Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: In the Mood for Love (2000)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #24 (tied with Ordet)

The popular concept of how films are made is that they are meticulously planned, with a script that lays the foundation for the narrative and characterizations that is then interpreted by the director and actors to create the finished film. This is especially true in modern Hollywood, as films come pre-packaged as franchises, with each respective film ostensibly building toward a greater narrative arc with a distinct, satisfying climax. It's not even so much that this kind of storytelling is all about endings, but about definitive endings that leave nothing unresolved because these finales were planned long before the film ever began shooting. Filmmaking is the process of enacting a master plan, with a distinct, strong vision guiding the production.

Yet that's not often the case. Certainly, most films begin with a script, and that script lays the groundwork for what the film will be. But that vision is malleable - scenes are left on the cutting room floor, or rearranged in the editing bay to better suit the narrative or mood the filmmaker is seeking. In almost every case, there is vision, but it's not set in stone. The film can evolve into something new through the filmmaking process.

Then there are filmmakers like Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai. Wong is notorious for letting his projects linger in development for years before they reach their final form (ironically, Wong began his career as a screenwriter, penning numerous scripts before taking up directing his own). In the Mood for Love, for example, was originally planned as a sequel to his 1991 film Days of Being Wild, before evolving into a romantic comedy/musical to be set in Beijing. However, when Communist Party officials worried about Wong's politics, he relocated the film to Hong Kong. From there, it slowly evolved into the film that would become his most celebrated, establishing him as a beloved international auteur (In the Mood for Love is the highest-ranked film on the 2012 poll from a post-colonial director).

What makes In the Mood for Love stand out among Wong's films is how the filmmaking process bleeds into the nature of the film's narrative, resulting in a film that feels simultaneously spontaneous and visionary.

More after jump.

The film begins with Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) moving next door to each other in the same apartment building in 1962. When they each begin to expect that their often-absent spouses are having an affair - quite possibly with each other - Chow and Chan begin bonding through a series of chance encounters. Though they initially vow to not commit the same acts as their spouses have against them, Chow finds himself falling in love with Chan, though she will not reciprocate his feelings.

The film's production history and Wong's filmmaking process are reflected in the way this tale of unrequited love plays out. Wong films many scenes elliptically, as they fade in and out of each other without a definitive beginning or end. Similarly, the relationship at the center of the film is driven almost completely by chance: Chow and Chan do not intend to meet each other for noodles, as often as they do. Instead, these encounters are random, with their subsequent plans made on-the-fly. As a result, the audience gets a genuine feeling that they are watching a relationship unfold before their eyes, elevated by the ambiguity as to exactly what the nature of the relationship is and how it will continue to unfold over the course of the film.

Ambiguity is the key theme of this film, and the elliptical style of filmmaking dovetails nicely with the uncertainty within the narrative. For example, Chow and Chan convince themselves that their spouses are having an affair with one another, based solely on what Chan overhears. It's important to note that Wong never actually shows this affair onscreen (in fact, Chow and Chan's spouses never appear at all); the closest the audience gets to witnessing the affair - and thus proving its existence - is when Chow and Chan act out what they imagine the affair to be like while eating together in a noodle shop. Similarly, there's no real resolution to Chow and Chan's relationship; Chan does not reciprocate his feelings, and their attempts to meet each other later on fail by the same means they began: random chance. Their time together was brief and fleeting, there for a moment before being whisked away. The film ends with Chow in Cambodia, whispering into a hole in Angkor Wat. Again, the audience does not know what he is whispering, but a previous line about whispering secrets into an old tree seems to indicate he's still longing for Chan.

Yet Wong never spells any of this out, leaving much of the film up to the interpretation of the audience. In the Mood for Love that was clearly made with intent, but not cut from a "master plan" of where it would go. The film, like Chow and Chan's chance encounters, feel born of an organic evolution, with individual ideas and moments aligning to result in something more. The filmmaking process bleeds into the elliptical nature of the narrative, and the two complement each other in Wong's vision. As the film proves, sometimes greatness comes from the random and unplanned.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Psycho (1960)

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