Wong Kar-Wai – In The Mood For Love



Starring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung. Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. 98 min. (STC)


The swaying of Maggie Cheung’s hips becomes something like a musical refrain in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Time and time again the camera tracks her as she climbs the stairs between her modest room and the noodle stand in the street outside. That movement is the closest that Cheung’s character — a timid woman whose beautiful cheongsams (dresses) serve as a kind of armour — comes to dancing, but In the Mood for Love is so much more about sublimating desire than expressing it.

Set in Hong Kong in 1962 (actually, some of the exterior street scenes were shot in Bangkok), In The Mood For Love stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as neighbours who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair. Having both rented rooms in neighbouring apartments, Mrs. Chan (Cheung), a secretary, and Mr. Chan (Leung), a newspaper editor, initially encounter each other only when they pass in the hallway or on the stairs. Because they have so little privacy, their behaviour with each other is very formal. ‘I wonder how they started,’ she asks, and they tentatively act out what might have happened. While, in the background, the radio plays Nat King Cole songs sung in Spanish, exotic-flavored Chinese pop songs, and the original score is as saturated with emotion and color as the images that pass across the screen.

Wong’s visually seductive, unabashedly romantic seventh film has become the Hong Kong director’s biggest international hit. But like any good love story, the tale of how it came to be wasn’t all roses and chocolates. During an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, the two stars, both of whom have starred in several previous Wong films including 1991’s Days of Being Wild, which is a sort of prequel to the new one (“For my character, at some point during the shoot, Kar-Wai,” says Cheung, “when he was looking for my character, he goes, ‘Ah, now I know, you’re that girl ten years later.’ With Leslie she had her first love and was betrayed, which is how she gets to be timid and protective here. And I think that suddenly became a reference for us of who this woman was. I played her with that in mind. She could be that woman.”) — described the film’s creation as an unusually protracted process, even for the director. A four-month shoot turned into fifteen months (and very nearly into two other movies, Wong’s long-delayed Summer in Beijing and 2046).

“We had four wrap parties,” says Cheung. “Four times, they said, ‘Oh, this is a wrap.’ Then a week later I’m back in Paris [where Cheung lives with her husband, Olivier Assayas, who directed her in Irma Vep] and get a call saying, ‘Could you come back? We need two more scenes to connect the movie.’ And that happened many times.”

The star of four previous Wong features, the soft-spoken Leung adds, “I never expect it to be over.”

A rough version of In the Mood for Love was finished only days before its debut at Cannes, where it won an acting prize for Leung and the Grand Prix for technique. At Cannes, both stars were seeing the film for the first time. “The first screening was quite frightening,” says Cheung. “It could’ve been anything because we’ve done so many different scenes. We’ve done love scenes, where we were so much in love, or scenes where we hated each other. All kinds of different emotions. And we just had no idea what would be in it. We knew the film was miles too long for 90 minutes. We’d shot at least three or four hours of material, even five. That was the good material. What he’d choose from that, we had no idea.”

Wong Kar Wai’s longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, has said, “We break the record every year for film used in a Hong Kong film, and yet he discards 95% of it. And I don’t care, because if the image doesn’t hit the screen, it’s still there. I had the visual, and the emotional, and the technical experience of having made that image, and I think that comes back on the screen. Most of what happens in Wong Kar-Wai movies happens in post-production. The real film is in the editing. Wong Kar-Wai has said at many times that the film is in the future, which means that the film is making itself. We don’t know what the film is until we see what we have.”

“It’s like you can still feel the 90 per cent of the story that isn’t there,” says Cheung.  “That’s why it takes so long to make them.”

Cheung and Leung have learned to adapt to the director’s somewhat chaotic, largely script-free filmmaking methods. (Apparently, the longest Wong Kar-Wai script was for Days of Being Wild – it was about 30 pages.) “It kind of rolls along from day to day,” says Cheung. “One day, we’d be doing a scene and it will be inspired by certain things from that scene, and it grows into another scene and that grows into another. Or we can walk backward three steps and say, ‘Oh, that scene’s out, let’s start from there again.’ It can be from any direction at any time, or be the same dialogue reshot three times in different ways.”

“Maybe in different locations,” says Leung.

“Or different circumstances,” says Cheung. “It can suddenly be over the phone, or we’re doing the same thing at home that we did downstairs, and then it can happen in a café. He is kind of experimenting during the shoot with us.”

Just as entire subplots were excised from Wong’s last film Happy Together, all but the faintest suggestions of love have been removed from In the Mood for Love (the posters for the film show the couple in a passionate embrace – and so the audience is left expecting and waiting for the embrace that never comes with as much longing as the characters). “(The love scene) would have changed the whole movie,” says Cheung. “Whereas now, there’s a question: did it happen, did it not happen? We’re not sure.”

All of this gives it the aura of a cherished but fading memory. More can be felt than can be seen, and Cheung is delighted when I guess correctly that the movie originally featured some dancing.

“How did you know that?” she asks. “There was one dance scene that was shot but it’s been cut out. Supposedly Wong wanted to shoot another dance scene right at the end of the shoot but he couldn’t get the location back — it was too late. He wanted to put in a rumba scene, and we would’ve had an hour to learn how. But it would’ve been a very romantic scene because in the hotel room where it was set, you can constantly hear music from downstairs.”

“Yeah, there’s a club,” says Leung.

“And we would hear the music and be dancing in the room,” says Cheung.

In the end, the director felt that the dancing was too strongly reminiscent of the tangos in Happy Together.

Wong sought to break away from his much-imitated style with In the Mood for Love, even if it meant forgoing some of the flashier camerawork and the amazing voiceover monologues that served him so well in his past films. “Those were his desires: to have the camera more still and not use voiceovers,” says Cheung. “He achieved both, although I think that’s why it took him twice as long to make this than his other films.”

Despite the problems, the actors stuck by him, trusting in the director’s ability to bring it off. And he did so marvelously.

In the Mood for Love is Wong’s most accessible film and one of his best. “Even though there are frustrations in the creation,” says Cheung, “we don’t lose hope because we know that in the end it’ll be OK. It’s just like, ‘How hard is it gonna be this time? What is the journey gonna be?’”

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