“In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share, they went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever”. Only nowadays, we have to write about it.
So it turns out the audience weren’t the only ones still under the spell of those longing eyes and the ocean full of unspoken words in In the Mood for Love: the director and the characters were too. Su and Chow were in the mood for it, but not in time, and now time has passed them. We are in 1966 Hong Kong with Mr. Chow, some 4 years after he and Ms Su part ways forever. He had gone to Singapore, but is back now, writing action fantasy erotica from room 2047 of a cheap hotel. He wanted 2046, but a girl named Lulu he met the night before had been found murdered in the morning, so it was unavailable.
The movie doesn’t work linearly, and doesn’t work on its own, but works as the final part of an anthology of WKW films, including Days of Being Wild(1990), Chungking Express(1994), and In the Mood for Love(2000). Here, Mr. Chow encounters a series of women in his hopes to take his mind away from the fact that whatever hopes of a love or a life he had has long passed.
The first woman he meets, Lulu, who had been looking for her legless bird since Days of being Wild, is punished with death(though not by him) for her irreverence in room 2046, the same room number where Su and Chow had come closest to a romance. The second woman, Wong, the owner’s daughter, finds in him a writing companion who can also help her secretly communicate with her Japanese boyfriend. Wong is played by Faye Wang, 10 years after her proto-Amelie blockbuster role in Chungking express. Here, she plays that girl’s long aftermath, someone who had preserved the optimism deep down, but doesn’t show it off.
There are two more real women in the film, and one apparition of Su that hovers over everything and everyone, even though they may not know her. It’s a film of course. A film about faces and expressions, where all the shots are indoors, and all we get for action their tired smiles and cigarette smoke. Recognizable faces too: the third woman, Bai Ling, a call girl who takes up room 2046 is played by Ziyi Zhang, the young upstart from Dancing Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000), and the fourth woman named Su Li-Zhen, a gambler whom he met in Singapore, is played by Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of Chinese cinema. So this film becomes not only the tryst of lonely souls failing to remember when they were last alive, but also of the best Asian stars taking a bow on a closing stage(WKW’s brand of erotic melancholy and poetic sadness ends with this film).
In the film, Mr Chow never has a serious relationship with any of these women, though a long sexual relationship with Bai Ling develops, who pretends to charge him for his visits, but pays it back when they meet in his room. With Wong, he develops a professional relationship, where she writes his stories when he gets sick, and he in turn puts her in his story about a train that takes people to their favorite memory. In the story, many want to return from that place, but no one can gather their will to do so; none except one. It is this character who will provide an ending to the film.
Time, as usual, passes in Hong Kong; Wong marries her Japanese boyfriend, Chow breaks up with Bai Ling when she develops a crush on him, and memories fade away only to reappear. The characters peer back into the screen to be reassured of their own existence, as if they’ll start to doubt it if someone doesn’t love them.
Chow goes to Singapore every year on Christmas eve to meet Su Li-Zhen(the gambler with one gloved hand, who happens to have the same name as the real heroine of the film), who has disappeared. Time keeps passing, and we miss the mark.
Back in Hong Kong, Bai Ling approaches him one last time to ask for a favor to help start a new life in Singapore. Times are tough here. He says goodbye to her but keeps going into 2046, hoping to find HER, and runs into apparitions. In 2046, everybody cries, everybody loses, and nobody loves. It all looks fabulous, but a bit futile.
The man who got on the train back did so after realizing that he couldn’t stay in that unchanging place forever, but he couldn’t find anywhere else to go. The train became his escape, where he “thought it was going well, but it didn’t end up as I wished”.
Memories go away only when there’s something powerful enough to replace it, but the cycle goes on. We keep dreaming new realities to feel nostalgia about. That’s how the world continues to hallucinate into the future. 2046 is only 24 years away, and Hong Kong has already lost the autonomy it was promised till that year. We “ thought it was going well, but it didn’t end up as I wished”.