Watching In the mood for love on New Year’s eve

Arthouse cinema / Hong Kong / Current affairs

It is level 3 in Seoul which means restaurants are only open for take-out and entertainment is all but nil. So when I found out that movie theaters were open (with capacity limits) on New Year’s eve, that’s how I was going to spend the evening in this oddest of the odd years. I was afforded two choices – Wonder woman 1984 or (to my surprise) digitally-remastered, Wong Kar Wai’s In the mood for love. It made for trouble-free decision making.

If you’re a reader of these pages but haven’t seen In the mood for love, you have definitely suffered information asymmetry and I can only chastise you to fall in with modern, global cinematic sensibilities. Watching Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the signature colors and frames of Wong Kar Wai evokes mood and emotions unlike for any other I can think of. This tour de force, Wong Kar Wai at his most stylized cinematography, is non-stop feast for your senses. I’ll attempt to describe it with two scenes and a costume (you’ll see what I mean… read on).

How does the purveyor of such outlandishly beautiful and perfectly fitted cheongsams live in such a modest rental apartment… but that’s besides the point when she levitates above us mortals shrouded in her quietly melancholy.

Wong Kar Wai is a genius of cinematic aesthetics, full of lavishly warm colors switching to and fro invigorating cool palette. His dramatic plot sequences are punctuated by arresting music as if a cue to turn the scene to the next. In fact, the main theme music (called Yumeji’s theme) played in harrowing violin bowing layered on top of plucked cords is repeated innumerable times in the most tender and melancholy scenes making the key plot lines linger long in the memory just by recalling the music. One particularly repeated scene is in which Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung make their respective trips to a wonton noodle hawker traversing through a narrow alley, Maggie Cheung always descending the steps showing her sleek cheongsam silhouette framing her from behind for the viewer and Tony Leung climbing up, many times intersecting without actually meeting. Rain is ever present feature in the film which adds to melancholy and romance. Dramatic narrative reaches a crescendo when the two leads are trapped in the alley in a chance encounter for cover from the rain.

Which brings me to the costume. In this chance encounter, Maggie Cheung is in green silk (perhaps linen blend) cheongsam – one of many, may mesmerisingly beautiful, endless procession of the close-fitting dress with impossibly high-neck and short-sleeves. How does the purveyor of such outlandishly beautiful and perfectly fitted cheongsams live in such a modest rental apartment… but that’s besides the point when she levitates above us mortals shrouded in her quietly melancholy. Her high-necked – stiff and lined with thin sheet of plastic – design is particular, almost unusual, and simply sublime on top of Maggie Cheung’s shoulders.

Another favorite scene of mine is the low key, intimate dinner they share in the booth of a typical Hong Kong tea house. Dim, art deco down-lights, cheap laminated menu, kitsch crockery – all hallmarks of quintessential Hong Kong cha chaan teng experience and here we find them as one of the most romantic scenes unfold. Two lonely souls sharing the most pragmatic meal together (sinewy steak, Maggie on mustard and Tony on ketchup) is a brief escape from their crammed rented dorms, away from the watchful gaze of the overbearing landlady. What finally brings them together with intension is where Tony gently quizzes Maggie about the handbag she is carrying, which happens to be the same make and model supposedly gifted to his wife by someone only for Tony to be quizzed back on his tie which is also identical to one gifted to Maggie’s husband. Confronted with the realisation that their spouses are having an affair with each other, time stands still in this most heart aching yet beautiful scene.

Perhaps it was recent news I read that global banks are boosting Singapore hiring to mitigate Hong Kong risk after crackdowns from Beijing (news here). Perhaps it was reading John le Carre’s obituary and remembering the opening scene in An Honourable School Boy in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, one of my favourite old haunts (for those uninitiated in anti-hero spy tropes, George Smiley is the Gary Oldman character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Recently, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about the glorious days past of Hong Kong. At least, the gritty underground neon nostalgia that defines its Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood and references the romance of Wong Kar Wai. I’m just not ready yet to say goodbye to Hong Kong I loved.

Hong Kong is far from prefect. One is subjected to a number of grievances – living in shoeboxes, intolerable muggy-heat, pollution and permanent crowd and ambient noise. I will always remember my local, head of external relations colleague’s (during my Hong Kong Disneyland time) favorite excuse for Hong Kong exception – that Hong Kong has always attracted bandits, pirates, wanderers and immigrants and that there’s a uniquely rebellious side to this survival story. His conclusion always was that Hong Kong deserves – demands – a second chance.

I will always remember my local colleague’s favorite excuse for Hong Kong exception – that Hong Kong has always attracted bandits, pirates, wanderers and immigrants and that there’s a uniquely rebellious side to this survival story.

Perhaps it is my New Jersey upbringing… growing up looking across the river to Manhattan with awe and admiration. I instantaneously recognized the quintessential Hong Kong attitude – that don’t-mess-with-me and fuhgeddabaudit rants in Cantonese, yet unmistakeable in their facial and bodily expressions. It may even be my Korean background, that contempt for authority and unwilling pliability which comes so naturally.

If Hong Kong is anything, it is grit, self-serving pragmatism, brave (perhaps naive) optimism and most of all adaptability. It would be historically unenlightened to regard that Hong Kong was ever really British – that it should remain a vestige of colonial rule – and naive to think now that its spirit would be thumbed and quashed by Beijing. Last 100 years was a brief aberration resulting from Opium War in the long history of bandits who have resiliently eked out a living in the southern shores, irrespective of who ruled the middle kingdom to the north. Hong Kong never belonged to anyone. Hong Kong will adapt. Beijing’s might can’t bend its plasticity. I won’t write off Hong Kong. I root for my adopted city.

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