Later, when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan rehearse their inevitable painful departure from one another and Mrs. Chan breaks down in tears, it feels like as much as anything she doesn’t want to lose her confidante, her shoulder to cry on who understands exactly what she’s going through. “Don’t cry,” Mr. Chow says consolingly. “This isn’t real.” And although he means that this isn’t really goodbye, he’s actually summing up their relationship. At one point or another, it will be time for both of them to face the reality of their “real” lives. Their avoidance of the lonely, messy truth has as much to do with the connection between them as any shared attraction. That said, their fantasy of avoidance isn’t without genuine romance—romance that’s struggling to get out. The next time we see Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan having dinner together, they camouflage their budding feelings by pretending to pantomime their spouses’ dinners, with Mr. Chow ordering his wife’s favorite dishes for Mrs. Chan and vice versa, as if they’re doing research. Their expressions during these meals—actually two dinners spliced together—are serious, far from flirtatious, with the only smile coming when Mrs. Chan implies that Mr. Chow is doing a good job of mimicking her sweet-talking husband. But there’s romance in the air anyway thanks to the soundtrack: Nat “King” Cole singing “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.”
In a recent piece for Salon about “the songs that belong to the movies,” Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Cole’s rendition “communicates the idea that we’re seeing the big screen equivalent of a swoony pop song about a great love that couldn’t be. It also captures the sophistication and international flair of 1960s Hong Kong. The sight of two gorgeous Hong Kong professionals flirting with each other while an African-American pop star sings a love song in Spanish sums up the director’s one-world aesthetic better than any other scene in his career.” I’m not sure I find “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” quite as memorable as Matt does, but I agree with him on the last part, and so I wanted to use this scene as an opportunity to discuss Wong’s use of music in general. For me, the signature Wong tune of this film and of his entire filmography is the orchestral “Yumeji’s Theme,” which is used consistently and also appears in subsequent films, and yet I think it’s true that Cole’s rendition of “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” better exemplifies Wong’s approach to music in general, which in addition to being suggestive of one world is also noticeably unpretentious.
EH: There’s no doubt that “Yumeji’s Theme” and Nat Cole’s renditions of various Spanish songs both do a lot to shape and define In the Mood for Love. What they have in common, I think, is that swooning, romantic quality, tinged with more than a little melancholy—perfect music to accompany this story of unfulfilled yearning. “Yumeji’s Theme” and the Cole songs each represent one of the two major facets of Wong’s use of music, and in that respect In the Mood for Love does provide the perfect opportunity to discuss the role of music in Wong’s cinematic world. “Yumeji’s Theme” weaves throughout the entire film, recurring again and again, embodying the film’s themes through its delicate, insistent plucking and aching bowed tones. The repetition of it ensures that this beautiful piece of music becomes synonymous with the film’s central relationship, contributing to the consistent atmosphere of gloomy romanticism as much as the film’s rigorous visual aesthetic. The Cole songs, on the other hand, are linked to particular moments, the way that “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” drifts moodily through the background of that dinner scene, augmenting the moment’s rich but subtle emotions.
While “Yumeji’s Theme” represents Wong’s careful creation of overarching moods, the Spanish-language ballads reflect the director’s tendency to take individual moments and magnify their impact through pop songs and hyper-stylized visuals. In the Mood for Love is a film of nostalgia, a film where the past tense is implicit in its sleek, glamorous images of Hong Kong’s past, and if “Yumeji’s Theme” is a timeless piece, the Cole tunes are unmistakably of a previous era, contributing to the film’s glossy evocation of a time and a place that have slipped away, much as this relationship slips away. (And to the extent that the film’s heartache is caused in part by the social norms of an older time, these songs serve to locate the main characters’ frustrated relationship in its period context.)
You said before that In the Mood for Love is the Wong film that stands on its own the best, “as if it’s the axis on which the other films pivot,” and I think that’s true. It’s a film with countless connections to Wong’s other works, but for the most part those connections radiate outward from this film’s calm, melancholy center. Like all of Wong’s films, scenes here echo ones in his earlier films—the Singapore apartment visit, as I already mentioned, and also the scene where Mr. Chow whispers his secret to a hole in the wall, which resonates with the ending of Happy Together—but for the most part those connections are external to the film’s real essence. More than any of Wong’s other films, In the Mood for Love homes in on a narratively simple but emotionally complex story and explores the subtleties of its central relationship in a direct and moving way, without excess. It’s only in retrospect, especially in relation to 2046, that In the Mood for Love becomes part of a larger network within Wong’s filmography, reaching back to obliquely tie into Days of Being Wild as well: Is Maggie Cheung playing the same character here as she was in that film? Is Mr. Chow the unnamed character that Tony Leung played at the end of that film? Such questions are unanswered, and largely irrelevant to the effect of In the Mood for Love, which is moving and beautiful whether one has seen all of Wong’s other films or none of them.
In comparison, 2046 is a relentlessly meta film, a film that builds upon the foundation of Wong’s entire oeuvre and especially on the foundation of Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Together, these films constitute a loose trilogy, presumably not quite the trilogy that Wong would have made if he’d been able to follow up Days of Being Wild as originally intended, but a trilogy in which loose strands from that earlier movie are picked up and woven into a very different patchwork, where characters reappear in very different circumstances, and where past, present and future are compressed and confused. The title and sci-fi trappings of 2046 make it seem like the number refers to a futuristic year and a futuristic Hong Kong, but in fact the title refers to the number of the room where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan shared their most memorable moments together. As the film’s voiceover says, in room number 2046, nothing ever changes, and nobody has ever come back from it, because 2046 is the past, is memory. Chow writes a science fiction story where 2046, the room where he spent the bulk of his most intimate time with Mrs. Chan, is a place that is always frozen because it’s a disconnected moment in time, a cherished but painful memory where he can relive, over and over again, the same doomed romantic story. 2046 picks up on the past tense perspective of In the Mood for Love and expands it into a collage of memories and imaginings. This film is haunted by other movies just as Chow is haunted by memories of his past.
JB: Exactly right. Though it seems an awkward comparison, 2046 always reminds me a bit of A Christmas Carol. Tony Leung’s character doesn’t observe his past, present and quasi-future in quite the same fashion as Ebenezer Scrooge, but Mr. Chow seems similarly outside of his own story even while he’s within it. Just as the mythical 2046 location within the film is a place where people go to look back, 2046 as a whole is a representation of Mr. Chow filtering through his past, examining his feelings in the present and seemingly wondering what all of this means for his future. In the way he stumbles across characters who in name or appearance are reminiscent of characters we’ve met in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and to a degree even Chungking Express, it’s as if he’s conceding that his own perception of the world might have been skewed, as if he’s examining it from a new perspective.
I’m fascinated by the thought of what 2046 must look like to a viewer who can’t spot the references to those earlier films. Does this film have the same meaning without that context? Does it feel like a collection of loose ends rather than like a somewhat unorthodox way of tying those loose ends together? I suspect the film is compelling in its own right, if for no other reason than because Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are so compelling together, as Chow and Bai Ling, neighbors in the same building with a habit of sleeping around, who get involved in yet another of Wong’s star-crossed romances. They’re both beautiful to look at; let’s start there. And Wong only enhances that with his typically striking visuals. He films the actors from in front, from behind and in profile. He centers them or moves them to one of the edges of the frame. He shoots them in two-shots and singles, and in one especially memorable composition he captures Bai Ling in the foreground, in focus and in profile, her face overlapping that of Chow’s, out of focus and facing the camera, as they connect over drinks for the first time. It almost makes no difference how Wong shoots them—they’re breathtaking from every angle.
If the relationship at the core of In the Mood for Love is defined by emotional connection and lack of opportunity, this relationship is the reverse: physical connection is frequent, and the attraction is there, but no matter how often Chow and Bai Ling are lovers they never find love. She is ready. He is not. One of the unusual things about their relationship is that even though she’s the victim, the one whose feelings are unrequited, the one who dares to open her heart, Chow is the one I always feel sorry for—at least until the end. He’s paralyzed. If he is indeed the exact same Mr. Chow from In the Mood for Love (and I’m not stating that as a given), then his experiences from the unfulfilled relationship in that film have changed him, turning him from a deferential, compassionate, warm man to a selfish, guarded sometimes jerk. Not only is he unwilling to give his heart away, he’s also unwilling to act with sympathy toward the woman who falls in love with him. He’s trapped.
EH: Yes, he is. He’s trapped by his past, unable to break free of the mental prison he’s constructed for himself based on the aborted romance of In the Mood for Love (and I don’t have much doubt that, if this maybe isn’t quite the same Chow as in that film, it’s at the very least a version of that character in some form). Though 2046 is about Chow’s relationships with several women he meets during the years after his friendship with Mrs. Chan, his relationship with Bai Ling is at the center of the film because it’s another frustrated could-be romance, as in the previous film, but frustrated for very different reasons. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan were both holding back, preventing the seemingly inevitable from happening by maintaining their composure and their loyalty to their respective disintegrating marriages. The relationship between Bai Ling and Chow initially seems similar in that both parties claim to be utterly uninterested in a conventional relationship beyond casual sex: they start out as unsentimental “drinking pals” because she’s heartbroken over her cheating boyfriend and he just wants some company to fill his otherwise empty time. Predictably, she soon falls for him and wants more, but he remains aloof, making this a much more unbalanced relationship than the mutual restrained longing of In the Mood for Love.
This relationship is defined by two key scenes in which the subtle rigor of Wong’s aesthetic amplifies the bleak emotions of these moments into iconic portraits of heartbreak. In the first of these scenes, Chow, in a gesture of calculated callousness intended to prevent Bai Ling from falling for him, offers her money after the first time they sleep together. He pretends that this is just a transaction, when the passionate and sensual way in which Wong had shot the actual sex scene suggested anything but. She takes this slight in stride, trying to stay flirty and light, smiling and biting her lip as she tosses back some cutting banter, and she subverts his cruelty in a playful way by taking only a token sum and telling him he can come back anytime for the same low price. But as Chow walks away, Wong holds the shot on a closeup of Bai Ling’s face, facing the camera rather than Chow. As he departs in the background, her face changes: her lips begin to quiver slightly, the veins in her neck throb, and her eyes seem on the verge of leaking tears that she’s desperately trying to hold back. The shot breaks only when a single tear finally winds down her cheek, causing her to smile ruefully and move away. The scene as a whole, and especially that final shot, captures the complicated emotions welling up within this supposedly casual relationship.
The second key scene takes place after the couple breaks up, and both of them begin loudly taking other lovers to reinforce to the other that it’s over. Bai Ling listens to Chow having sex with another woman, and Chow frames her sitting against the wall listening to the sounds coming from the other side. The composition is drastically unbalanced: Bai Ling is shunted off to the right side of the frame, with a conspicuously empty red cushion next to her and a lot of blank space filling up the other half of the frame. The shot conveys a haunting absence, the absence of the man making so much noise just on the other side of the wall, the man who represents the missing other half of a composition that naturally seems like it should have been a two-shot. Instead, this is a two-shot with one of the participants removed; Chow, having lost what he sees as his one real shot at love, no longer wants to be tied down into such cozy compositions. If In the Mood for Love is about a love that’s frustrated and tainted by circumstances beyond the lovers’ control, 2046 is about the damage we do to our own relationships, and about all the myriad ways in which the present is affected by the past.
JB: I think that’s true. And it leads us to the scenes that perhaps best convey the haunting effect of the past, while also most overtly uniting 2046 with In the Mood for Love: the three cab ride scenes. In the first scene, Chow and Bai Ling are shown in the back of a cab, with Chow passed out on Bai Ling’s shoulder. In his unconscious state, Chow, seated to Bai Ling’s right, reaches his hand over into Bai Ling’s lap to take her hand—a gesture that recalls the moment when Mr. Chow cautiously extends his hand to Mrs. Chan in the back of a cab in In the Mood for Love. As before, Mr. Chow’s hand is rejected (at least at first), but not for the same reasons. It might not be obvious at first glance, but this moment between Chow and Bai Ling isn’t a reproduction of the cab scene in In the Mood for Love so much as it’s an echo of it. By that I mean that Chow isn’t reaching for Bai Ling’s hand because he’s falling in love with her, which is why he tries to take Mrs. Chan’s hand in the previous film. Rather, Chow tries to take Bai Ling’s hand because he’s imagining that she is Mrs. Chan. Somewhat incredibly, Bai Ling seems to know this. Although her rejection of Chow’s hand could be read as the act of a woman accustomed to warding off the drunken advances of programmatically predatory Lotharios, which Chow certainly has become, a closer look, and perhaps a repeat viewing, suggests that Bai Ling knows that she is nothing more than a stand-in for someone else.
This is confirmed quite a bit later in the film, when Chow tries to imagine a happy ending to his futuristic novella and admits that he doesn’t know how to write it. Once again, Wong puts us in the back of a cab with a passed out Chow slumped over on the woman next to him, although this time that woman is In the Mood for Love’s Mrs. Chan—her first of two brief physical appearances in the film. “Some years back I had a happy ending in my grasp,” Chow says, “but I let it slip away.” These scenes suggest that Chow is living in a dream state. He drinks to forget about Mrs. Chan and, in a way, to remember her. The film closes with yet another cab scene, this time showing Chow, alone, slumped against the cab door. He’s awake this time, and all too aware of his solitude. Given the preceding cab scenes, this, too, is “a two-shot with one of the participants removed.” And my question to you is whether you find this final scene hopeful or hopeless. Chow implies several times in the narration that he’s the only one who has ever returned from 2046, which suggests that he’s the only one who has given into his nostalgic fantasies only to spot them for what they are and return to present-tense, forward-looking living. Clearly the guy in the back of the cab at the end of the film hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but I wonder if you think that Chow is heading in that direction. Or, instead, is he doomed to more of the same?
EH: That’s an interesting question, and one that 2046 leaves deliberately up in the air. Chow’s narrated insistence that he’s the one person to ever return from 2046—implying that he’s broken free of the past—is contrasted against the fact that we never actually see him breaking free of the past as the voiceover says he does. Instead, the film provides a happy ending for a character whose story parallels Chow’s in many ways, and in whose life he intervenes, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the owner of the hotel where Chow lives, has an on/off affair with a Japanese man, an affair that, like Chow’s would-be romance with Mrs. Chan, is frustrated by circumstances. Jing-wen’s father, remembering World War II and the often-barbarous Japanese occupation of China, is prejudiced against the Japanese and refuses to allow his daughter to see this man. When Chow moves into his apartment, Jing-wen is trapped, like him, in the past, hung up on a love that she just can’t forget. She paces around the empty room next door to Chow—room number 2046, of course—reciting her lover’s last words to her and rehearsing the words she could have said but didn’t, the words that might have allowed her to avoid this heartbreak: “please take me with you.” She’s trapped in the past, trapped in 2046, just like Chow is.
Later, Chow will explore Jing-wen’s story—and by extension his own—through the sci-fi fiction he writes, in which a man takes a long train ride away from 2046, away from the past, accompanied only by androids, versions of the various women in Chow’s life. The android played by Faye Wong, a version of Jing-wen, has delayed reactions and can’t express what she feels until long after the moment has passed. It’s a very clever metaphor for the inability to connect in the present that leads to the backward-looking obsession with missed opportunities, like Chow’s fixation on Mrs. Chan or like Jing-wen pacing around the empty apartment 2046, telling the space, yes I’ll leave with you, long after the man she should have said it to had left. These people are out of sync with each other, like androids with faulty programming, like Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan who could never quite get beyond their circumstances to express their real feelings to one another. Chow invents the concept of delayed reactions in his story ostensibly as a metaphor for Jing-wen and her Japanese boyfriend, but the story becomes about his own life too, reflecting his past with Mrs. Chan. It’s also a kind of wish fulfillment for Chow: he sees Jing-wen broken up by her failure to say what she really wanted to say to her boyfriend, and he imagines that the same condition may have afflicted Mrs. Chan, that she too wishes she had said, “take me with you.”
Chow’s fiction is thus a way of rationalizing these failures to connect. People are out of sync with one another because they’re malfunctioning, maintaining stoic, unrevealing expressions in front of those they care about, only smiling and crying later, only later saying the things they’d wanted to say when their loved ones were there. Chow himself, whispering his secret into a hole in the wall at the end of In the Mood for Love, is indulging in this temporal disconnection, expressing his feelings only when it’s too late. Chow’s sci-fi writing is another way of trying to work out the problems of the past, though again he can only express his feelings indirectly, by constructing androids who stand in for real women. By the end of the film, Chow, in the back of a cab alone, leaning against the door the way he’d once leaned on both Bai Ling and Mrs. Chan, hasn’t quite decided to return from 2046 for good, but it’s clear that he wants to, very badly, and that his stories are attempts to deal with the past, to close it off into a metaphorical fiction and write a happy ending.