Beginning alone, two solitary entities drifting in a sea of loneliness, Su Li-zhen Chan and Chow Mo-wan were little more than specters. Suspecting an affair, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan begin a friendship of their own, and steadily fall in love. Their absentee spouses became the catalyst for what would be a great romance.
The film is a symphony of melodic camera angles, haunting plays with light and shadow, and nuanced subject matter. Each frame captures the subtlety of becoming enraptured with another person, showcasing its uncontrollable nature.
“Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.” Chow Mo-wan admits. That’s the beauty of such a scenario – all control is lost once you are consumed by another.
This is one of those rare films that needs to be felt, rather than simply watched. It’s so exquisitely executed. Every element folds neatly into place to form one cohesive, engulfing whole. The score is magnificent – I’ve listened to it on repeat for the past two days. The camera angles are subtle, and purposeful, zeroing in on physicality that may give away ones intentions when the face won’t betray the heart – the hands, namely. Whether it’s clenching at ones own arm for stability, or lightly brushing against his fingertips side by side in a taxi, the cinematography and use of hands divulge every word left unspoken – and there are many.
The dialogue is sparse, and suggestive. Deciding against the original sexually charged, obvious romance, Wong Kar Wai toned the film down to the subtler, more suggestive version that was released. A wise decision. It leaves much of the film open to interpretation – do they, or don’t they misbehave just as their spouses have?
Though it seems to be debatable as to whether or not they engage in a sexual relationship, I personally think they do. Moments such as their rehearsed ending of their own relationship give such details away. Her uncontrollable sobbing into his arms over the artificial ending makes this obvious for me. The hallway to their rented apartment being lined with lush, red, flowing curtains suggests a level of illicit behavior, while the façade of writing a kitschy novel together proposes an innocence to it all. Though sexual and romantic in nature, it is not purely a physical connection – they’ve found each other.
By deliberately omitting the faces of the leads’ spouses, it suggests not only their redundancy in their lives, but also sets the stage for Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan’s desire for human connection. Mrs. Chow’s presence in the film at all is surprising, as she is far more present than Mr. Chan. This is the only factor that leads me to believe the Chows stay together at the end of it all – though Mr. Chow’s sojourn to Angkor Wat does leave me wondering.
If the set pieces, and character interaction weren’t enough to suggest a physical relationship, Su Li-zhen’s living alone with a conveniently aged child should cinch it. Perhaps this child is Chow Mo-wan’s secret, that he hides away forever at the very end of the film.
“In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did?” he asks his colleague. “They went up a mountain,” he says, “found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And left the secret there forever.” Revealed early in the film, nearly at its opening, this sets the stage for the affair that was about to commence.
For whatever reason, I find this film very difficult to write about. It’s executed in such a way that, above all else, elicits a feeling – an emotion. How do you qualify something like that? Should you qualify something like that?
Given the nature of this project, I kind of have to. However difficult it may be.
This film speaks to the heart, and in many ways to the soul. It’s elegant, seductive, and engulfing. If any one element were left out the effect would surely be lost – that’s how intricately executed it is.
We don’t care about the adultery of the two leads, Wong Kar Wai makes sure of that. We’re not supposed to. We don’t even entirely care about the adultery of their spouses. If anything, we’re happy for it. It ensured the romance that dances before us on screen.
This is in no way a judgment of infidelity. In so many ways it has nothing to do with it, except for the atmosphere it provides. Such a scenario lends itself to an air of immediacy, and urgency. It sets the tone for stronger emotions, and more palpable scenarios.
What Wong Kar Wai has created here is a love story where what gets left unsaid is often more significant than what is said, and the actions off screen have more power than those shown. Its elegance is in its subtlety, and its understated grace. It’s not the melodrama of Hollywood romance. It’s soft spoken, and treads lightly. As a result, it hits harder, and leaves you breathless.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on July 15, 2012.