Back in the old days, when people had a secret they didn’t want to share, they would climb a mountain and find a tree; into the tree they would carve a hole and then whisper their secret into the hole; finally, they would cover up the hole with mud, sealing their secret within and ensuring that nobody else would ever learn of it. And yet at times, when watching the movies of Wong Kar-wai, it somehow feels like the mud is slowly being scratched away bit by bit, never completely but just enough to let you catch a glimpse at the secrets, unspoken words, and missed chances the characters of his films carry around.
Together with The Days of Being Wild (1990), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) form a trilogy, yet purely on a cinematographic level the first movie is so drastically different from the two follow-ups that the unobservant viewer might never even make the connection were it not for the common underlying theme and the familiar characters. The one recurring character throughout all three movies is Chow Mo-wan (portrayed by Tony Leung): appearing as a silent role for just a few minutes at the end of The Days of Being Wild, it is his story that becomes the focus of both In the Mood for Love and 2046.
Chow is a writer in the Hong Kong of the 1960s; against the historical background of political instability and economic growth, he battles to make a living, indulges in his gambling addiction, and leaves a trail of broken hearts from Hong Kong to Singapore and back. The women in his life are numerous and diverse: a nightclub girl and occasional prostitute (Zhang Ziyi), a professional gambler (Gong Li), and the daughter of his landlord (Faye Wong), yet always, it is his love for Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) that hangs over any new relationship like a ghost from the past.
Perhaps it is the tag line from another movie that best describes this trilogy: “This is not a love story. It’s a story about love,”¹ and love is neither easy nor perfect, no matter how much you may want it to be.
Both Chow and Su are married and their affair is doomed to fail before it even has a chance to begin. At another time, in another place, things might have been different, Chow remarks in 2046, but with the way their lives are, those three magic words remain unspoken. And like these feelings that are clearly present but never explicitly expressed, so much seems to go unsaid, in words at least; Wong Kar-wai instead chooses to let the camera speak, relying on close-ups, slow-motion, and captivating angles to blur the lines between solitude and loneliness, cutting from one social gathering to the next to reveal how utterly alone a character can be in a room full of people.Rusty streetlamps pelted with rain and ever-present cigarette smoke lend the films a certain noir-esque touch while street corners, windows, mirrors, and billowing curtains create ‘natural’ frames that liken each shot to a painted still life. Aided by a remarkably chosen song selection (including contemporary singers like Nat King Cole and Connie Francis) and a haunting score by composer Shigeru Umebayashi, Wong Kar-wai’s directing thus creates a peculiar atmosphere that seems to hover somewhere between melancholy and longing, apathy and elation, never satisfying but leaving the viewer somehow fulfilled when the screen finally goes black.
Finally, a little piece of advice: if you can, avoid the dubbed versions of these films; instead turn on the subtitles and enjoy the multitude of languages and dialects² the characters converse in, seemingly without any trouble at all. It will add yet another level of experience to the sensory feast that watching In the Mood for Love and 2046 (and, despite its differences, The Days of Being Wild) can provide.
1 (500) Days of Summer
2 Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, French, Filipino, English, and Japanese