Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 116
SIFF is presenting, online-wise, “World of Wong Kar-Wai,” a selection of the Hong Kong maestro’s works.
Over the years I’ve been a little slow to love this filmmaker, although he’s made some hurtfully wonderful movies, without question. I was lukewarm about Chungking Express when I covered the New York Film Festival for Film Comment back in the 90s, but last year I assigned it to represent its decade in a class I taught, so we all make amends in our own way. (The students did not like it.)
Here’s a spoken introduction I made to a screening of In the Mood for Love (2000) a few years ago—and if you haven’t seen that one, please do something about it.
In the Mood for Love introduction
This film was created under difficult circumstances, including the fact that Wong Kar-Wai does not make films by adhering to a written script, and that what had originally been planned as a very different kind of movie turned into a 14-month shooting process that ended only because the production team had to meet a deadline to show the film at the Cannes Film Festival, which Wong himself acknowledged. (That’s ironic, or something, because Wong’s movies are obsessed with time, and how it passes, and the clock that looms over us all.)
I would like to make three observations about this movie. One is that language is a key element of the picture. Wong Kar-Wai has said that his setting—Hong Kong in the early 1960s, which he experienced as a child whose parents emigrated from Shanghai—was divided by natives speaking Cantonese and outsiders speaking Mandarin (or Shanghainese). It’s one of the ways the outsiders in his film find themselves in their own isolated world.
Secondly, I have been thinking lately of the way that many issues in the art of cinema come down to a basic question: How do you photograph a room? Not that the people aren’t important, but they have to be somewhere, and so, frequently, they are in rooms. And Wong Kar-Wai has confronted this question in In the Mood for Love in ways that I think you will find very exciting to watch, because how you photograph a room also gets you into questions of how you photograph the people in those rooms, and how does composition and distance and lighting and movement combine to tell the story, especially in a movie in which words are not always saying what they mean to say. The film’s visual approach even excludes from vision two very important characters. And, of course, how his style conjures a particular time and place that he knew as a child (he has said certain visual strategies were determined by the way children have some of their vision blocked because of their size). Wong has also said he wanted the audience to feel as though they were a neighbor in this crowded section of Hong Kong.
Finally, In the Mood for Love is notable as a film in which something very central never happens, or at least we don’t think it happens. Most movies are full of things happening, but in this one things frequently fall short of happening, or they only happen as an imitation of someone else’s imagined behavior—and as time goes by, you realize that the not-happening was the subject all the time. Which is one way of experiencing not only movies but life.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.