Ben Reiss’s review published on Letterboxd:
**Not going to spoiler tag this because it’s more of an essay than a review but if you’re spoiler-sensitive consider yourself warned**
I’ve been watching a lot of Paul Schrader’s films over the last few months (including his recently released The Card Counter, which I wholeheartedly recommend). As always, Paul gets me thinking about how much narrative art is focused on people who make important, meaningful choices that (to them at least) give their lives and souls a meaning. This line of thought will eventually get us to Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love, but it will take a few paragraphs.
We’ll start with American blockbuster director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s most popular and acclaimed films such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Bridge of Spies are about normal people put in extraordinary situations where they are able to make a choice that saves lives. The protagonists are undistinguished individuals going about one-in-a-billion lives and they are given every opportunity to continue doing so before they decide to make a choice (and with it usually a sacrifice) that gives their lives meaning. We watch these films and walk away feeling good because our lives could have meaning too because, like Tom Hanks, we’d make the tough choice to save lives in extraordinary circumstances too. Thank god we don’t need to.
The underbelly of Spielberg’s feel-good Americana can be found in the films of the aforementioned Paul Schrader. Schrader’s protagonists, in films like Taxi Driver, First Reformed, and The Card Counter are not normal Americans played by Tom Hanks. They’re alienated, they’re flawed in ways that are obvious to both the audience and the characters around them, and they’re a reflection of our worst aspects rather than our best. The choices they make are of a more symbolic nature than those of Spielberg’s heroes. They respond to the casual cruelty of their surroundings, to the destruction of our planet, to the guilt of unforgivable actions. Their choices are less about practical impact and more about personal salvation, and unlike those of Spielberg’s heroes they aren’t choices that audiences feel they would make themselves. They’re more personal, more spiritual, and somehow more real.
These spiritual choices of Paul Schrader protagonists can be traced back to the novels of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. My favorite Mishima novel, Spring Snow twists Schrader’s alienated protagonist back into a hero. The novel’s protagonist is a young man living in the peaceful early years of the Taisho era. Like a Schrader protagonist, he feels alienated from the other youths of his time. He sees them as unserious, weak-willed, and frivolous. In any other time the protagonist would have made the choice to go to war and distinguish himself there (sounds like a Spielberg hero), but there is no war to be found. Instead he makes the choice to engage in a forbidden love affair. The choice displays the heroism of Spielberg but has the motivation of Schrader. But Mishima is not Spielberg - the choice saves no lives, helps no one, and marks both lovers for tragedy. The choice is heroic for its personal and spiritual implications. The protagonist finds meaning and spiritual salvation for himself in his choice. He is portrayed as a hero because he sacrifices materiality for spirituality, and status for love. If Spielberg’s choices seemed like no-brainers and Schrader’s seemed like inadvisable follies then Mishima’s seem like pipe dreams. Saving lives is easy, but dooming ourselves for love is impossible.
All of this brings us (I promised we’d get here eventually) to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The film takes two expats from the Chinese mainland and places them alone with their spouses in the overcrowded, bustling Hong Kong of the 60’s. The two, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are neighbors in a claustrophobic apartment building. They’re often left alone by their spouses, and through this loneliness they begin to connect, eventually realizing that their spouses are having an affair with each other.
Finally, FINALLY we have a set of protagonists who we can see ourselves in. These aren’t Spielberg’s brave men in extraordinary circumstances, they aren’t Schrader’s lost souls, and they aren’t Mishima’s pure heroes. They’re normal people, working normal jobs, facing normal heartbreak. But as anyone who has faced normal heartbreak while working a normal job in a normal city would tell you, these normal people are feeling so alone and so worthless that they could die. How could they possibly do what the art demands of them and make a choice to distinguish themselves and save their souls?
Wong Kar-Wai emphasizes the inertia, the anonymity, and the isolation of our two protagonists through the filmmaking. The camera films in slow motion, it emphasizes the tightness of the rooms and corridors, the soundtrack loops lonely songs. Wong Kar-Wai shows us that these are people who, like us, are unable to make big choices to change their situations.
So what do they do? They make a small choice. They choose to distinguish themselves through inaction. It would have been so easy for them to begin a love affair, to sleep together and to take the same action that their spouses took to betray them. Instead they don’t. They don’t even touch each other in the hotel room where they spend their time, let alone run away together.
This small choice of inaction in minuscule when compared with the big actions of Spielberg, Schrader, and Mishima, but in its own way it carries more weight. It’s an accessible choice, borne out of the crushingly mundane loneliness that most people have felt at certain times in their lives. It doesn’t require Spielberg’s extraordinary circumstances, Schrader’s titanic alienation, or Mishima’s pure resolve. It’s a choice many people have made - to not sleep with someone you shouldn’t, not betray a partner even when it’s warranted. But this doesn’t mean that the choice has no consequence. It’s a choice that allows the two protagonists to find solace, to achieve salvation, and to distinguish themselves like we all want to do in our own way.
So with In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-Wai achieves the impossible - he distills The Great Choice into something tangible and something real for audiences. The American blockbuster tells us that we can be special because we are heroes. The American indie tells us that we can find salvation by doing something bold, regardless of consequence. Yukio Mishima tells us that we can be a hero even in time of peace, but we still need an impossibly pure resolve. But Wong Kar-Wai shows us how we find something special in ourselves even in the inertia of loneliness and the debilitation of heartbreak.
This review is part of this series of reviews of rewatches or movies I haven’t seen in a while