This week, the only copy of In the Mood for Love I could get my hands on was a German dub. Watching the film with a different translation offered some insights into the characters that aren’t there in the English subtitled version. For example, the two main characters, Mrs. Chan [Maggie Cheung] and Mr. Chow [Tony Leung Chiu-Wei], refer to each other with the formal “you” [Sie] throughout their entire acquaintance—except for those moments when they’re playing the part of their philandering spouses. Then, suddenly, the informal “you” [du] appears, accentuating those agonizing moments of [simulated?] closeness between the characters.
Another thing: the film’s epigraph, the segment of narrated text that ends the film, is quite differently translated. The English version, according to a clip I found on Youtube, seems like four short lines, a poem:
He remembers those vanished years
As though looking through a dusty window pane.
The past is something he could see, but not touch,
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
There’s plenty to dig through here; I think the notion of the past as blurry and indistinct contrasts productively with Christopher Doyle’s sharp photography, to take one example.
However, the German translation of the same text is longer, more like prose, and, I would submit, more interesting. Here it is, translated into English:
Those past years and months are as if hidden behind a pane of glass covered by a veil of dust. You can look through the pane, but not grasp what is hidden there. You cannot forget what is past, but if you were to shatter the glass, you could return to the years past.
A few, very significant things are different here. The subject of the text is less personalized [the German does say “he”, but it’s referring to the generic man—“one” or “you”] and, what I think is more significant, it concludes with an enigmatic line about breaking the metaphorical “dusty glass,” which is not even implied in the English version.
In the Mood for Love is about looking through the shattered glass of time, and this we know not just because director Wong Kar-Wai often puts his camera behind glass, or moves it so we’re suddenly looking a multiple reflections of a single character in a mirror. We also know because time in the movie is shattered, proceeding in fits and starts both at the level of the individual scene and on a broader, narrative level.
Weeks often pass between individual shots; consider the sequence in which we see Mr. Chow discussing borrowing a pot from the Chans, then returning the pot, then offering to loan Mrs. Chen some kung-fu fiction, and then receiving the books back from Mrs. Chan. Probably a month’s time has been contracted into a few second of screen time.
But then there are the small moments that are dilated into entire, sumptuous sequences, as in the first time we see Mrs. Chan going to the street vendor to get noodles. The movie’s melancholy theme plays as she descends and ascends the stairs, thermos in tow, in slow motion. The camera halts on a streetlight and lets her pass; a few seconds later Mr. Chow passes, still in slow motion, along the same path. It’s unclear, given the camera’s hesitation, whether the two neighbors encountered each other off screen, or whether we’ve suddenly jumped forward days or weeks.
There are—thank goodness—no flashbacks in In the Mood for Love, but the movie is nevertheless about time and memory. It tries to imagine ways of capturing time—by which I mean not just the metaphorical term we usually use with the cinema to mean “represent,” but also more literally capturing it, slowing it to a halt. The acting is stylized toward this end—the main characters seem to gracefully slink through their close, hectic environment—but even more striking is the use of the camera.
As in previous films like Chungking Express , Wong uses multiple kinds of slow motion. The traditional method of “overcranking” [running the camera at a high frame rate but playing it at the regular frame rate], as seen in the noodles sequences, emphasizes detail. Another method known as step-printing creates a blurrier slow-motion effect, because to slow the sequence down it duplicates individual frames—think of the moment in the hallway in the hotel when Mr. Chow is smoking a cigarette, or when the two of them are walking away from that street where they rehearse the scene of their spouses’ seduction. [Another method Wong uses to get that beautiful blurriness is to adjust the shutter speed on the camera so that frames are exposed to light longer.]
The step-printed smoke rising slowly but inexorably from the cigarette is the failure of the cinema [and our consciousnesses] to fully capture time. Time only goes one way, and we are always “behind” it, as the present is constantly transformed into the past. Nevertheless, the capturing of time is clearly a topic well suited to the cinema, as film gives us a better grasp on time’s passage—the cinema seems to shatter time, creating shards of different sizes and shapes. Still, even in the memory-banks of cinema, the beginnings and ends are indistinct and the full import of single moments often eludes us. “Many things begin before one notices it,” as Mr. Chow says [while pretending to be Mr. Chan].
And as philosopher Henri Bergson argued a century ago, this experience of time is irreconcilable with clock time, the time of science and labor, which is segmented into moments of equal length and value. Organic, human time is durée, a moving continuity of unique transformations rather than a homogeneous medium in which results can be duplicated. The modern world abstracts and spatializes time, making it equivalent to the notches on a clock or the dates on a calendar. Writing in 1911, Bergson believed he had found the most representative outgrowth of this functional theory of quantifiable time: the cinema. The spatialization of time he terms the “cinematographic illusion.”
But Wong’s conception of time—and of how the cinema can re-present our own experience of time back to us—is essentially Bergsonian, in favor of an organic experience of time and against the rationalized clock time of labor which one might argue so many mainstream films partake of. What do his multiple methods for approaching the problem of “representing time” reflect other than cinema’s inherent ability to show the diversity and heterogeneity of temporal experience? In the Mood for Love is an affecting story of forbidden romance and loss not just because of its story, but because its contractions and dilations of time prick us with a pin of sympathetic recognition. It shows us how time feels.
Moreover, In the Mood for Love is in part a statement against the artificial routines and rhythms we inhabit in modernity. One of the images Wong returns to throughout In the Mood for Love is that of a giant Siemens clock that oppressively hangs over Mrs. Chan’s office. [It actually appears to be a larger model in the long shots than in the numerous close-ups, probably to ensure this oppressiveness is always foregrounded.] The clock in this film—as in Wong’s other films—always seems to be in countdown mode; it speaks of time edging away, a schedule to which one must keep if one wants to be “on time.”
Wong believes, if I may venture to speak for him, that we actually exist in time, that time is neither currency nor commodity, but the very medium of our existence. It’s why his films are also often political; in Chungking Express, the heartbroken He Zhiwu [Takeshi Kaneshiro] obsessively eats pineapples that expire on May 1, the birthday of his ex-girlfriend May [and, we should observe, International Worker’s Day], as if he can reintegrate himself into a synchronized, globalized world by ingesting its temporal order.
In In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow stays in the hotel room 2046 [also, of course, the name of the film’s sequel], where he and Mrs. Chan write their kung-fu novel and play at being each other’s spouses. The room is a place where time needn’t pass, in which nothing can change, and where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s neighbors can’t observe and gossip about their budding friendship.
This works for both the romantic and the metaphysical themes of the film, but there’s a political meaning here, too, as in Chungking Express: 2046 is the year mainland China assumes full political control over Hong Kong. Wong’s Hong Kong is a society with a deadline, living in a past it already knows will be looked at dimly through a dusty pane. Or, differently metaphorized, it’s a society whiling away in a room with “2046” written on the door.