Set in the straitlaced and gossipy Hong Kong of the early ’60s, In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai’s latest masterpiece of suave innuendo stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as two married neighbors who share a contagious secret. Recent émigrés from mainland China, Mr. Chow (Leung), a journalist, and Mrs. Chan (Cheung), a secretary for a shipping company, have rented adjacent boardinghouse rooms in the close-knit Shanghainese section of Hong Kong. Left stranded by their absent spouses, Chow and Chan slink past each other on the stairs on their way to the noodle shop, and initially their casual encounters remain quite formal. Eventually, through a slow, undeniable accumulation of clues, the two surmise that her husband and his wife are having an affair, and their own burgeoning rapport acquires an erotic charge. (The erotic tinder of secrecy is ignited by the sexual nature of the secret.) The rest is left up to the viewer. Known for his unique visual flair, Wong Kar-wai, whose career began as a graphic designer and screenwriter, here abandons the impressionistic flamboyance of his earlier award-winning films, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Happy Together. In this oblique, sensuous, divinely crafted portrayal of shame and yearning, Wong Kar-wai has tossed the moral card clean out of the pack, caring not a fig about the pros or cons of adulterous passion and glorifying neither marital fidelity nor betrayal. Rather, he opts for a phenomenological approach to the imperceptible flowering of desire, meticulously refracting each telling glance, movement or gesture through the diamond prism of his lens. In the Mood for Love received a Best Actor award for Tony Leung and, for its sublime art direction, the Grand Prix de la Technique at the last Cannes Film Festival, where this discussion took place in the gardens of the Grand Hotel.
Liza Bear How was the story of In the Mood for Love constructed? I heard this was a very long shoot because of the way you work, in blocks.
Wong Kar-wai Yes. Well, at first we called this film, Story about Food, and there were three stories in it. In fact, In the Mood for Love is only one of the three original stories. It’s about two people who meet each other because they’re neighbors, and they’re always buying noodles. So in the film we had noodles, the staircase, the restaurant and the house. And I realized that this story of the three was the only reason I wanted to make the project, so I expanded it. First I had to build the apartment, because I think the film is like chamber music—all the scenes should take place in the apartment. And so we spent a lot of time defining this apartment, and then we built it. But later on I changed my mind and thought, well, we should go outside and see something else. In Hong Kong now, it’s difficult to find streets or locations that are the same as the old Hong Kong. So we moved to Bangkok, and we shot all the street, taxi and Singapore scenes at the end of the film there.
LB So were you changing the story during production?
WKW Yes, it’s like we started in a McDonalds for a quick lunch, but then it became a big feast.
LB Did you shoot on a sound stage?
WKW We shot in old abandoned buildings where nobody lives anymore. The hotel in the film is a military hospital in Hong Kong. Now it’s gone.
LB How would you compare the making of In the Mood for Love with your previous films?
WKW At the beginning I thought this would be an easy film because it is only about two people. At the end I realized it’s much more difficult than my previous films, which have ten or five or four characters. You had to put more details in it. Originally the story took place from 1962 to 1972, and in the editing room I decided the film should stop in 1966, which is the film you see now.
LB What made you set the story in Hong Kong in the early ’60s?
WKW Well, I always wanted to make a film about this period, because it is very special in the history of Hong Kong. Right after 1949 a lot of people came from China to live in Hong Kong, and they still had their traditions and their dreams about their lives in China.
And so, like the Chinese communities in the film, there are people from Shanghai who had their own language, and they had no contact with the local Cantonese. They had their own cinema, their own music, and their own rituals. So they were actually building Shanghai in Hong Kong. I’m from that background, and I wanted to recreate that world. At that time we had neighbors, we knew who were living next door to us, on the other side of the wall. And there was a lot of gossip and it was fun.
LB What did your parents do?
WKW My father worked in a nightclub as a manager. Before that he was a sailor. And my mother was a housewife. My sisters and brothers stayed in China, so I was the only kid with them at that time. It was a special period for me, too. But actually, In the Mood for Love was the most difficult film of my career, and not only because it took almost two years to make. During the production we had the Asian economic crisis. We had to stop the production, because the film’s investors all had problems. We had to find new investors. Also, at the end of the film, during the editing we realized we could go on editing this film forever because we fell in love with it. And so we decided to enter it in Cannes, because that meant a deadline, and it was about time to say good-bye, and that’s it.
LB When did you decide to enter it?
WKW Just before Cannes printed the catalog. I always wanted to call this film Secrets, something about secrets, but Cannes said no, there’s so many titles about secrets already. So we were listening to the music of Bryan Ferry, a song called “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and I said, “Why not call the film In the Mood for Love?” Actually, the mood of the film is what drives these two people together.
LB To some people the emotions you displayed on screen may seem strangely Latin—a yearning that never really gets consummated physically. Does that come from your previous experience working in South America?
WKW No, no. I like Latin American literature a lot, and I always think Latin Americans and Italians are very close to the Chinese, especially the women—the jealousy, the passions and the family values. And the Latin music in the film, actually, was very popular in Hong Kong because the music scene at that time was mainly from the Philippines and all the nightclubs had Filipino musicians, so they got Spanish influences there. Latin American music was very popular in the restaurants at that time, that’s why I put it in the film. And I especially like Nat King Cole because he’s my mother’s favorite singer.
LB Your other films have a more freewheeling style. This obviously is quite the opposite.
WKW We’re going to get a sunburn.
LB What was it like trying something new?
WKW Actually, it makes you more anxious when you’re not so lazy as before. We get used to certain types of style, and people say this is our label or trademark. And whenever we go to a new location, we see things as before; we know the camera should be here and there, and that becomes very boring. When you try to do something else, you have to see things afresh, in a different perspective. And for In the Mood for Love my cameraman, Chris Doyle, was away during the film, because he had to shoot another film, so we had to use another cameraman, Mark Li Ping-bin. I could not be as lazy as usual, because in the past I could rely on Chris for lighting, framing, technical aspects like that. But this time I had to control all those things myself. But by engaging in this process I discovered I could control more of the film, and the style of the film could be more attached to the content.
LB Can you tell us more about the cinematography and specifically the use of colors, which seem very saturated?
WKW We always put something in front of the camera because we wanted to create the feeling that the audience was one of the neighbors and was always observing or watching these two people. And the color is so vivid because everything from memory is vivid—it’s beautiful because it’s very close to your mind.
LB Everybody has been admiring the look of the image. There’s an incredible correlation between the wall texture, the costumes, and the upholstery fabric. How did you work with the art director?
WKW I must say I’m very happy because I have a very good art director. William Chang Suk-ping has worked with me since my first film, and basically we are from the same background, so he knows everything by heart. We seldom discuss anything about the film, because the way we work together is very organic. He’s not serving me, he’s trying to create his own idea and capture all the details in the film, and he’s also the editor of the film, so sometimes he cuts things he doesn’t like. All the clothes in the film are tailor-made, and it’s a painstakingly long process. And because the film was made over a two-year period, when Maggie [Cheung] gained weight, or became slimmer, we had to change the fitting of her clothes. And as for the hair, Maggie had to spend six hours everyday before shooting.
LB How did you develop Maggie’s look? It’s very iconic.
WKW Because that look was very popular. All the women looked like that in the early sixties.
LB Tiny little sleeves, very tight fitting.
WKW There were very minor changes during all those years. In ’62 you have sleeves, in ’66 you don’t have sleeves, the dress length got a little shorter. We didn’t have to do research because our mothers dressed like this.
LB It looks like you chose to describe the passing of time, days or hours, through the changes of costume. Tony Leung’s character is basically wearing a similar costume, but Maggie’s character changes constantly.
WKW We had 20 to 25 dresses for Maggie for the whole film, but the time period of the film was very long. Originally the film covered from 1962 to 1972, and the clothes were repeating themselves. But when we cut the film short, the costume changes became like a fashion show. And my purpose at first was to make the film very repetitious—we repeat the theme music all the time, we repeat the angle of a shot all the time, always the clock, always the corridor, always the staircase, because I wanted to show that nothing changes except the emotions of these two people. So we tried to show the changes only through them. But because we cut the film short, the repetition is not so obvious in Maggie’s clothes.
LB In a way it’s quite natural for a woman to change her clothes.
WKW Yeah, and she’s a working lady.
LB But also a person who’s attracted to someone tries to make herself appealing, so she’s very conscious of what she’s wearing.
WKW That’s why there are comments from the neighbors: why is she dressed like this to buy noodles?
LB We never see this pair’s husband and wife. Were their characters much more developed in the longer version of the film?
WKW Well, actually the film is not about having affairs, and I thought it would be more interesting for Maggie and Tony Leung’s characters to play the leads, because they are the victims of that relationship between their spouses, and then later on they move beyond this affair. So I didn’t think we should meet the other husband and wife. We’re not saying who’s right, who’s wrong, it’s about a process—how people treated secrets.
LB What’s the role of suspicion in the film? How much of the thrill comes from the neighbors’ suspicion?
WKW I think these two characters are drawn together by this suspicious gossip and they bond. They have a secret they don’t want other people to know. They have each other to share it with, because they cannot share it with anyone else, because they want to be decent, they want to be respectable. They can talk to each other and that draws them together. And because there are so many things about the secret that are unknown, there’s a lot of imagination on their side too.
LB Maggie Cheung said she had difficulty with her character because it was too perfect. Is that how you remember your mother?
WKW Of course my mother is perfect. When my father worked as a sailor he didn’t come home very often, so most of the time I was with my mother. She was the one who took me to the cinema and to music concerts, so to me she’s always perfect. But she’s not very much like Maggie. Maggie’s character represents a modern woman at that time, because she’s a working woman and she has her own space. My mother was more like a housewife, very traditional.
LB For several years now in Europe and in the United States we’ve witnessed the great success of Asian cinema. From your perspective do you see it as the rebirth of Asian cinema, or is it just that Western countries are now discovering a film industry that has always been producing a lot of interesting films?
WKW Well, we all need stories and what happens in our daily lives changes our stories. You can see the Italian cinema and also the French New Wave in the ’60s was the first generation after the Second World War. So that gave them a new perspective. And for the last two years Asian cinema, even Korean and Taiwanese cinema, have become very, very strong because they have their problems and they have new stories in their lives, which gives their films energy. So they are not repeating the same old stories. And the young filmmakers there, their thinking is more global, they are not very local, so their films are more accessible to Western audiences.
LB And that’s a recent change.
LB You are a model now for young filmmakers. When they ask, what do you say to them about filmmaking?
WKW You have to be very patient. You have to wait. That’s my advice.
LB Can you tell us about 2046, your next project?
WKW Well, we were supposed to finish In the Mood for Love in August last year, but because of various problems we had to stop production, and we started shooting 2046 at the same time. 2046 is about a promise, because in 1997, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years and change. So I thought, well, I should make a film about promises. So it is a futuristic film, but it’s not a science fiction film. There are three stories in the film, and each one is adapted from a Western opera — Madame Butterfly, Carmen and Tannhauser. The cast will be Faye Wong from Chungking Express, Carina Lau and Chang Chen, and also Tony Leung, and we have a Japanese actress named Takuya Kimura. We are shooting in Bangkok and for the third story we’ll shoot in Korea.
LB Can you get financing from Europe or the U.S. now?
WKW Years ago we sold films to traditional markets. Now we can get the financing not only from Asia but also outside Asia.
LB Could you, at this stage, be financed exclusively by the West?
WKW I think it’s not so easy as you might expect, because normally if you want to work with European distributors or you need joint ventures, they want to have scripts, but I don’t have scripts, so that’s a problem. So you have to find someone who understands you well and has confidence in you; otherwise it’s very, very difficult.
LB At the Cannes press conference, you said that in the ’60s, everybody made their living in Hong Kong by writing.
WKW Yes. I am very interested in these writers because nobody treated them as serious writers. They wrote everyday for the newspaper, a lot of articles about food, about horseracing, about women, about football, about novels; they wrote for a living. Even now the people in Hong Kong are all educated people from China. Because of the war they came to Hong Kong, and they have nothing to do there. The only thing they know how to do is write.
—Liza Bear is a contributing editor in film at BOMB. Most recently her articles have appeared in Salon.com, the Boston Globe, and Time Out New York, and she has been on assignment in Sarajevo and Havana. Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007; 336pps), a collection of Liza Bear’s interviews with 55 filmmakers from 23 countries, is available from select bookstores or online at www.amazon.com. For more information go to http://lizabearmakingbook.blogspot.com.