The Art of Letting Go


Decoding veteran director Wong Kar-wai’s film ‘In the Mood for Love’

Considered to be one of the best films by film critics and fans, veteran director Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love was made in 2000. Like his other well-known films, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and My Blueberry Nights, this film explores human relationships in all its fragility.

This Valentine’s Day, Sunday Shillong revisits the film to understand what makes it so unique in a time where different shades of love have been (and continues to be) depicted on screen.

The Plot

A man, Chow Mo-wan and a woman, Su Li-shen played by actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, respectively, move inside an apartment and become neighbours in 1960s Hong Kong. Both are working professionals whose lives are marked by the absence of their spouses. They are cordial and polite towards each other but as the film progresses, they find they have more in common than they could ever imagine. Both share a love for stories and food. Other inmates in the apartment, though polite, tend to be loud and overbearing. It is this which keeps our two characters from openly pursuing each other.

What brings them together is the fact that their respective spouses have an affair with each other. Friendship blossoms, yet both always know where to end the conversation and return to what society expects from them. It’s the unsaid between them that says everything. Slowly, this friendship turns to love – not the conventional confines of what ‘should be’, rather, it is pain that brings them closer.

He chooses to move on with his life, changing cities in the process. She remains gracefully stoical. Unknown to both, their lives are intertwined in a circle as their paths cross once again. Towards the end, Chow whispers his secrets to time and it remains like a monument, preserved in memory.

Themes, Music, Colours, Motifs

Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece asks the central question – what is love? As is his trademark style, he turns the question on its head, using symbolism.

Rain has come to depict onscreen romance, and so it is with this film too. It is rain that truly allows them to talk to each other, even in their silence. Just when both begin to feel claustrophobic, rain makes room for them to share a bond.

His films have always depicted claustrophobia. Physical spaces make viewers uneasy and this unique feature of his filmmaking transports us to the world which his characters inhabit. We can feel what they feel. The cinematography is effective in showing contrast.

Morality has been explored in this 98-minute film, packed with symbolism such as the ring on Su’s finger and the cigarette which Chow smokes to be in control. At the beginning of their platonic relationship, both wonder about what makes their spouses cheat. Towards the end, it does not matter. In a poignant scene where both wait for the rain to stop, Su tells him how she did not expect him to fall in love with her. To this, he replies, “I was only curious to know how it started. Now I know. Feelings can creep up just like that.”

The use of washed colours heightens this feeling further. The constant presence of brown and red depict two worldviews. Brown is the colour of being rooted, in this case, a conventional relationship, while, red reminds us of boundaries – what could happen if one of them decide to cross it. This is further pointed out when our protagonists keep telling us and reminding each other that they are not their spouses. The use of these two colours is interesting – representing the battle between what the heart wants and what society expects.

What makes people fall in love with each other despite their obvious differences? Su and Chow are opposites. At first, we see her as the well-mannered wife who appears to have a quiet pride. We see him as a shy gentleman. As the layers get peeled off, we see in her, a quiet obsession and steely strength. Meanwhile, our hero has a quiet, simmering anger. As their meetings grow frequent, first through exploration of cuisine and then through long walks at night, we see how our characters are playing a role – to not only let each other go, but to also accept and gracefully forgive an act of betrayal.

The use of costume and music also depict the overall mood of the film – blue dominates the world of Su – who like water, is calm, aware of the consequences of her choices. Her carefully structured clothes give us a glimpse of her world – symmetry. Grey depicts the world of Chow – shirts, ties and coats – the image of a successful family man. Both represent a world of carefully constructed camouflage.

Both experience the chaos that love often brings and realise how they have changed – while her subtle obsession begins to express itself, he discovers his own detachment. This is further depicted in two scenes where Su breaks down and he consoles her saying, “This is just a rehearsal. It’s all right. Don’t take it so hard.” Their presence lingers even if they move away from each other, forced by circumstances.

The music by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi sets the sensual, moody, brooding tone of the film. Nat King Cole’s rendition of the Spanish song, Aquellos Ojos Verdes is both mischievous and haunting – the story of a doomed romance with all its childlike grandeur and the restless knowing that our lovers live in the present, the Now. There is a constant feeling that even if Su and Chow have not crossed so-called boundaries, they have in stolen glances and the everyday mundane moments that give them some semblance of companionship.

What is Love Then?

In each frame, Wong Kar-wai makes us question the nature of love. We never get to see the spouses– only their voices remind us of the fragility of human relationships. Chow’s admission of his feelings for Su and stating that he finally understands ‘them’ shows a mature realisation of love and loss. It’s a multi-layered experience. The other inmates are well aware of what develops between two lonely souls but have enough empathy to never embarrass them.

Love remains in choices, subjective as they are. Perhaps, it is never absolute to begin with.

This film is poetry in motion. If the best remembered love stories are all tragedies, then, the act of letting go is an art in itself.

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