I know almost nothing about Chinese history. This is an admission I’m willing to share as Marc did in his review for Song at Midnight. Then, this year the BFI launched an unprecedented Chinese film season; some titles in the programme have never before been screened in the UK.
There’s no better a title with which to take the plunge than Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, an atmospheric and seminal film with a seemingly slight plot, phantasmagorical beauty and a bunch of accolades (anointed most important Chinese film ever by Sight & Sound and nominated for the 2000 Palme d’Or).
Secretary Su Li-zhen rents a room in a Hong Kong apartment building on the same day as journalist Chow Mo-wan. Despite friendly neighbours and the bustling city-life below, they find themselves repeatedly alone, either in their respective rooms in the crowded tenement or walking to the local street noodle vendor. Both of their spouses consistently work overtime shifts and arouse suspicions surrounding fidelity. The cinematography is protracted and saturated, lingering over their loneliness. A title card at the beginning of the film reads, “It is a restless moment. Hong Kong 1962.” This restiveness is palpable throughout, sustained not only through dialogue but a rich cinematic lexicon.
The shots in which Su and Chow encounter one another are dramatically slowed down, as though the fleeting instant of the brushing of a shoulder could last an eternity. The pair eventually meets to work on a martial arts serial for a newspaper, developing a platonic relationship with a tightly orchestrated subtle and suffused desire. The social conduct of 1960s Hong Kong dictates that even their friendship must be kept a secret. Add the brooding lull of Nat King Cole to the stunning palette that Wong is well known for and you’ve got a flush of gorgeous emotion.
Wong once answered a poll by the Village Voice about his favourite film endings. Speaking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclipse, he wrote “A sequence of empty shots at the end of the film revisits many of the locations seen earlier. Suddenly, one realises this film is not about Monica Vitti or Alain Delon, but about the place they live in.” This is true of In the Mood for Love, almost undoubtedly. Their secret kinship is very much informed by the breath-taking city below; the mise en scene flows with the changing setting, morphing from traditional flowery motifs to bold, modern patterns. As the two venture through alleyways, there’s an overwhelming and hanging aesthetic of film noir that embeds their unrequited desire, made all the more cruel and intangible by their ever absent partners. One can tell that Wong Kar-Wai thinks through the camera lens and the results are heartbreaking.
Chapter’s Electric Shadows season concludes on Tuesday 23rd September with The Red Detachment of Women.