“In the Mood for Love” and the Transfiguration of Time: Stretched, Shrunk, Suspended, and Split
Article by Hanh T. L. Nguyen
Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) is a melancholy melodrama that tells the story of two neighbours, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), whose husband and wife are having an affair with each other. As Chow and Su try to figure out the genesis of the affair and grapple with the pain caused by their spouses’ infidelity, they gradually fall in love with one another yet insist on eschewing an extramarital affair. As such, Chow and Su experience an array of unarticulated emotions that are externalized through filmic devices. The film’s English title, In the Mood for Love, as opposed to “falling in love” or “being in love”, somewhat implies a wanting, a longing for love that is never fulfilled, in other words, a disappointment. In the universe of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema where disappointment is “a source and a resource of the erotic” (Abbas, 2016, p.118), Chow and Su perpetually find themselves with ungratified desires. This dissatisfaction complexifies their perception of and relation with time as they are unable to progress in their love story. This essay discusses the concept of time as it is varyingly perceived by Chow and Su, which is contingent with their affective and emotional state.
Keywords: Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love, time in film, time and movement, film analysis
Evoking the chronophotoghrapher Étienne-Jules Marey’s commentary that movement in space is the indicator of the passing of time, Stiegler (2011) infers that film, or moving images, is a “medium of representing time” (original emphasis, p.162)). Using the concept “movement-image”, Deleuze (1986) also associates movement and time. The movement-image is “not an image that moves” (i.e., a moving image) (Hou & Lu, 2017, p.235). The movement-image is an image of “pure mobility extracted from the movements of characters” (Deleuze, 1986, p.25), which is achieved through either camera movement or montage. According to Deleuze (1989, p.22), the movement-image provides an “indirect image of time”, that is, time is shown via movement. From the perspective of the movement-image, time in In the Mood for Love sometimes slows down or stretches, sometimes speeds up or shrinks, and sometimes even suspends in correspondence with the characters’ movement and state of mind. Deleuze’s comment on Henri Bergson’s construct of “durée” (duration) nicely summarizes this phenomenology: “each moment will have its own qualitative duration” (1986, p.1), or, each moment will feel longer or shorter than another. This essay argues that, via the manipulation of movement (and music), In the Mood for Love stretches, shrinks, and suspends time to express and accommodate the protagonists’ state of mind. Furthermore, it also demonstrates how the film takes its experiment with cinematic time to the next level where, as manipulation of durations fail to maintain the couple’s union, time then splits and becomes disjointed between their unconnected, irrelevant lives.
This does not mean that mechanical time, or time that is measured by clocks and calendars and of which every moment is equivalent to another, does not exist in the diegesis of In the Mood for Love. Quite the opposite, mechanical time is pointed to very consistently throughout the film. The Siemens clock in Su’s office is shown five times in close-up shots throughout the film, at moments of virtually no particular temporal significance. That is because the clock’s function is not so much to help to progress the plot, but to serve as a persistent sign of the universal, never-changing flux of time. This consistent time flow is then juxtaposed with the protagonists’ personal time to underscore the elasticity of the latter.
The most conspicuous way of expressing time as elastic in the film is through a series of slow-motion movements. The first slow motion sequence is also the first time all four characters of the romantic entanglement are introduced in an encounter, although never simultaneously in the same frame. While the faces and full figures of Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen are captured from several angles, their spouses are shown only with their backs to the camera. The sequence begins with Su bringing a packet of cigarettes to her husband who seems to be engaged in a game of mahjong. Then, enters the frame Chow’s wife whose sensual figure and seductive movements are fully embraced by the camera, yet only from behind. Su then courteously stands up to accommodate Mrs. Chow, who gently brushes Su’s husband’s back when walking by him through the narrow space. As soon as Mrs. Chow leaves the frame to go further into the room, we see her husband, Chow Mo-wan, entering, walking by Su, smiling with her and walking into the kitchen and out of sight. The long take is then interrupted; the picture cuts back to Su lovingly caressing her husband’s shoulder at the mahjong table. All of the movements in this sequence are reduced to slow motion and coupled with the background seducing music of Omebayashi Shigeru’s Yumeji’s Theme. To the audience, the mise-en-scène of this encounter could be a herald of the characters’ romantic involvements: The affair of those whose faces are not shown is mostly kept off screen; Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen’s liaison ends with Chow retreating from the picture and Su remaining with her husband. The camera fixates on Chow and Su, hinting that it is not going to be a drama of confrontations that involve all four people, but a romance of the two. Using slow motion, the film slows down so spectators can catch, and perhaps contemplate, Chow and Su’s smiles in comparison with the conspicuous absence of their spouses’ faces.
A few minutes later, the film treats us to another duo of slow motions on the repetitive yet mesmerizing melody of Yumeji’s Theme. After Chow starts to realize that his wife is acting suspiciously and his friend told him he saw her with a man on the street, Chow is shown smoking at a street corner, brooding over his suspicion. The camera then cuts to Su walking down the stairs with her noodle flask bouncing on her side to the rhythm of her steps. What is interesting is that the music and the slow motion do not start with Chow whose awareness of the possibility of his wife being unfaithful is made clear to the audience. They start with Su Li-zhen even though she has not been shown doubting her husband’s fidelity. Her lonely walks to the noodle stall, her suppressed yet still quite manifestly distressed facial expression and the mournful music seem to correspond so well with Chow’s knowledge of the unfortunate circumstance that viewers realize that she, too, knows. Later, we learn that Su has noticed Mrs. Chow has the same handbag as the one her husband bought for her while he himself has the same tie as Mrs. Chow’s husband’s. The slow motion coupled with the repetitive music of the theme not only makes time for both the audience and the characters to come to the inevitable realization of the affair, but also perpetuates the protagonists’ state of mental distress in the face of such realization. Moreover, with slow motion, the film allows more time for the viewers to fully register Su’s lonely figure among the crowd and Chow’s subtle cling to the cigarette in an effort to stay composed. Their suffering and loneliness seem to be more profound and expansive over time and space when movements are shown in slow motion through a tracking camera. While the realization of the affair is a state of knowing, which could be announced briefly, reflecting upon it is a matter of feeling, which requires time to be expressed. The slow motion not only establishes the film in a melancholic mood but also allows time for the characters to express their grief and the audience to identify with such despondency.
A similar sequence where time seems to be stretched is the parallel scenes in Su’s home and Chow’s office, where the pair spend time apart hoping that the growing gossip about their relationship will resolve itself. Su stays at home and hang out with her landlady and their neighbours while Chow stays in his office with his colleagues. This sequence comes after the happy times they spend together in the hotel room in which, as I will argue shortly, time seems to shrink and flow faster. After such rendezvous full of emotions and even artistic and intellectual stimuli as they write martial arts serials together, spending time walking around ladies whose heads are in mahjong games and joking around with co-workers feel banal to Su and Chow — separately. As they resort to the windows to escape from such banality, one sipping tea and the other smoking a cigarette, their heart seems to be elsewhere other than their current locations. Understandably, time stretches and seems to pass more slowly as it is reified in slow motion movements, necessarily submerged in the romantic music that signals their emotional connection.
Opposite to this stretched time is the condensed time that Chow and Su experience together in the hotel room 2046. After Su’s first visitation to the hotel room which she apparently has difficulty proceeding, her next visits are all “sutured” together into a series of activities shown in medias res. Su’s several visits to Chow, as hinted by the different cheongsams that she wears (Chion, 2016), are condensed into one continuous sequence of writing, singing, eating, talking, and stealing glances. This condensation of happy moments indicates how fleeting time feels to Chow and Su who seem to be enjoying the fullest moments in the hotel room. Read intertextually, room 2046, as the year of the same number in the film 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004), represents a happy place where people go to “recapture lost memories”. The camera’s smooth and continuous panning seems to make visible the unfailing passing of time. In room 2046, one happy moment keeps melting into the next one, synchronizing Su and Chow’s movements with the flowing music in the background (Stiegler, 2011). As the pair’s shared time is “borrowed” from their legitimate relationships (Chion, 2016), it is fleeting and transient. The slow-motion mode is perhaps an effort to slow down this ceaseless flux of time so Chow and Su can linger in the happy room a bit longer.
With a much faster pace compared to the slow-motion sequences, the scene of Su’s first visit to Chow in the hotel room is another instance of how In the Mood for Love uses movement to externalize the inner struggle of the characters. Su’s chaotic state of mind is materialized in the haste and restlessness that she embodies. We see her show up in the hotel lobby, walk up the stairs, then down, then up again, as she cannot make up her mind about whether she should go knock on Chow’s door or leave the hotel at once. Apparently torn between different decisions, she then stops to think for what seems to be a few seconds; we then see her walking in the corridor outside his room, at one point towards the door and at another away from it; suddenly, we see her walking down the staircase to the lobby where the receptionist is standing behind the counter, at which point we might guess that she will leave rather than stay; however, she ends up knocking on his door eventually. Unlike the fast-forwarded movements in films such as Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997), Maggie Cheung’s motion is not technically manipulated to appear fast in this sequence. The actress simply walks faster than she usually does throughout the film. Bergson (1984) points out, to study movement is to “consider it at its matters, not what moment in its course” (p.331). Deleuze (1986) also contends, to reconstitute movement is to grasp its actualization in a matter-flux, or an entirety. Compared to the entire film as a slow moving picture, this sequence is abnormally fast. The camera focuses especially on Cheung’s footwork. As Su changes her mind repeatedly along the way, the camera captures her stilettos turning corners, changing directions, at one point going up and another running down. Detached from the regularly heard suave music of Yumeji’s Theme, these images of sharp turns and returns are instead coupled with the amplified sound of her hurried footsteps, which externalizes her inner crisis even more clearly. Unlike the slow tracking and panning camera in other scenes where time feels to either be dragging on or lingering, the jump cut editing adds to the rapid tempo of this sequence.
This speedy tempo of this sequence coincides with Su’s fast and constant changing of mind about meeting Chow in the hotel. In fact, they have already found themselves in this hotel once after they wondered what their spouses were doing in their “business trips”. Clearly, the hotel represents their spouses’ “torrid affair” (Teo, 2001) and a secret rendezvous in it could spark their own intimacy. Su’s mind is torn between moral, passion, and perhaps image, which triggers her to oscillate constantly and rapidly between leaving and going on to see Chow. While the uninterrupted flow of happy moments in Su’s successive visits feel fleeting and fluid as an unstoppable flux of time, this sequence, though also fast, lacks the smoothness and is filled with interruptions and constant changes that manifest Su’s anxiety.
Besides expressing time as either stretched and stagnant or shrunk and swift in accordance with the characters’ emotional state, In the Mood for Love presents interesting attempts of stopping time. Outside hotel room 2046, at separate moments, both Su and Chow abruptly stop in the middle of walking in a frozen posture in the corridor. Significantly, they not only stay still in a standing position, but in a walking position, that is, stopping in the middle of stepping. Interestingly, in a photo, such posture would imply movement, as if a person or animal is walking. Meanwhile, in the moving picture, Su and Chow’s frozen postures are conspicuous of intended stillness. If movement across space indicates the passing of time (Marey, cited in Stiegler, 2011), freezing one’s movement implies an effort of stopping time. Su and Chow have shared pleasant moments in 2046, “a temporal space where everything remains the same in eternity” (Hou & Lu, 2017, p.244) and a space of happiness in Wong Kar-wai’s cinema. Therefore, the hotel would make an ideal space where time freezes. One might wonder, if 2046 is such a happy space, why not try to suspend time inside the room instead of in the corridor. It is perhaps Wong Kar-wai’s way of underscoring the desperation in the attempt of ceasing time at the last minute, at the lingering borderline between staying and moving on.
Chow leaves for Singapore and will never see Su again. From then on, their time is in different sheets, as if they no longer share one same chronological dimension. The following section analyzes an ambiguous sequence of events that happen in Singapore to elaborate on this statement.
In Singapore, we are shown Chow frantically looking for something that is missing from his hotel room. In an ashtray in his room, Chow finds a cigarette butt tainted with red lipstick. Then his timeline goes on where we find him telling his friend Ping the anecdote about how people in ancient times buried their secrets in tree holes. The film then shows Su, in the same hotel and the same room, wearing bright red lipstick, looking around at Chow’s belongings. She then finds a packet of cigarettes, takes one out and starts smoking, then sits down in an armchair and slips into a comfortable pair of slippers. These are the same slippers that she left in Chow’s room after being trapped there for a whole day and night. She put on his wife’s high heels to walk home as if from work so their neighbours would not suspect their relationship. Apparently, Chow has brought those slippers with him to Singapore. At the end of this sequence, Su is shown to have changed back into her stilettos and seems to be about to take the slippers with her. Although Su seems to hesitate to take away the last thing Chow has of hers, it is inferred that she takes away the slippers because they are missing from the room, which prompts Chow’s frenzied search in the previous sequence. The presence of the lipstick-tainted cigarette butt and the absence of the slippers suggest that Su appears in Chow’s room before he finds out about the missing slippers. However, the film presents these events in a reversed order: Chow looking for the slippers is shown before they go missing. In classic filmmaking, if a past event is displayed, it usually is done so in a flashback of a character when “a memory is summoned by a subject” (Hou and Lu, 2017, p.245). However, although the event of Su showing up in Chow’s room in Singapore, chronologically speaking, precedes the event of Chow looking for the slippers, it is not a flashback of a memory summoned by any of the characters.
I would argue that the film shows those two sequences in such a non-chronological order to suggest an alternative understanding of time: that after their break-up, instead of sharing the universal time flow, Chow and Su’s time dimesions are distinct and separate. Understood from a linear time sequence, Su shows up first, then Chow loses his slippers. However, as far as their connection is concerned, their physical worlds, including time, are so disjointed that their timelines go on in separate ways; therefore, the chronological order is disrupted. If we use a growing tree as a metaphor for time, Chow and Su’s timelines have now grown out from the same tree trunk to form smaller separate branches. Unlike tributaries that will ultimately flow into one river at the end of their journey (which is the reason I avoid using a river as a metaphor for time in this case), tree branches might cross paths one day or might forever grow apart. At this particular moment in their lives, their timelines are unconnected. They now belong not only in different spaces, but also different times. The phrase “reversed order” actually betrays this novel understanding of time since the term implies linearity. Therefore, I would rephrase that the two discussed sequences are deliberately arranged in a manner of disorder to draw the audience’s attention to this alternative perception of time as multiple and splittable. In a way, when Chow and Su stop sharing a present and a possible future, their shared chronology slips from its juncture and splits into two different chronological dimensions. Then, time becomes out of joint (Deleuze, 1989, p.105). With this new understanding, we could see beyond the film’s ostensible realism and non-fictionality that are expected to be found in the melodrama genre to reach a more avant-garde point of viewing time. We could see in Su’s last phone call to Chow, she does not speak to him not only because she recognizes that, after all, words are useless in their circumstance; she is also unable to speak to him since they now belong to two different time dimensions. The gap between their separate chronologies renders any transaction of verbal communication impossible.
Instead, music speaks for them. Film music is relied on to compensate for emotions that cannot be verbally expressed (Gorbman, 1987). Wong Kar-wai’s cinema resorts to music very often for this reason, so that “characters may express themselves through music” (Carvalho, 2008, p.203). One example of this is the scene where Chow and Su address their spouses’ affair for the first time. Fraught with suspicion of their spouses’ infidelity, they meet in a restaurant to try to understand their predicament. After Chow admits that his wife has an identical handbag as Su’s, she asks, “What are you getting at, actually?” Unable to vocalize his thought that his wife is having an affair with Su’s husband, Chow stays quiet. At that moment, music erupts to replace silence. In a similar manner, when Su is unable to communicate with Chow through the phone in Singapore, music bursts up to replace verbal communication. Even though, as argued above, they now belong in different time dimensions, the non-diegetic music presents itself in both of these temporalities and connects them emotionally for one last time. The power of non-diegetic (or background) music is that, unlike diegetic music, it is omnipresent and can fill the background of different spaces. In this sense, music has the ability to compensate for the physical disconnection of the characters. Because of this, music is elevated from “its place as secondary to the narrative” (Carvalho, 2008, p.198) to being an intrinsic part of the narrative. In other words, this music is brought from the background to the forefront of the filmic texture. Anchored in the idea that the nature of the filmic world (regardless of the film genre) is unreality and fictionality, Winters (2010, p.233) proposes a rather radical idea that non-diegetic music could just be “in the air” of the diegetic world, or erupt from characters’ mind when their musical voice is felt most strong. Allowing film music this omnipresence and surrealism, it explains why in this phone call scene, the same music (Nat King Cole’s Quizas Quizas Quizas) is present in both of Chow and Su’s frames while they are being in two different dimensions of time.
Throughout the film, the construct of time is represented neither as “mechanical, homogeneous, universal” nor as “identical for all movements” (Deleuze, 1986, p.1). Rather, time is elastic as it is stretchable, shrinkable and suspendable in contingence with people’s state of mind. Instead of being rigid, time is volatile as the “qualitative duration” of moments changes in accordance with the emotional state of the perceiver: moments are ephemeral when one is joyous while sluggish when one is longing to be somewhere other than their current surroundings. Moreover, an even more innovative way of perceiving time is made possible in In the Mood for Love: time is not an irresistible ever-moving-forward flux in which one event could only happen either before or after another. More refreshingly, time could be read as disjointable and splittable chronological dimensions that are sometimes experienced by individuals whose presents and futures no longer cross paths.
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