The films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai are as voluptuous as they are elusive. Wong made six films between 1988 and 1997, but the three that put him on the world-cinema map as one of the most thrilling directors of the ’90s are Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together (1997). Fusing poetry and pulp, they are simultaneously tender and hyperkinetic, dreamy and immediate, freewheeling and fetishistic. Dialectics come naturally to him; the attraction of opposites is an essential element of his style.
If one thinks of Wong’s films as a feast for the eyes, they are no less striking in their approach to storytelling. Fragmented in the extreme, they privilege character over plot and chance over causality. From Michelle Reis’s moody hitman’s boss in Fallen Angels to Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung’s tormented couple in Happy Together, his hip, narcissistic outsiders are vulnerable to impossible loves and erotic obsessions. The films suggest that mad love is basic to the human condition; they could be governed by Breton’s dictum “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all.” Perhaps this is why Wong seems the most French of all Asian filmmakers. And, in fact, his new film, In the Mood for Love (opening February 2), has been playing to packed houses in Paris for months.
Set in Hong Kong in 1962 during what might be nostalgically viewed as the golden age of British colonial rule, the film revolves around an affair between a man and woman whose respective spouses (barely glimpsed on-screen) are also having an affair. Virtually a two-hander for the glamorous Hong Kong stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, it’s a memory piece, and not merely because it’s set in the past. In Wong’s other films, the handheld camera can appear to be on a collision course with its subjects as it races to capture the moment. By contrast, In the Mood for Love was conceived for a static camera, and the glimpses it gives us of the lovers are like memory shards—projections from a haunted psyche. The weight of the past makes it the first film of Wong’s middle age.
The director, who is 43 years old, agrees. “In Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, we tried to catch the essence of the present,” says Wong, who was the picture of cool in his omnipresent shades during a recent trip to New York. “In this film, we’re not trying to catch anything, because there are some moments in your life that will be there forever—sharp and vivid in your memory like freeze-frames.”
When describing how his films are made, Wong always uses the pronoun “we,” referring to himself, the actors, and his production team—primarily William Chang, the editor and production designer, and Chris Doyle, the cinematographer. Doyle, however, left In the Mood midway through the shoot and was replaced by Mark Li, a favorite cinematographer of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. “The production took much longer than we expected and Chris had a commitment to do another film, but I also think he got bored. I said, Chris, you’re 50 years old, you can’t dance with the camera forever. It’s exhausting. But he felt I didn’t need him anymore.”
Although Wong began his career as a film and television writer, his films are virtually unscripted. He goes into production with no more than an outline of a story, a location, the actors, and some specific ideas about the visual style. There are very few other directors (Godard is one of them) who would risk so much improvisation. Among the first images Wong envisioned for In the Mood was the narrow stair and hallway where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan pass each other on their way to and from the tiny rooms they rent in adjacent apartments. Desperate to conceal their attraction, even from themselves, they just about hug the walls to avoid touching. In the Mood tells its story more through body language than dialogue, and the tight quarters force the actors to behave in ways that reveal their conflicted desires. “The stairway,” Wong says, with some amusement, “is like hell.”
But it’s also the site of the film’s most erotic image: a slow-motion shot of Cheung, seen from behind, climbing the stairs, her swaying hips sheathed in one of her many flowered silk cheongsams, a rice bucket dangling incongruously from her hand. “Maggie was always preoccupied with how people acted in 1962,” Wong says. “She tried to draw references from how her mother acted, but I just wanted her to be natural. In Days of Being Wild [Wong’s second feature], she also played a character from the ’60s, so I told her to imagine that she was the same girl but 10 years older. From that point on, she glowed on the screen.”
Wong suggested to Leung that rather than thinking of his character as a victim, he could be trying to seduce Mrs. Chan to get revenge on her husband. “Maybe he doesn’t love his wife. Maybe he’s seduced by this woman but he’s also setting a trap. I think that makes the relationship darker and more complex, and I’m curious about whether audiences will see it that way. The funny thing about this film is that basically your reaction to it is about yourself, and that’s the way it should be.”
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.