Double Feature: In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express

For the past week, I’ve enjoyed a Wong Kar-Wai movie marathon, the first of its kind since the Archers (Powell and Pressburger) last fall. As of this post, I have seen six of his films in chronological order, with 2046 scheduled to arrive from Netflix today. Of those six, I had already seen two previously: Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000). In fact, these latest viewings were something like my third for each film. So, that certainly aids my confidence in writing about them. But what really sparked this post was seeing In the Mood for Love last night for the first time in the context of the other films. I saw what a stylistic departure it was for WKW — even while it retained many of his signatures — but more importantly, it showed how much he had matured. Movies from the Chungking era are absolutely drenched in coolness. Style occasionally trumps substance. But by the time of his seventh film, WKW calmed his camera down appropriately for this much more serious story.

As I finished this tremendously romantic, yet devastating film, thoughts went through my head of what film would make a good companion piece for a double feature. Like every other WKW film I’ve seen so far, In the Mood for Love is just over an hour and a half long, so a double feature is certainly conceivable. First, I considered a couple films that are a lot like this one: Before Sunrise (1995), which is one of my all-time favorites and has a similar theme (Time); and Far from Heaven (2002), which is set in a similar social period, and similarly immerses itself in that period without any irony whatsoever. But I rejected both of these in favor of a film that would complement the first one. Watching two films like In the Mood for Love back-to-back could be heartbreaking. “From a valley to a peak” is a much more satisfying emotional trajectory than “from a valley to a trench.” So, there are many directions that one could go, but the most convenient choice would be another film by the same director. Still, I think it’s a good one. The two films have a natural relationship with each other and can, in fact, cross-pollinate each other as we consider what and how WKW communicates with each film.

In the Mood for Love is the story of Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), played by actors who have appeared in several of WKW’s films. Both are married and move into neighboring apartments. Over time, they come to realize that their spouses are having an affair. A friendship develops out of the shock of discovering this, as the two try to determine how this could have happened and what they should do next. Of course, to say what they do next would be to spoil the film, but it’s enough to point out that WKW presents their emotional journey with grace and power, as well as a sense of morality that would almost certainly be absent from the Hollywood version. Again, that morality is a reflection of the social situation of the film, 1960s Hong Kong. That situation is presented masterfully, through the camera, sets, costumes, and the actors’ performances. It may be a foreign culture, but it smacks of something very familiar, and we come to know it well.

Then there’s Chungking Express. I think it’s right to see these movies out of chronological order (although, since this film is set in the nineties, “chronological” only refers to when the films were made). And that is because of the emotional trajectory. Chungking Express remains my favorite WKW film, because I’m a basically optimistic person, and I thoroughly enjoy happy films. WKW is famous for musical repetition — playing the same thing many times over the course of a film, showing the song or piece in every possible light. Simply put, the music of In the Mood for Love is quite sad, but the music of Chungking Express is bold and ultimately hopeful. This is not to say that Chungking is all smiles, whitewashing human nature and just presenting nice people doing nice things. On the contrary, this film has a similar theme about people being unable to make connections with each other. Naturally, given the different time periods represented, the reasons for these failed connections differ. Most significantly, though, the second film here has a more hopeful view of the outcome for its characters. Perhaps In the Mood for Love is hopeful as well; the ending is very subtle. But a “bright future” for the characters in Chungking is much more overtly foreshadowed.

This is one of those cases where I can house two apparently contradictory thoughts in my head: the understanding that In the Mood for Love is probably the better film, and also that I’ll always prefer Chungking Express. The latter film is WKW’s masterpiece, in the older sense of a work that establishes an artist’s mastery, a passage from student to teacher. Very much inspired by the French New Wave, the film is also thoroughly WKW’s own. Like Pulp Fiction, released the same year, it is concerned with more than one story, and emphasizes the stories’ tangential physical relationship and deeper thematic relationship. Both stories in Chungking are about cops meeting women, but in unique circumstances. I think saying much more would be pointless, because like many of the director’s nineties films, the plot is not the most important thing. What sticks in the mind is how the story is told. This film is just a lot of fun to watch, especially if you know something about how movies are made, and their history. Of all the movies I’ve seen, I can confidently say that this is the only one in which I’ve found a “shaky camera” to be aesthetically pleasing.

It goes without saying that I recommend these two. Both are available as DVDs (but not streaming) on Netflix. I’ve just seen both films, and not as a double feature, so it would be quite easy for you to do so before I even try my own idea. Regardless, these are definitely two films that would be rewarding to see before you die. I’m quite happy if I’ve managed to call them to your attention.

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