In the Mood for Love - A love film of art history
“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
—— Wong Kar-Wai “In the Mood for Love” (2001)
那些消失了的歲月，彷彿隔著一塊積著灰塵的玻璃，看得到，抓不著。他一直在懷念著過去的一切。如果他能衝破那塊積著灰塵的玻璃， 他會走回早已消失的歲月。 —— 王家衛 《花樣年華》(2001)
I began to internalize hidden messages in the film “In the Mood for Love,” produced by the Hong Kong film legend Wong Kar-Wai, as the end credits appear appeared in front of my eyes. As a local Hongkonger, the film and music industry in Hong Kong has been a trademark of Hong Kong entertainment industry as well as in East Asia in the 1990s to 2000s. I remember that I would sometimes overhear family friends from the older generation reminiscing about the sentiments of Hong Kong-produced film back in the day during family gatherings when I was little. Stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan (even though problematic), Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and more were the famous icons from the golden era of the Hong Kong film industry.
However, since I did not grow up in the era when the Hong Kong entertainment industry was booming, I haven’t been exposed to a lot of the old movies, including “In the Mood for Love,” that were considered iconic, nor have I ever experienced the sentiments of Hong Kong film industry like some of my family friends from the older generations had.
Things changed when I moved to the U.S. I was shocked to learn that scenes and quotes from “In the Mood for Love” a movie made back in the 2000s had become trendy angst quotes on Tumblr and Twitter today in 2018. (Some are probably problematic using orientalism references as trendy topics in Western “hipster angst” internet trends, without understanding colonial elements of Hong Kong.) Soon after, I also learned that “In the Mood for Love” was considered one of the most iconic movies produced in Hong Kong. Producer Wong Kar-Wai actually won multiple international film awards in the U.K. and Chicago in the 2000s. It was interesting to see that people on the internet who did not grow up with my culture showed appreciation for my culture, as well as the international Asian film representation in Western media almost two decades ago. So, I decided to spend my self-care time watching the film and connecting to my parents’ lived experiences.
The film is set in the 1960s in Hong Kong, when Hong Kong people were living in a rather peaceful yet confusing time under British colonization. (It is because under colonization that the British administration shielded a lot of cultural genocide from the People's Republic of China at the time. Hong Kong has been and is still constantly harmed by both British colonization and PRC fascism. Long story but basically the gist.) The main characters, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, are neighbors living in the overcrowded apartments in Hong Kong. They realize that their spouses were having an affair with each other, so they coped with it by acting and improvising how they imagined their spouses' affair developed. It almost draws parallel with Peter Kavinsky and Lara Jean having a fake relationship in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” And as anyone can imagine, they begin to develop feelings for each other by spending time improvising their spouses’ affair. However, here’s where it’s different from TATBILB. Under social pressure and stigmas at the time, they kept denying that they developed real feelings when in fact they fell in love with each other through the “fake relationship.” Eventually, Mr. Chow moved to Singapore for his career and they went on separate paths in life. The movie then shows that even though there were moments where they almost encounter each other after they lived separate lives, their fate was to never see each other again.
This CrashCourse video explains my feelings a lot better than I ever could: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98QmnyyIXsY
The romance of the film is subtle, depicting the complicated yet unexplainable internalized thoughts of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. This film is an absolute cinematic masterpiece, from the intricate and aesthetic framing, the subtle character emotions and gestures, to the cultural and political representations. Though produced in the 2000s, Western romance movies in our era like “Crazy Rich Asians” or “La La Land” cannot even compare in my opinion.
This melodramatic ending of a love story not only captivated the crushing realities of life and internalized emotions of human beings, but also displayed the Western-infused style and history of Hong Kong in the 1960s. It portrayed the immigrants who came to Hong Kong escaping PRC's cultural genocide and famine to live in a confusing instability where communism fuses with capitalism and Western colonialism meets PRC totalitarianism and fascism. In the movie, there are scenes that subtly mention how Hong Kong people are leaving to pursue a more stable life. More notably, the locals in a scene described Hong Kong as “chaotic.” In fact, Hong Kong has always been in a complicated political state. Even today, we as Hong Kong locals struggle to establish our identity. The relevant politics and history of the film resonated with me a lot personally, (well and of course crushing realities of life as well. Ha!)
Even though I did not experience that part of history personally, the history itself, however, represents a huge part of my identity. The identity of being a Hongkonger has always been about reclaiming history and politics since the beginning of British colonization and PRC oppressions. The local cultures and history were never really written in textbooks, or even talked about outside of Hong Kong. With the ongoing erasure of local voices, authentic Hong Kong culture and history are only documented in the local produced films, music and small local stores. Being a U.S. immigrant, I have to explicitly tell people I identify as Hongkonger instead of Chinese because of the oppression by PRC. It has been exhausting trying to explain why I identify the way I do. There is no way I can explain my identity without explaining the influences of colonialism, our oppressed identity as Hongkongers and the unique localism of Hong Kong. It runs through our veins. This is why “In the Mood for Love” was so important to me. Not only was I able to see the history through my parents' lens and further understand my own identity, but Hong Kong culture represented in such a beautiful way in Western media.
Being a Hongkonger is confusing. We are Han Chinese in our blood. We celebrate Han Chinese cultures, but we don’t identify nationally as Chinese. It has always been a process of finding our voices and resisting the oppression of China’s neocolonization. Quite frankly, with the cultural shift of K-Pop and Western media being more mainstream in East Asia, a lot of us have brushed away these “outdated” narratives that truly represent us. But Hong Kong-produced media will always have a special place in my heart. It is something that gives me a homey feeling living in the diaspora. I know for a fact that as long as we reconnect with our parents’ history and lived experiences, continuing to build our power, our voices shall never be silenced. While everything we see currently is blurred and indistinct, we will, indeed, remember those vanished years of Hong Kong.