As Tears Go By

With In The Mood For Love, Art-House Auteur Wong Kar-Wai Goes in Search of Lost Time

In a peculiar way, the film is a treatise on the art of acting. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan play a kind of game in which they pretend they are each other's spouses in order to understand—or so they tell themselves—what their wife and husband are doing and feeling. Their game allows them to disavow their attraction to each other and act on it all the same. But is their affair ever consummated?

"We have the habit of going to films and expecting that they will provide all the answers. But in this film, we provide the questions and the audience has to make up its own answers. I have my answers, but I don't think they should be the answers for everybody. I wanted a lot of secrets in the film and I like it that way."

Wong did shoot a scene in which Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan make love, but later he decided against including it. "When we were editing the film, I became addicted to the mood of it—I couldn't bring myself to stop. At the last minute, just before we sent the film to Cannes, we cut the love scene out. Some people say it's needed for a climax or a release, but I felt that I didn't want to see it and William felt the same way."

Displaced from the film, the scene has become something of a fetish object. In Cannes, journalists fought to get their hands on the illustrated press books in which there are images of Cheung and Leung, their bodies entangled, lying on a bed. As if he could not bear to let go entirely of the love scene, Wong included two even more enticing frame enlargements in tête-bêche, a book he put together combining images from In the Mood with a novella by Liu Yichang.

But for Wong, In the Mood is not a film about a love affair or a marriage. "I hate love stories because they're indulgent and make you think you're the most important person because you have these feelings." Rather, he says, it's a film about a world that no longer exists and, in fact, was the world of his childhood. Nineteen sixty-two was the year in which Wong arrived with his family in Hong Kong from Shanghai. And the film is filled with his recollections of a place that was both exciting and mysterious. Because one of his first impressions was the sound of the city, he brought radio performers from the '60s into a studio to re-create old programs. The Nat King Cole recording of the Latin dance tune "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," featured prominently in the film, was one of his mother's favorites.

The movies that Wong saw as a child also had an influence on In the Mood. "We saw films from America, Japan, Europe. We didn't understand them, but they stayed in our mind more because of that. It's been a long time since there were films that make you ask questions long after. They were part of our thinking about how to re-create the period." In particular, Wong drew on Antonioni for the way in which he photographed actors with their backs to the cameras, and for the memory of a moment in Eclipse when he realized that the film had not been about Monica Vitti or Alain Delon but rather the place that witnessed their story.

For Wong to immerse himself in the vanished Hong Kong of 40 years ago is, in part, a way of displacing contemporary anxiety around the transfer of the colony to China. However obliquely, In the Mood, like Happy Together, is a film about 1997. To complicate matters, it was supposed to be shot in tandem with another film, 2046, which has more direct connections to the handover. "It was a schizophrenic situation," says Wong, "like being in love with two women at once. We were shooting 2046 in Bangkok, but then we decided to move the production of In the Mood for Love there from Hong Kong, because Bangkok looks more like Hong Kong used to look in the '60s. So we started thinking these two films should be treated as one film. There's a relationship even though they take place 100 years apart." 2046 was inspired by China's assurance that Hong Kong could maintain its present way of life for 50 years after the transfer of power. "We wondered if there was any aspect of life that could stay the same for 50 years and we ask that question in 2046." Wong intends to set his first film about the future to the scores of 19th-century operas—Carmen and Tannhäuser. But 2046 is far from completed, and since it's a Wong Kar-wai film, it's entirely subject to change.

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