“Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t married how would life be…?”
“… Probably happier.”
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy of finding the beauty in imperfection, a belief that the stories and history embedded in a frayed item reflects a deeper charm than just a pristine exterior. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form which heavily borrows upon this thinking, where broken pottery pieces are glued together with a mixture of gold, silver and platnium. This isn’t just an act of repairment but instead a transformation, where the item’s past is seen as an extension of its beauty; in many ways kintsugi is the perfect metaphor for life.
In the Mood for Love (2000) directed by Kar-Wai Wong explores the bitter loneliness and human desire for warmth which simultaneously plague our psyches. Our two protagonist; Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen move into two apartments close to each other, but are only drawn to each other when they suspect that their partners are cheating with the other’s respective spouse. In the crowded streets of Hong Kong in 1962, both Chow and Su are constantly surrounded by the faces of people never revealed to us, a clever decision to make the audience invest more heavily into the two leading protagonist. Lost in this sea of bodies, they often find themselves trapped in claustrophic spaces with only their feelings as company.
Apart from the theme of loneliness which permeates every scene, dialogue and interaction, is the question about the double edge nature of fate. Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen interact with each other for brief moments at the start of the film; meeting on the street only to politely excuse themselves from speaking to each other. Only when rains traps them both together underneath a shoddy street lamp do they finally get a chance to establish repertoire. Only thirty minutes into this film, do the audience finally see the two characters attempt to peel away the calluses around their hearts.
Yet no matter how longingly the exquisitely beautiful Su Li-zhen and the mournfully handsome Chow Mo-wan stare at each other, there is always this barrier which stifles their relationship. This uncomfortable distance which seems to repel away all human contact is cleverly reinforced in the camera work and the mise en scène. The camera seems to spy on the protagonist in the long hallways, the pair repeatly walk infront of fences which resemble a cage. The mirrors serve as a clever motif in this film, highlighting how oppressive the lack of space is in these dingy apartments, but also the duality of Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen; they crave yet fear love. This sense of melancholy acts as a barrier, and the audience is often forced to peek into their lives behind a window screen or curtain, as if the audience is physically prevented from changing their sombre destinies which have already been set in stone.
The colour palette of this film is simply stunning, draped in luscious reds and satin yellows, the time that Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen spend together in their hotel rooms usher the audience into a dream like state; where laughter is plentiful and noodles are always eaten with company. However amongst the flirtious looks and playful mannerisms, both protagonist are scared to develop feelings for the other. Both openly voice that having sex would “reduce them to the same level” as their disloyal spouses. Yet these words ring off as just a convenient excuse, in truth their lives have been sullied by infidelity and an act as passionate as sex would only leave them more vulnerable to the actions of the other party.
“You notice things, if you pay attention.”
The fickle nature of Lady Luck is also seen at the end of the film when Chow Mo-wan asks Su Li-zhen to flee with him to Singapore; the promise of a ‘new life’ deeply alluring for both of them. Unsure of her response, Chow waits for her in a rented hotel room smirking sadly to himself before leaving, only to have Su arrive moments later; so close, but ultimately too late. And just like that our protagonist are denied the happiness they both deserve. Our hearts beat for their sadness and we curse the Gods who seem to be playing dice with their feelings. But ironically, their feelings itself was a stroke of chance, a relationship which was only nurtured through their proximity, poorly timed rain and their spouse’s infidelity.
So the protagonists try to express their feelings in methods which still maintain their self autonomy, phone calls seem to the main form of communicating in the 1960s Hong Kong landscape; a happy medium between the vulnerability of speech and the coldness of fax machines. After life has whisked Chow Mo-wan off to Singapore, Su Li-zhen calls him to hear his voice, he answers and then both remain silent on the phone, comforted by the simultaneous proximity and distance of their lover.
Chow keeps a pair of slippers that Su left in his room once as a souvenir of their love, even bringing this item to Singapore. Months later she would visit Singapore only to take back that keepsake, leaving only a smoked cigarette with lipstick on his ashtray as a sign of her presence. It’s a game of cat and mice, where the first to admit their true feelings loses, it’s not a healthy relationship, but after countless scars on their heart, it’s the best they can do.
The finale concludes with Chow Mo-wan whispering his pains, regrets and secrets into a stone hallow at a Cambodian temple before sealing it with dirt. Unable to find someone to confide in, he chooses, like those long distance phone calls, a method where he can speak his mind without hearing an answer.
Years after, both Chow and Su find themselves back in Hong Kong, they attempt to reconnect with each other a final time but are ultimately unsucessful as their communication slowly ceased, their fate once again seemingly sealed by an omnipresent force. Their future runs like parallel lines, oddly close to each other yet never capable of insecting again, their time has past and time is merciless.
But when it starts to rain, or when they pass by the noodle store where they had their first date, the lights of Hong Kong will shine a little redder and cigarette smoke will roll a little more graceful, as they both reminisce on the genuine feelings of longing which both tortured and gave them purpose in 1962.
Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen were both in the mood for love, they just won’t capable of it yet.
“Why did you call me at the office today?”
“I had nothing to do. I just wanted to hear your voice.”