It’s a tradition for me to reread “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” every summer. It’s really the only Shakespeare I’ve officially read and not just skimmed for a high school English class. I’m obsessed with love depending on whether or not the fairies are in a good mood: that something so important and dear to humans is nothing to beings on who exist on another plane. The 2000 film directed by Wong Kar-wai (“Chungking Express”) fits in here, I promise.
The actors in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” perform the ancient Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe, ill-fated lovers who whisper to each other through a wall and eventually kill themselves when they think the other is dead. I always thought it was Shakespeare poking fun at himself, calling attention to the fact that “Romeo and Juliet” was not necessarily groundbreaking. I wondered if the story of Pyramus and Thisbe existed within the universe of “Romeo and Juliet,” if the lovers felt insecure that their story wasn’t original, that their pain wasn’t their own.
I thought about Pyramus and Thisbe as I watched the scene in “In the Mood for Love” where Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, “Infernal Affairs”) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung, “Hero”) lean against the wall their apartments share. They are next-door neighbors in British-controlled Hong Kong in 1962. Their first encounters are chaste, strictly polite, but soon they learn that their spouses are sleeping together and strike up an affair themselves.
It’s difficult to parse when exactly their romance begins. They never make love or even kiss onscreen. The most affection we see is when Mrs. Chan leans her head on his in the backseat of a taxi. They’re most bold with each other when they wonder how their spouses became romantically and sexually involved, and eventually, play it out themselves. Mrs. Chan pretends to be Mr. Chow’s wife and vice versa. Mr. Chow touches Mrs. Chan’s hand, but she argues that her husband would never be that forward. They try their scene again, and she reaches out and touches him first. It seems to make her sick to her stomach to think about it, so she retreats from him. Mr. Chow says that it doesn’t matter who made the first move, only that someone did.
It applies to them, too. When I first watched the film, I didn’t understand — I thought that the scene was showing the audience the different ways that they recalled how their own affair began, rather than their spouses’. In the context of their marriages, it doesn’t matter who initiated, only that both of their spouses betrayed them. Within their own affair, I figured that it didn’t matter who reached out their hand first, only that someone did, and suddenly their love was revealed to one another. If no one had reached out, then they might have continued walking past each other as they entered and exited their building, sharing nothing but stolen glances.
I think about the act of reaching a lot in the summer. I wonder if I should say something to my summer crush, and if they would return my feelings; if we could be in love like Hermia and Lysander, or if I’d be Hermia, the loyal, kicked dog at Demetrius’s feet.
With fall just about here, the title screen for “In the Mood for Love” hit me like a truck: “It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered, to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.”
What would have happened if the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” decided they didn’t want to make Demetrius love Hermia? What would have happened if Mrs. Chan had gone to Singapore with Mr. Chow? It’s all of the small moments, the choices that we make.
Do we want to reach out and reveal our love, or will we stay quiet when they pick up the phone?
At a dinner with one of his friends, Mr. Chow tells a story about what people did with their secrets “in the old days.” They climbed to the top of a mountain, carved a hole in a wall, whispered their secret in that negative space, covered it up and climbed back down the mountain.
I don’t know enough about etiquette in 1962 Hong Kong or 1662 England to make an intelligent point about the feelings we hide to save face. I do know that when Mr. Chow visits the ruins at Angkor Wat and whispers something into the wall, it looks like he’s kissing the stone.
I think there’s something there about kissing our secrets rather than our lovers, even if I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t always matter if we’re heard, only that we said it at all.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.