Best of the Decade Derby: In the Mood (or not) and 13 ways of looking at Maggie Cheung

<3 = D (t+d)

I jotted down this formula while watching In the Mood for Love the other day, the first time I’d seen it since its theatrical release in New York 8 years ago.  The formula, which I conceived (mind you, physics was my least favorite subject in school) translates as “love = desire multiplied by the sum of time and space”.  It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now, looking at it, it seems ridiculous.  Which, I’m sad to say, is kind of like the experience I had with re-watching In the Mood for Love. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

I didn’t have terribly strong expectations for revisiting the film. It wasn’t on my top ten for 2000, but I felt I owed it another look it due to its exceptional reputation and ranking – it is, after all, the top ranked film on the TSPDT poll of the best films of the 21st century. But starting into it, I could feel myself being gradually pulled in by the irresistible current of impeccable images flowing through time. Current feels like the right metaphor for the way that the film moves, initially in a tumultuous swirl: the opening sequence where the two potential lovers move into neighboring apartments, their furniture clashing and commingling with each other. The way that people move through narrow hallways and other tight spaces, lingering or hesitating at doorways: this push-pull between being physically close yet hanging on to personal spaces.  The famous slo-mo sequences set to tango emphasize the dance-like movements induced by this social setting, while also fetishizing them as objets d’art.  The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.

And that’s where it started to pull the floor from under me: the wall to wall gorgeousness of this movie, where every frame feels like it could be part of a gallery photo exhibit –  Wong is consumed with coming up with new ways of framing and looking at things. One needs only look at thirteen different shots of Maggie Cheung taken over the course of the film to appreciate the visual variety and splendor on display:

and one of Tony Leung for good measure (anyone else think that he’s an Asian dead ringer for Obama?)

Around the 25 minute mark (the third slo-mo tango interlude) is where the film’s pervading sense of loneliness and longing sets in for me. It’s such a seductive, melancholy feeling to be sucked into if you’re receptive to it, and I was.  The anticipation of these two people on the cusp of engendering attraction is, a seductive enough premise, but Wong amplifies the effect by treating his mise-en-scene as an endless landscape to explore, where their looks, their feelings, get framed and reframed, like an anxious lover replaying every moment, squeezing out and soaking in every detail. In this light even the multiple outtakes, the alternate endings, can all be integrated into the totality of this film as a fitting representation of obsessive, unconsummated love: its constant revisitations, revisionings and what-ifs…

That plus the sumptuousness of the camerawork, where the threads of Tony Leung’s hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak all exude a hyperdetailed texture that you just want to sink your eyes into.

And that’s how it was a for a good hour of my rewatching, until I had to interrupt it to keep an appointment. But the feeling engendered by the film stayed for me the rest of the evening and into the night.

The following day I picked up where I left off with the film. And I was surprised to find the whole thing somewhat empty, even banal, in terms of what this was all for or about.  Back in the day I had a couple of heated arguments about way the last 25 minutes of the film play out – some of my friends just couldn’t handle the abrupt, seemingly pointless Angkor Wat sequence, especially the use of piss-poor archival video footage which disrupts the visual splendor that precedes it.  My argument back then – which I still believe – was that this disruption is the point; it’s an unspooling of the spell that the film has cast on its audience, mirroring the spell of love that the circumstances of life are in the ruthless process of dissipating. So on a formal level, the film is brilliant from start to finish.

But my problem with the last third of the film, which casts back on the film overall, can be summed up by Rick Blaine in Casablanca: “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Something about re-entering the film 2/3 of the way through gave me a new, sober(?) context, an awareness of how much fetishizing Wong was lavishing on this narrative. It hints at a terminal state of self-absorption, an emotional wound that not only never heals, but that the film never wants to heal. There’s something in me that finds this disturbing. And despite all I’ve said about the film as this seemingly endless visual and emotional landscape to explore and soak in, there’s something about it that feels small and enclosed, in terms of its scope of the world, and of life.

In the end, I think we’re left with a paradox of a movie, one that conveys and achieves so much intensity of cinema and emotion within an experience of love that’s ephemeral, even extravagant, and leaves us wondering what it really was about. I suppose that the degree to which one finds this meaningful depends on one’s convictions of cinema as an end in itself – or one’s own valuation of fleeting love.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • Jason Bellamy

    This is terrific — not so much because of what you say about this film, but because your description above resembles the wrestling match I've had with so many films over the years. Thanks for writing so honestly about the experience. Often it seems as if people who fall in love with 3/4 of a film become determined to defend the remaining 1/4 (or to at least diminish its negative impact). This suggests what I think is true: the greatness of most films fluctuates and can be influenced by context. Well done!

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  • Matt Parker

    Though I've done it several times, I do believe that films aren't like books – we're not meant to start and stop. Films (or at least good ones) cast a spell over us, and with several films, it's easily broken by this process. that doesn't mean their bad films, it just means we've broken the rules.

    For me, it's interesting for me to compare and contrast this film with another film I saw recently about an affair: Silent Light. Both films are really about nothing else (In the Mood intentionally so, while Silent Light being more of a missed opportunity to dive into some of the potential subtexts related to the film's setting). While I was watching Silent Light, I resented it for really being about little else than an extramarital affair and its effects on the main character's relationship with his wife. I felt like I needed more from a film. But looking back, I loved In the Mood despite that it was about nothing more than the faux affair between the two neighbors. I guess a great artist can turn even the most common and prosaic into art.

  • Ebrahim Kabir

    I second to what Jason wrote, but lovely post nonetheless.

  • Ryan Kelly

    Fascinating! And the word 'fetish' seems to be used in relation to Wong a lot…. is his cinematic gaze a little to MUCH?

    I admire ITMFL immensely, even if I don't quite agree with it being at the top of They Shoot Pictures. You should see the stares I get when I tell people I prefer My Blueberry Nights (not to say I think it's unequivocally a better film, it just speaks to me on a more profound level than his other pictures), I think both films are about human beings struggling to connect, just MBN deals with that theme in a way that is more engaging and, for me, liberating. His earlier works, while excellent, are also so caught up in their formal presentation that they don't really cut to an emotional center.

    There is indeed something empty about the film, but I also think it's supposed to be that way. A “Contempt” for the 00s. Though “Contempt” is also a much better film.

  • Pieter

    Good writing. And you are right! I saw Lust, Caution the other day and Leung does look like Obama.

  • alsolikelife

    Your comment reminds me of MULHOLLAND DR. (a film I have somewhat similar feelings to with ITMFL). I remember Kent Jones reporting that he was shut out of a preview of the film because he arrived 5 minutes late. And of course the first release of the DVD has no chapters, intending the viewer to watch it from start to finish.

    I'm obviously not a stickler about watching a movie uninterrupted. I'm sure it wasn't the intention for this film to be watched in segments – and it really does require at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted watching for the mood of the film to accumulate to where it's really cooking. But I don't think my viewing is invalidated because “it broke the rules” – it just offers a different perspective, which I think is helpful, one less swept up in the aura that the movie offers and looks at it more clinically. Maybe that's not so romantic but it's still insightful, like dissecting a rose to see what it's made of.

  • alsolikelife

    Hmm, great – does this mean I now have to watch My Blueberry Nights? I'm also debating if I need to rewatch 2046…

    My favorite WKW remains Days of Being Wild. Still the most lively, multifaceted and in some ways emblematic of his work.

    I wouldn't put ITMFL in the same league as Contempt, other than for its technical mastery. Contempt has more ideas going through its head – about cinema, about art and commerce, about multinational culture, and yes, about romantic betrayal – than ITMFL can even imagine. But if you're linking them in terms of how they portray failed love, I think an even better fit from this decade would be my favorite film I saw last month at Berlin, Maren Ade's EVERYTHING ELSE.

  • jesse

    So I know we've kind of talked about this already, but I guess this demonstrates the perils of walking away from a “mood piece” halfway through–the spell is SO easily broken. But that also goes along with what we were talking about with “2046”–that for me ITMFL takes on additional resonance with that film, as the idealized situation of ITMFL (who can't relate?) is shattered and the emotional fallout has to be dealt with. I really do hope you decide to revisit it, though I'm not exactly convinced it'd change your mind on it…


  • dogandpony

    Paraphrasing you from a later post- I think WKW films are about feeling more than thinking. Contempt and Godard have more ideas going on (thinking) but part of what I love is how true the “feel” parts of Godard films came across. INMFL isn't my top favorite WKW film (still not sure which one that would be) but I just recently saw it in a theatre for a second time and I liked it more than I did the first time, which was already a fair amount. The big screen is just so much more immersive and I think mood pieces work better there (as do, not to mention, epic pieces with near zero close-ups like Platform- on a 36″ screen you can hardly even make out the characters' faces much of the time).
    But the point I really wanted to make is this: how much you admire the films of directors who make the same impossibility-of-a-lasting-connection-between-people films over and over (including some of my favorite films and directors), one's estimation of these films may rely on the way you look at the world and possibly your mood at the time. I think it's possible to see them as just beautiful sacks of self absorption (I don't). Hopefully the film works its magic and you feel something even if it's something to which you can't relate.
    Would you say it is a fair observation that you tend to favor the earlier works of many directors? (thinking of WKW, Zhang-Ke, and second period Hou, off the top of my head). Do you think there is something about earlier work that is more vital or more of the essence of these guys? Directors in general? I know you touched on the reasons for favoring Days of Being Wild. Have you seen the films in the order they were made? Does the order you view them in make a difference? The period of your life in which you first saw them?

    Thanks for a great post.

    p.s.- My Blueberry Nights further adds to ideas about the relative contributions of Christopher Doyle to Wong Kar Wai films.

  • alsolikelife

    Thanks, and I think your main point is the one that I more or less arrive at by the end of my post on ITMFL.

    I'm not sure if I necessarily think WKW in the 00s isn't as good as his work in the 90s – I've just scrutinized it more thoroughly and more recently (haven't seen FALLEN ANGELS, CHUNGKING EXPRESS, DAYS OF BEING WILD or ASHES OF TIME in many years). Although I do think “second period Hou” is the best phase of his career to date, I am largely amazed by what he's done in the past decade in evolving his art while negotiating his status as an international expatriate filmmaker. As for Jia, hopefully soon I'll get around to revisiting PLATFORM, as well as USELESS (which I think is the only film of his this decade that can compete on the same level as PLATFORM).

    I would say that part of my response to these directors' works is in part a reaction to how they are generally received. I feel that films like IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON and THE WORLD get more hyped that their other films because they're more accessible to (Western) audiences, of more topical interest to (Western) audiences, or they came at a time when (Western) they crossed over to being familiarized with (Western) audiences. Their earlier works, which typically exhibit their visions at their freshest state, tend to get underpraised. So maybe I'm reacting to that in some way, as part of criticism involves a degree of advocacy.

    I'm sure that viewing a director's films in a certain order has some bearing on one's impression of them, though not sure to what degree that's important compared to other things (one's mood or station in life, familiarity with a certain kind of cinema, etc). FALLEN ANGELS was my first WKW and I wasn't terribly impressed – it was CHUNGKING EXPRESS that did it for me, and DAYS OF BEING WILD that put me over the top. Though I suspect if I watched FALLEN ANGELS again I'd like it even more than CHUNGKING EXPRESS. I watched CITY OF SADNESS as a teenager and slept through half of it; now it's arguably my all-time favorite film. It took me a month to get into Hou over the course of a multi-weekend retro in SF back in 2000. The first couple films lulled me to sleep. It was FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI that broke through and after that all his films started to fall into place. (and if you want to see everything that's missing in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, you'll find it in FLOWERS). With Jia, it was love at first sight, and it had a lot to do with the period of my life I was in… more on that in another post…

  • dogandpony

    Wow. Thanks for your candid and generous reply.
    My first WKW was Chungking Express and I was hooked immediately. I see Fallen Angels as more of a style piece than most of his other films. Maybe it lacks the realism I am a sucker for. Though it is really beautiful and I think it can function on that level alone. I know what you mean about Days of Being Wild though. I would argue that Happy Together is the closest to it in tone.
    Goodbye South, Goodbye was my first Hou and I thought it was just okay and Good Men, Good Women was the breakthrough for me. I am sort of a reverse reverse advocate (trying to fight my leftover punk/gen-x bias against anything “popular”) and like to champion the 2000's Hou films in spite of their popularity (if that makes sense) because of just what you said- his evolving art. I think he is both exploring and honing formalist and visual techniques in a really singular way.
    I haven't seen Useless but I hope to soon. The World was in fact my first Jia and at this point I would say I don't have a favorite.
    I deleted a big part of my earlier reply that had to do with Johnathan Rosenbaum and your post on his influence on you at a critical period. I have wondered about what forms a critic's preferences. (JR prefers The Killing and Barry Lyndon to the Kubrick films that came between them? And Breathless to all other 60's Godard?) It's something that I have speculated about but I didn't think it was appropriate to post mere speculation in such a public way. I made a (maybe specious) connection as I looked at his list of top films and as I started to read more about your favorites. Thanks for your candidness and honesty! I found your address of the aspect of advocacy remarkable for its awareness and frankness. It honestly hadn't occurred to me. Maybe it's part of what separates true critical writing from someone pseudo-blogging their ideas without a filter or purpose (like me). And I would wholeheartedly agree with the three films you mention getting disproportionate hype over other, equally great or even greater, films by the same directors.
    I would also largely agree about the earlier works exhibiting “visions at their freshest state” (well put). I think the reason all of this is so important to me is the better you get to know where someone is coming from critically, the better lens they become for examining things.
    Okay, so I have another question for you. This came to mind when you wrote about seeing Cafe Lumiere without subtitles. Do you speak Mandarin? Cantonese? I don't (wish that I did. Cantonese is particularly beautiful to my ear). I have wondered if sometimes I can't as accurately gauge an acting performance that is in a language I can't understand. Might be why I love Shu Qi in Hou films, her performances being largely nonverbal. I don't think I have a definite answer to this for myself yet. I think Maggie Cheung (see how I brought it back around to the title of your post 😉 is great in English or Chinese. The thing I noticed most from viewing ITMFL again last fall was her performance. The part where she is role playing his wife in their game of “how do you think it happened” blew me away. An actress playing a woman acting as another woman who makes a painful realization we see on her face, and her expression as she shifts from the character-in-a-character to her primary character…

    Thanks again!

  • alsolikelife

    I speak and understand Mandarin, though not as fluently as I wish. That may have some measure of my appreciation of Chinese cinema, though I'm as likely to run into obstacles as the next person. Even with a film like FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, which is spoken in Shanghaiese – there were complaints by at least one scholar that the dialogue is not authentic, especially that spoken by Michiko Hada's voiceover artist.

    Yes, Maggie Cheung is amazing in ITMFL – there is no way possible to knock the acting of the two leads in that film (especially given the shit they had to put up with working with WKW).

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  • Princess Simmons

    The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed
    her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed
    both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.


    The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed
    her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed
    both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.