norms had invaded their ‘home’, their refuge in a fantastical, undefined realm of play and desire. It would seem that to heterosexual characters like Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, this non-heterosexual love is unsustainable; so the only way they can allow it to continue is by separating from each other, and pursuing their desire individually.
In the essay ‘Wong Kar-Wai’s Cinema of Repetition’ in A Companion to Wong Kar-Wai, Ackbar Abbas writes:
It is in the second film in the trilogy In the Mood for Love that Wong begins to explore the paradox of how disappointment can be the basis of a different kind of love. … The relation that develops between Lizhen [Mrs. Chan] and Chow [Mr. Chow] is based on the impossible premise that they do not want to be like their adulterous spouses. The result is that what brings them together (“we do not want to be like them”) is also what keeps them apart. Unlike affairs that end in disappointment, this is an affair that begins in disappointment. We find out not how desire is followed by disappointment (a banal theme), but how desire is generated by disappointment, how disappointment itself become the source and resource of the erotic. We find that paradoxical thing, an erotics of disappointment, where the negative affect (“we do not want”) is not so much an eradication as it is a radicalization of affect: it is just as powerful a form of desire as “I want”. In other words, to begin with disappointment is not to sublimate desire into a platonic relationship, rather, it is the form that desire takes.
There cannot be a formal conclusion to this essay. Writing this essay, and the thought experiment that went with it, has been a deeply personal experience and an exercise in failure. This has basically reconfigured the way I have been thinking about Wong Kar-Wai films; but I’m not embarrassed by the breakdown of my earlier thinking. Now that I’ve found a new angle on his films, and learned to pay more attention to my own intuition when it comes to interpreting a piece of art, I can only look forward to developing it more and following the thread where it leads me to. The most heartening statement with a bit of advice came to me from the essay ‘New Queer Angles on Wong Kar-Wai’ in A Companion to Wong Kar-Wai, where Helen Hok-Sze Leung writes:
Failure is queer because it forces one to experience what lies outside of sanctioned structures. The courtship of failure in Wong’s films leads us to the intense and erotic edge where heteronormative intimacy falters and where something else lies beyond, just out of reach but tantalizingly and alluringly near.
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