In the Mood for Love (2000), Happy Together (1997)

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

We have embarked on a quest, as a commune, to watch every Wong Kar Wai film in an effort to shift our media diet away from the endless cycle of new content churned out by streaming services, or smaller creators alike, that ensures a steady income for workers toiling in a gig-based industry, and more towards content already proven to be enriching, yet still found on a streaming service. (This isn’t to say there isn’t art being produced within the industry currently, just that the service provided is designed to take hold of the viewer’s attention over and over again so they can entertain themselves into a waking comatose that justifies whatever monthly fee associated with doing so.)

We watched In the Mood for Love via a Blu-ray my brother purchased from the Criterion Collection. We used our roommate’s PlayStation 4 to watch it. The movie was excellent and I was reintroduced firsthand to Tony Leung’s talent at depicting the multi-dimensional emotion of sadness. I had seen him do it before in The Grandmaster, when I watched the film with my Grandfather and brother when it first came out in theatres in the US. While the kung fu in that movie was intense, the complexity of the relationship between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, the unspoken tension, respect, admiration, and love(??) communicated through their eyes, glances at one another, as well as their reserved expressions, made me see the movie as something other than a kung fu flick. On the car ride home, our grandfather asked us which actress we thought was prettier. Zhang Ziyi’s character struggled with an opium addiction. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but it felt weird to desire a character when one of their conflicts involved an opium addiction.

Anyway, back to Tony: he is incredibly sad in In the Mood for Love. Understandably so, his wife is cheating on him with the husband of Maggie Cheung, and rather openly! Despite that, he is unsure of how to confront her about it. Coincidentally, Maggie Cheung finds herself in a similar predicament and they resolve to find out together what led to the affair in the first place. This process involves extensive roleplay between the two where they pretend to be the other’s spouse — going on dates with each other, spending time together in a hotel room away from their apartments, writing a kung fu serial together, but never crossing, “the line;” they never explicitly define this “line,” but that adds to the ambiguity of it. And therein lies the strength of the movie: there exists a line between the genuine and performed, where as the audience, we can only speculate as to when Tony is acting as Tony or Maggie’s spouse, or when Maggie is acting as Maggie or Tony’s spouse. In other words, when are the actors acting as a character and when are they acting as a character acting as a character. We can dissect conversation, glances, motions, the framing of certain shots, and so on to the minutest detail. We can ask questions about feelings, of whether the feelings they have towards the other are truly theirs or the result of their roleplay. What is devotion if not a willingness to support another through something neither of you are equipped to handle? What does it mean to fall in love when you first sought to understand it from a place of scorn? How are we ever supposed to let go of someone after we fall in love with them? After we fall out of love with them? In the Mood for Love has all these questions and none of their answers. I adore it as such.

We waited a few months to watch Happy Together on HBO Max. We watched it in two sessions since we were rather busy on both days. In Happy Together, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung play a gay couple, Lai Yiu-Fai and Ho Po-Wing, that breaks up and makes up as frequently as the seasons change. We make the joke that they are, in reality, very Sad Together, which they are. I found a particular aspect of the movie to be the relation of its settings, and how the characters operate within them. I want to focus on Yiu-Fai’s apartment, the tango bar, and the Iguazu falls. I’ll start with the tango bar, his first place of employment, as well as the site of his multiple encounters with Po-Wing post-initial break-up. Yiu-Fai spends most of his time there accommodating tourist groups, handing out flyers, and brooding on the sidewalk, usually with a bottle of liquor or a cigarette. It is a site of torment for him, one where he works late evenings and one where he literally cannot escape his past love, who shows up with different boyfriends through the weeks. In this very social setting, meant for partners, Yiu-Fai is alone. In this sense, the tango bar isolates him, makes him feel acutely as someone without a relationship. It is no wonder that he leaves it by committing assault.

His apartment serves a myriad of purposes. At first he lives alone, having little social life outside it. He cooks his meals downstairs in a rudimentary kitchen. The unit he rents is little more than a bed, sofa, dining table, shower, and toilet. It’s a bit claustrophobic, and having two people inside would make it moreso. The space, miraculously, doesn’t transform when Po-Wing rejoins Yiu-Fai after his signature line, “let’s start over.” Po-Wing tries to transform it. He tries to push the bed and couch together so he and Yiu-Fai can sleep beside one another; Yiu-Fai rejects the change. As their relationship diminishes again and he stays confined to the apartment due to his injuries, he becomes a fixture in the apartment. Ultimately, when Po-Wing expresses himself as a person, and not a piece of furniture, Yiu-Fai is resentful of this. Yiu-Fai buys him excess cigarettes to keep him from going out to buy them, he cooks dinners while Po-Wing stays in the apartment, he hides Po-Wing’s passport in order to force him to stay in the country. Eventually he lets him go, but the apartment remains. He remains, as if still ready to receive Po-Wing’s proposal to start over again.

The last setting of my interest, the Iguazu Falls, is stated as a metaphor for their relationship. It exists both as an idealized space in Yiu-Fai’s mind per a light fixture as well as in reality, as a waterfall. In the light fixture, which he takes with him from place to place, a couple stands on an outlook, gazing at the beautiful falls side by side. Do the falls represent their relationship that he admires from afar, or are they a venue to host thei relationship? Maybe, a combination of both? He clings to this idealization for obvious reasons. This contrasts sharply with the falls in reality. Yiu-Fai visits them alone before he returns home to Hong Kong. The observation deck is beneath the falls, getting drenched by the water. It is not a glittering lightscape with a happy lover. Like their relationship, the imagined crumbles before reality. They are not happy together.

The other settings reappear from the perspective of Po-Wing. He resettles into Yiu-Fai’s apartment and revisits the tango bar, alone. In the apartment, he takes the cigarettes bought by Yiu-Fai and stacks them as they were originally supposed to be. They have switched places: Yiu-Fai rejects the idealized relationship and sees it as it is; Po-Wing explores it from Yiu-Fai’s idealized perspective. This is a type of synthesis in their understanding of the relationship. Though, it implies that Po-Wing could see the reality of it all and never understood the romanticism of their relationship, which is difficult to say since he has little to no internal dialogue and is seldom the PoV during the film, but it would be interesting and convenient for this reflection, so I will claim that he does without much basis.

And so we finish the “romantic metropolitan melancholy” of In the Mood for Love and Happy Together. Like Tony weeping into the voice recorder or whispering his secrets to an ancient Buddhist(?) temple, we leave behind our own sorrows, regrets, and longings in intangible, yet material ways so we can move forward. We watch betrayal and acceptance on screen, see brief flashes of our own lives in the expressions of actors, and ultimately come away with a new human perspective on these matters. Such is the power of art.

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