Playing at love
In time for Valentine's Day, UCI Associate Professor of Classics Zina Giannopoulou reviews her favorite love story
In time for Valentine’s Day, we asked UCI Associate Professor of Classics Zina Giannopoulou for a recommendation of a great love story in any genre that deserved greater recognition. Below, she tells us why Wong Kar-wai’s film, “In the Mood for Love” takes the prize in her book.
By Zina Giannopoulou, associate professor of classics
Playing at love: A look at Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”
Back in 2001, when I was a graduate student of classics and an avid cinephile, the arrival at the local theater of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” was a sensational event. I had watched most of Wong’s previous films, from “Days of Being Wild” (1990) to “Happy Together” (1997), and enjoyed his experiments with narrative, form, and genre. But the collocation of “mood” with “love” in the title of his latest film promised heights of audiovisual stimulation I could hardly wait to experience. The film proved to be a ravishing tale of unconsummated love that still haunts me. In 1962, in a transient Hong Kong neighborhood, where immigrants from Shanghai have temporarily settled before departing for other shores, two young people, both married, rent adjacent rooms in a crammed apartment building. The leads, Mrs. Chang (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. They decide not to “be like them” but end up falling in love. After some time of clandestine meetings and restrained emotions, Mr. Chow leaves for Cambodia where he whispers a secret about his unfulfilled love into a hole of a stoned wall of Angkor Wat, since, according to a Chinese legend, if one has a secret that cannot be revealed, one should whisper it into the hole of a tree and seal it up afterwards.
The film is praised for its languid rhythm and distinctive visual style involving jump cuts, freeze frames, a roving street camera, and a subtle conjuring of a historical period via music, costume, lush cinematography, and a pervasive sense of social alienation in 1960s Hong Kong. But what’s love got to do with it? And why is another story of unfulfilled desire hailed by critics and audiences alike as one of the best visual tales of romantic love of the 21st century? For me, the film’s greatest erotic engine is the transformation of obstacles into catalysts of creativity. The leads face two interrelated sets of obstacles: their desire “not to be like them” is an internalized moral prohibition, while the social mores against adultery—the film turns gossip into an art form—are external constraints. They meet these obstacles by transmuting erotic desire into an optic desire so that the erotic gaze becomes the real subject of the film. The camera looks at people and things from window and door frames, shoots from all angles, savors material surfaces, and captures the tiniest changes in the way people relate to each other: Mrs. Chang’s fingers ever so lightly caress Mr. Chow’s hand, flirtatious smiles stop halfway, the leads are replaced in the frame by their shadows on the wall against which they lean. Desire becomes a form of visual embrace so that to love someone is to attempt to make permanent what is impermanent about them—gestures, moods, feelings, dreams, innuendoes, silences are all lovingly lingered on and imbued with meaning. Since physical desire must remain unrequited, Wong spiritualizes it by means of a fluent cinematic idiom where the beauty of images and music analogizes the beauty of desire. Love is shown to lie somewhere between visual extravagance and verbal impoverishment, which is precisely the land of motion pictures.
Love in this film is also a matter of rehearsing a script or impersonating an unknown predecessor in the erotic game. In a memorable sequence set in a restaurant, the leads play the parts of their adulterous spouses in an attempt to answer the question, “How did it begin?” They correct each other’s mannerisms, when they are not those of the imitated spouse, and even eat the favorite dish of the other person’s spouse (when they are being themselves, they eat noodles). Mrs. Chang and Mr. Chow are two-couples-in-one as they play both sets of lovers. Since the spectators do not see the faces of the spouses but only their silhouettes from behind, they are led to doubt their reality as individuals and think of them as roles that can be played by others. The film thus depicts the process not of living a romantic relationship, but of imitating a preexisting one, and Wong raises the possibility that desire may not be authentic, that a lover or beloved may feel like a placeholder for an invisible and prior other.
Are romantic relationships, then, necessarily doomed? When Mr. Chow whispers his secret passion into the hole of the wall and seals it up, he probably wishes to preserve it by rendering it invisible and inaudible, a faint echo of the past. This gesture could be read as a radical form of spiritualization of love that belies the lavish aesthetic of the film. As a classicist, I cannot help thinking that Plato, the greatest Greek philosopher of erotic desire, would probably agree with this gesture. For he, like Wong, believed that erotic desire is desire of the beautiful, but the beautiful that is the true object of desire does not reside in this world and can never be possessed. The beauties of this world, like Wong’s gorgeous cinematic universe, are approximations and reminders of Beauty, not Beauty itself. And so Mrs. Chang is a copy of Mr. Chow’s wife, and the latter is, possibly, a copy of a prior lover, and so it goes, until he dies. Unless, of course, Mr. Chow’s whisper is an attempt to bury these copies in the tomb of the temple wall, and start afresh. That would be a deliciously optimistic reading of the end of the film, and if Plato disagrees with it, so much the worse for Plato.