In The Mood for Love and Me

It is a restless moment. 

In the last scene of In The Mood For Love, Mr Chow tells his secret – whatever it is – to a hole in Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. Watched on by a monk, he covers the hole, so that the secret stays between him and the hole of the temple only. He leaves the temple, and possibly his secret behind. And that’s that. You’re left in a state of bewilderment, confusion, adoration, and perhaps even rage that you didn’t get a conclusive answer as the credits play. It is not spelled out to you, whether he is content with the feeling that the love of his life, or the potential they both had, is gone from his life. And he’ll have to live the rest of his life without her, and the happiness she could’ve brought him. 

The irony of my infatuation with In The Mood For Love is that while it consistently reinforces my mood for love, and my love for Hong Kong as a city, the movie doesn’t give you the satisfaction of a reunion or even a union in love, and it was shot almost entirely in Bangkok. 

Someone once pointed out that I seem to like “unhappy endings” – The Great Gatsby, Fortress Besieged, In The Mood For Love, Atonement…It would seem that I’m happier when the two characters, in love as they are, end up unhappy and separated. To yearn is to be as far away as possible from love — Gatsby with the green light, Fang Hung-Chien with the ticking clock, Mr Chow with the lipstick-stained cigarette, and Briony with long-lost lives. 

In that sense, the ending of In The Mood For Love is perfect for me. I like speculating on what could’ve been and what probably was. I always think about the scene where Zhou Xuan’s Age of Bloom comes on the radio to wish Mrs Chan a happy birthday. She sits alone in the corridor with a glass of water, listening to the song as Mr Chow leans against the same wall, sharing her loneliness. In time, I’ve come to wonder if Mr Chow was the one who called into the radio station to wish her. Upon closer examination of the song itself, the lyrics carry a patriotic tone, with references to the Motherland and hopes for a dissipating fog. But the Shanghainese neighbours who cohabit in the apartment with Mrs Chan never return to the Motherland, and instead flee to the United States in the climax, and the fog is never truly lifted. 

The intertitles also reference this yearning for a simpler, understandable past – “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” The credit for these intertitles goes to Liu Yi-Chang, who wrote Intersection, the book on which the movie is loosely based. It is undeniable that whatever manifested between Mr Chow and Mrs Chan was indeed love – reciprocated or not, we can only wonder – but it was a matter of circumstance that brought them together and pulled them apart. They would not have grown as close as they had gotten if it hadn’t been for their spouses having affairs, and they would have gotten together if it hadn’t been for their spouses. 

Intertitle in ‘In The Mood For Love’

We never see their spouses’ faces, plainly because their faces don’t matter and neither do their identities. At the end of the story, you almost forget about their spouses. They are out of sight and out of mind. It is, however, the idea of them, this obstruction that lies in the path of Mrs Chan and Mr Chow, that starts the story. There is never a ‘caught in the act’ scene for the cheaters, but merely an accumulation of speculations as time passes. They are just the ghosts who follow the shadows of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan.

The film never shows physical intimacy between the two main characters, and at the very most it’s the secretive yet scandalous meeting of their fingers in the darkness of a taxi cab, or Mrs Chan leaning on Mr Chow’s shoulder. They are determined not to be like their spouses, yet end up a step further from them. 

Mr Chow says in the film, “Feelings can just creep up on you like that. I thought I was in control.” Are we ever truly in control of our feelings? My best friend would take a good look at the men I’ve gushed about and tell you no. When he confesses his feelings to Mrs Chan, he knows that she won’t leave her husband for him. He tells her only for the sake of getting it off his chest. He doesn’t look for her assurance or acknowledgment. It is a confession of love without the intention of being happy together. Even though Mrs Chan’s ring moves from her ring finger to the middle finger as the relationship goes on, it doesn’t come off. Again, it is not only the threat of gossip, but the silent phantoms of the past. 

In their ideal world –  in a shared hotel room – Mrs Chan and Mr Chow are secure from gossip and creeping eyes. They are the only two people in the world until reality brings them back to their lives. Under the guise of writing a wuxia serial together, they seek solace in each other’s company. It fills the voids left by their spouses. They rehearse and reenact how their spouses’ affair came to be, and how to confront their spouses about it. It could be said that the feeling did not creep up on Mrs Chan and Mr Chow. Instead, it manifested out of proximity and the emptiness left behind by their cheating spouses. 

The characters meet at the right time, coming down the stairs as one goes up, not just at the noodles shop, but also at the apartment. They initially seek the same apartment and move in on the same day. If once is a coincidence then twice has to be fate, or at least, that’s what I tell myself when my crush and I happen to be at the same place, at the same time, breathing the same air. Is it truly a question of ‘right person, wrong timing’, or ‘wrong person, right timing’? Is it possible to only cross paths without crossing intentions? 

If once is a coincidence, then twice has to be fate

People on the Internet have differing opinions about this ‘wrong timing’ business. They say things like ‘If they wanted to, they would’, ‘It wouldn’t be wrong timing if they loved you enough to work through it’, or ‘What is meant for you will find its way back to you’. Is that all true? Or are we just seeking an excuse to answer the questions that somebody else left behind? Is it frankly better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all? We may be confused by the film’s ending because the characters themselves are confused. In the case of In The Mood For Love, we want to say that it was in fact, the right people but the wrong time and the wrong place. They don’t find their way back to each other, even though they desperately want to. It’s a cruel play on fate, to bring people together only to tear them apart. 

The film is plagued by missed opportunities. Mrs Chan, when she races to leave with Mr Chow for Singapore misses the opportunity yet again. The words are clear in my ears even now, as I am far away from the cinema on a Monday afternoon, “If there was an extra ticket, would you leave with me?” Mr Chow leaves without knowing that Mrs Chan came to be with him, and in his mind, it is a question uttered into nothingness. Her silence is an answer within itself, and he leaves the city without knowing if the intensity of his feelings was ever reciprocated. When she happens to be in Singapore, she lies around his room, looking at the life he’s amassed for himself. She wonders if she could’ve been a part of this life. She smokes one of his cigarettes, takes the slippers she had left behind in his Hong Kong apartment, and leaves. 

Those words are repeated, this time by Mrs Chan. The ball is flung from his court to hers, and hers to his, reminiscent of the earlier scene where they revealed the information each of them had picked up about their spouses’ affairs. They miss each other, in Hong Kong and in Singapore, and the possibility that they could have been together. From there and then on, they no longer meet at the right time and the right place. 

It was brought up to me once, why Mrs Chan didn’t do much in Singapore, other than call Mr Chow’s office and breathe into the phone when he answered. I want to believe that she decided that she could finally have a happy ending and reunite with her true love but left when she thought, or perhaps, realised, that it was too good to be true. I wouldn’t blame her – after all, she did get cheated on. If I were in her slippers I’d start thinking Mr Chow was too good to be true, or their relationship was better off left in Hong Kong where it had started and ended. 

Under watchful eyes at the restaurant

In the end, Mr Chow finds solace in having his secret returned to the world and Mrs Chan raises her child, her husband being nowhere in sight. We assume they’re either divorced or the husband is once again on a business trip. They have built lives without each other. Mrs Chan chooses to live in the apartment again, perhaps because it reminds her of a happier time with Mr Chow. Mr Chow chooses to flee Hong Kong, perhaps because it reminds him of a happier time with Mrs Chan, a time that he cannot revisit or realistically have again. It has all been lost to the ashes of time. 

But it’s simple – life goes on. Yet it’s that itchy thought of a possibility – any possibility – at the back of their minds that lingers. Memories of that moment in time help sustain that thought. Mrs Chan might not fit into the ‘First Love Theory’, where people essentially never get over their first loves and tend to compare any subsequent partners to them. She could be his last love, which somehow matters more for most people. A significant amount of time has passed and yet she is still on his mind. Mr Chow could escape to whatever reality he wants, and be with whoever else, but he will never be able to replicate the feelings of that point in time when he was sneaking around with Mrs Chan and reeling from the breakdown of his marriage. He may run from himself, but can he truly hide from himself? 

Mr Chow comes by the apartment, hoping to see his old neighbours only to find out they’ve moved away. He inquires about the people who live next door, a mother and son, and he stares longingly at the door, perhaps thinking about the conversations he had shared with Mrs Chan all those years ago, and he leaves. He leaves never knowing that the person on his mind all these years was just behind the door. And if he would just knock…

I watched the film again in April on a date. I know, it’s not the best film to watch on a date, especially when it’s a film that’s been criticised for being too slow or pointless. I secretly watched my date’s expressions as he crinkled his nose and raised his eyebrows, patiently waiting for him to tell me his opinions. Between the first time I watched the film illegally on my new laptop when I was fifteen and April of this year, I’ve probably seen it twelve times. Twelve times is a conservative number, considering how I watch it on my birthday – and every other special occasion – every year. 

My date spent most of the movie trying to talk to me as I tried to respect the nuances left behind by my favourite filmmaker. Every time after the first watch, I focused on the little details of the film – the costuming, the music, the cinematography. I am always captivated by the sight of Maggie Cheung, it has never occurred to me to process the plot again. I never noticed how silent but painful the film was, it was almost wordless. And when words were spoken, it left more to be unsaid. 

I cried that April morning, as Zhou Xuan’s Age of Bloom played and the film went on. I don’t know what it was that came over me, but it was this gloom and impermanence of the setting that couldn’t escape my thoughts. The Hong Kong of Wong Kar Wai’s time has disappeared, and the fog will never lift. We reminisce and brood on this place and time we’ve never truly known. No amount of nostalgic kopitiams and cafes can recapture the spirit of cheap noodles and hectic stalls. No amount of cigarette smoke will make life as cinematic as a Wong Kar Wai film.

Perhaps it was also the fleeting romance of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, this inescapable fate that they would not end up together, haunting the remaining minutes of the film. Though my opinion of the film changes with each watch, I have never rooted for their relationship. I’ve never wanted them to get together at the end. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I just would rather leave the cinema knowing those two people are marinating in each other’s pain. Perhaps I’m one of those ‘not the destination but the journey’ people. Perhaps I enjoy falling in love more than being in love. 

In the fallout of my relationship, I said to my friends jokingly, “Do not watch your favourite movie with the love of your life, they might leave you.” 

To which my friend replied, “Have you ever thought that if he was in fact the love of your life, he wouldn’t have left you?” 

You can’t lie, she got me there. 

I keep asking myself: if it was true love between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow, why did they leave each other behind? Aren’t we supposed to fight for the things and the people we love? Or perhaps it wasn’t love at all, and just a fantasy created out of the pain and betrayal left behind by their spouses? Do we consider In The Mood For Love a modern-day Romeo and Juliet? 

In The Mood For Love is like an onion. You peel and you peel, and there are more layers. Its stench may be unbearable and off-putting, but it adds to the culinary flavour, even though it makes your breath smell for hours. I think that memory in April deserves its moment in time, and I won’t be rewatching it anytime soon. I will always be in the mood for love, but for now, this will be the secret I set free into a hole in a tree because I don’t have the money or the time to go to Angkor Wat. 

It’s me. If there was an extra ticket, would you leave with me?

Written by: Leya

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