The Privilege of Time Traveling
STEFANIE LÜHRS, March 2001
Tony Leung received the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his role in “In the Mood for Love”, a film by Wong Kar-Wai. The Hong Kong director, in his turn, received the Douglas Sirk Award at the Hamburg Film Festival a couple of months later.
“In the Mood for Love” is an elegant and subtle romantic melodrama about two people who are dealing with the infidelities of their spouses and happen to fall into an uncertain love affair. The setting is 1962, Hong Kong. This film is Wong’s most personal film so far, apparently reflecting his childhood in the Shanghai community in Hong Kong.
(SL:) You tend to choose titles for your movies that contradict their stories. Your last picture, “Happy Together” is about a homosexual couple breaking up, and in “In the Mood for Love” the protagonists seem to try everything to avoid love.
(WKW:) Well, it is very difficult to translate the Chinese title of “In the Mood for Love. ” The original title is very poetic, depicting the prime of one’s life, and in particular a woman’s full bloom. We were looking for a suitable English title when we were going to send the movie to Cannes.
Different suggestions came from members of the crew, but everything seemed inappropriate. So one day, I went to a record store and found a CD with Brian Ferry singing “In the Mood for Love”, and I thought to myself, “Well, actually that is not a bad title.”
The original song is from the 60s, the period in which the movie is set and in fact the movie is about that mood, right? It is not about love, it is about the mood for love. Everybody seemed pleased with the title so we decided to use it.
(SL:) What in your opinion is so special about the 1960s? You have somehow often returned to that period in the movies you made, especially “Days of Being Wild.” As you said at the premiere in Hamburg,” ‘In the Mood for Love” is an homage to that period.
(WKW:) Well, I would like to go back to the 1940s, too, but that would be extremely difficult and expensive. What I personally like about that later period is: that is my childhood and I want to go back to those days and do something with it. I think it is the privilege of a filmmaker to travel in time. If you want to go back to a certain period you just make a film about that period.
(SL:) What is the connection between “In the Mood for Love” and “Days of Being Wild,” which is also set in the 1960s?
(WKW:) Well, everybody has been guessing that this is sort of a sequel to “Days of Being Wild.” but this is a different story and we tried to make it different from that earlier movie. Yet at some point in the process of making this film, I thought: we do not have to do it so deliberately. The two films can relate to one another. Although “In the Mood for Love” is not “Days of Being Wild” part two; it can be an extension of it.
For Maggie Cheung, this way of looking at it helped. With all her costumes, playing a housewife of thirty-something -probably the most boring role in the world. She missed a certain connection to her role. I told her: “All right, you appeared very natural in “Days of Being Wild.” That story was set in the same period and you did not have any problems then.”
Her reply was, “Well, in that movie I was playing a young girl and I did not have to dress up so much.” So I asked her to imagine she was that same person, only ten years older. To make it more easy, we gave her the same name. From that day on she somehow got an idea of her character and was fine.
(SL:) There are no sex scenes in the final cut of “In the Mood for Love,” but you did shoot one, and left it out. Why?
(WKW:) The reason I shot the love scene is - this is the way I work - because I wanted the two actors to realize why they act like they do and what kind of relationship they have. So on the first day, we did this love scene and from then on the actors knew that something could happen between them. This made the chemistry between the characters different, the way they look, walk together and react to each other.
At the end of the day, we left that scene out, but still we have that chemistry. It was the same way with “Happy Together.” When we started filming, the first scene was the love scene, so, the two actors knew exactly what sort of a relationship they have. They have to face that, you know: do we have an affair or do we actually fuck each other, which makes quite a difference.
(SL:) You have shot most of the movie not in Hong Kong, but in Cambodia and Bangkok. Was it difficult for you to find the places where you could recreate this period?
(WKW:) We started with a project called ‘Summer in Beijing’, about two inhabitants of Hong Kong who, like many, earn their living in Beijing. Now of course, the latter city is fantastic, but after some difficulties with hypersensitive censors I decided to give up that plan and… and do another movie in Hong Kong.
As a joke, we even wanted to keep the title. ‘Beijing’ in ‘Summer In Beijing’ became the name of a restaurant in Macão and the story was intended to be all about food and eating. With “In The Mood For Love” we made quite a different film. But still, most of the action takes places in restaurants and noodle bars. Only part of the movie was shot in Hong Kong. It is extremely difficult to film in Hong Kong, the city changes so fast.
Take, for instance, the hotel in the movie. Eventually, we built a set in a military hospital; and this hospital and also the houses around it were gone after we had finished the film. In the end we had to find other locations in Bangkok to finish the film. The whole thing turned into something else - something new.
To make period films in Hong Kong is almost impossible. You need to go to places in Southeast Asia like Bangkok or Malaysia, because in those cities you still find old buildings which belonged to Chinese communities in earlier days.
(SL:) Ever since your second movie, you have worked with the Australian photographer Christopher Doyle, well-known for his idiosyncratic cinematography. You, yourself have studied graphic design and your movies are famous for their strong imagery. Is creating visual beauty the most important aspect of filmmaking for you?
(WKW:) No, I guess I just react to the space and the faces that I have in front of me. Of course, my training in graphics helps. Most of the time I think the scene is right because it looks good to me. But we also take a lot of time to find the right tempo and to construct things.
‘Yumenji’s theme’, the song that is repeated several times in the film is a waltz composed by the Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru in 1972 for another film. He is a friend of mine and he sent me all his music. I had this waltz on my mind for some time.
When I started with “In the Mood for Love” I used it to communicate to Chris and the actors the mood and tempo that I wanted in the film. I think “In the Mood for Love” is like a dance, a waltz between these two characters, that is why I used that particular piece of music.
(SL:) You usually have a lot of material for a movie. For “In the Mood for Love”, you had four hours of film. How difficult is it to reduce that to a film of 90 minutes?
(WKW:) For most directors the editing process is to construct something, to put things together and build something. But our process is to take out the things that are not necessary or not good, it is a process of destruction.
We check out what we have and ask ourselves: do we really need that? With the love scene we decided we did not, and took it out. It is a painful process, because there is so much that you have to cut. And afterwards you always want to show people the good things that you have made that somehow did not fit into the movie.
(SL:) At the moment you are working on a movie with the title 2046, referring to the year that the Basic Law (joint declaration between the People’s Republic of China and Britain to maintain the political system and lifestyle in British Hong Kong for 50 years) will expire and be replaced by Chinese law.
(WKW:) Yeah. The first thing I wanted to do is imagine how it would be if Hong Kong would stay the same for 50 years, while the rest of the world is changing. I want to make a film about change, because so many inhabitants of Hong Kong are afraid of it. It will be a futuristic film with actors from different parts of the world: Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea… perhaps even Europe.