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Essay on ‘In the Mood for Love’

October 28, 2009

Note about the essay – Some people never learn; I am worse. This term paper was due on the day after my birthday in 2007 and I succeeded in delaying it till the eleventh hour. Much of the incoherence and choppy style of writing can be attributed to starting a mere two hours before the deadline. My callousness with regard to this essay was shameful, especially considering the fact that it dealt with my favourite film of all time. I wish to redo this essay someday and flesh it out with many of the other things I wanted to write about but had to exclude, to keep within the word limit. Meanwhile, here’s the original draft, warts and all, with no edits since.

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This essay is a paper I submitted to my ‘Introduction of Film Art’ class in my final year of university. The topic asked to analyze the complexity of relationships between Wong Kar-Wai’s characters and to substantiate the complexity in definite terms, and then to analyze the use of film technique. The strict word limit of 1200 words left limited scope to analyze this highly stylized film, which is brimming with complex film techniques and infinite dimensions of meaning. I hope to supplement this essay with more essays on what has become my all-time favourite movie.

This essay aims to explore how the film In the Mood for Love attributes the complexity of Li Zhen and Mo Wan’s relationship to the complexity of the state of Hong Kong in 1960s. It posits that Wong Kar-Wai uses the film medium to make a strong statement on the dynamics of relationships in the context of larger social changes in the Hong Kong society; as the country was wrought by changes in culture and movements of people, personal relationships emerged and moulded themselves to accommodate these changes. The use of mis-en-scene, time and space, in particular, will be analyzed to make this argument.

The 1950s in Hong Kong were a time of great changes; there was an exodus of people from mainland Chinese, especially from Shanghai, into Hong Kong and the country struggled to accommodate the new inhabitants and find its footing economically and culturally[1]. While the 1960s for HK [2] was an era of discovering its own identity and establishing itself, its people still had faced a lot of uncertainty and relocated to other countries easily. This is depicted at various points in the movie – towards the end of the movie, Ah Ping is in Singapore, Mr. Koo in Philippines, Chow in Singapore and Mrs. Suen is moving to the US.

It is to be noted that, throughout the film, all these characters were shown to share their cramped space almost like one cohesive social unit but in the end, all the characters part ways and only the house continues to remain as it was; this aspect of the film underlines the role of architecture as an aid to memory; spaces, which survive through the ages, can be seen as repositories of stories of people, long after they are gone.

Wong Kar-Wai creates interesting patterns of time in the film. Through the repetition of routines and scenes, the audience can see the changing relationship between Li Zhen and Mo Wan; indeed, each of them seems to change themselves in the process of enacting their spouses’ love affair. The emphasis on their routines might also be to depict an underlined effort towards creating some form of permanence in an otherwise changing society.

There is also a contrast in the pace of the film – the moments that Li Zhen and Mo Wan spend together seem to have a languorous, sensuous pace while people seem to relocate to new countries in a snap. This languid pace of their growing love for each other is illustrated by intermittent shots of a clock which seems to be stuck in time.

Given the context of constant change and turmoil that HK was going through, most people of that era probably viewed their relationships as transient and ephemeral. This movie is, therefore, not merely about the depiction of restraint in the light of social norms, but also a nostalgic recounting of relationships that could never fully bloom, because of the impermanence of society at large. It is, perhaps, fitting that the most intimately emotional scenes between Mo Wan and Li Zhen were shown in a temporarily rented hotel room while they donned an air of distance in their own shared apartment; their relationship was restricted to the impermanent space of a hotel room. The complexity of the hotel room’s multiple spaces and use of mirrors was also a reflection of the complexity of their relationship with each other.

The film’s main setting is the apartment with shared common spaces – a quintessential memory of HK that people of that era relate to. These multi-story buildings were part of a public housing program after a major fire in the makeshift homes of immigrants [3].  In these cramped spaces, there is ambiguity in the concept of personal and shared spaces; this confusion is reflected in Li Zhen and Mo Wan’s relationship with each other. They are tentative about their feelings for each other, especially in the light of their neighbours and their spouses.

This film is also a portrayal of the cultural changes that HK was going through. The strong emphasis on family affairs and values among the previous generations of Chinese families had to make way for major changes [4] such as longer hours at work (Mo Wan working late into the night), business trips abroad, women joining the workforce (Li Zhen and Mo Wan’s wife stay away from their respective homes for their jobs) and, therefore, greater dependence on food from fast food joints and restaurants [5] (Li Zhen buying noodles from the shop, Li Zhen and Mo Wan’s frequent dinners in restaurants).

This was an era when HK was gaining increasing consciousness of the Western and foreign influences, shown in the film with references to Nat King Cole’s Spanish tunes, Japan, electric cookers, handbags and ties from overseas, steaks, etc. The biggest struggle that HK faced in this era was finding its identity between its Asian roots and Western influences. The references to its Chinese past are depicted in Li Zhen’s cheongsams, Mo Wan’s hobby of writing Chinese martial arts serials, communal games of Mahjongg played by the neighbours and the moral restraint of both the lead characters, outlined by social norms of propriety ingrained in their Chinese identities.

Architectural spaces like the ancient Angkor Wat often transcend time, to outlive the lives of people, their relationships with each other and hold the memories of all the people that pass through it. However, such spaces which do not yield to the ravages of time often become derelict and cultural curiosities for tourists. In some manner, the film attributes the survival of HK as a thriving city to the constant flux it has adapted itself to, through the ages, much like how Li Zhen and Mo Wan adapt to the changed situation – Mo Wan moves to Singapore and Li Zhen continues to live in HK with her son.

In the Mood for Love explores the complexity of not just Mo Wan and Li Zhen’s relationship to each other, but also to the society and humanity, at large. The reasons for their convoluted feelings towards each other were not limited to just a repressive moral environment they were subject to, but also due to confusion and uncertainty brought upon them by changes in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Their memory of a more conservative times and more proper social behaviour held them back from indulging in a torrid love affair like their spouses did.

In conclusion, Wong Kar-Wai is successful in delicately treating the varied nuances of the situation and characterizations of Li Zhen and Mo Wan and fully explores the complexity of their relationship. He makes no statement or judgement of their choices, but merely places them in the bigger picture of Hong Kong as it evolves through an era.

Word count: 1122

Bibliography

Removed from web version of the paper, links embedded in the essay.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 1:13 am

    Certainly one of my favorite films of all times as well! When I watched it for the first time, it transported me to a different space and I could see the vivid colors and hear the music for at least another week. Since then, I have watched it many, many times. It is a classic terms of its ability to create the mood of HK in 1960s, even for those of us who have never been there.

    I started following WKW’s work after watching this film, and have thoroughly enjoyed his work. In the Mood for Love remains my favorite though.

  2. October 31, 2009 7:59 am

    WKW is a visual poet, isn’t he? Never before did I think the way a scene is framed could speak volumes about the viewer. I’m not much of a film buff so I can’t comment on his uniqueness but I have certainly not come across anyone else quite like him

    I have only managed to Chungking Express, Blueberry Nights & 2046 apart from this films, need to dig through his other works soon!

    Thanks for commenting, it’s rarely that I come across people who have watched the film, let alone love it as much as I do 🙂

  3. November 3, 2009 11:58 pm

    I saw 2046 one week after I saw ITMFL, and couldn’t appreciate it fully until I saw it again several months later, and the initial effect of ITMFL had worn off a bit.

    “Chungking Express” was nice, but I didn’t particularly enjoy “My Blueberry Nights”.

    I would highly recommend The Days of Being Wild. It is a wonderful film. “Fallen Angels” was ok. “Ashes of time” is also worth watching.

    I really want to watch “As Tears go By”, “Eros” and “Happy Together”!

  4. November 4, 2009 2:52 pm

    I was so sure I would be disappointed by any other WKW that I kept off his films after ITMFL for two years! Didn’t enjoy ‘My Blueberry Nights’ – harboured unrealistically high expectations, I think.

    2046, which I watched recently, was sensory overload, I need to watch it again to break it into bits and enjoy it…

    Thanks for the reco, noted, will certainly catch Days of Being Wild 🙂

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