“In the Mood for love”: sublime film, hellish shooting

“In the Mood for love”: sublime film, hellish shooting
“In the Mood for love”: sublime film, hellish shooting

Twenty-four years ago, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai bewitched Cannes with “In the Mood for Love”, an impossible love story born in pain and sublimated by actors at the end of their tether.

“In The Mood for Love”, by Wong Kar-wai

“In The Mood for Love”, by Wong Kar-wai Block 2 pictures/La Rabbia

By Laurent Rigoulet

Published on May 17, 2024 at 3:03 p.m.

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This article was originally published in 2020.

A strange time to celebrate its 20th anniversary… Filmed during the handover of Hong Kong to China, presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, In the Mood for Love was to return with splendor in 2020 on the Croisette in a magnified version. For once, Wong Kar-wai, grand master of staggered clocks, was perfectly on time. But in the spring of that year, the whole world began to go off the rails. On February 10, 2021 (if cinemas have reopened their doors by then), we will rediscover the melancholic masterpiece from the author of Chungking Express (1994), the thrill of impossible loves, the decorative madness, the visual and sound rhymes set ablaze by a new digital restoration. Then it might be time to move on.

The filmmaker himself puts this forward in a letter he sent us from Shanghai at the beginning of November: “At the end of the film,” he writes, “there are these few words: “He remembers the vanished years/as if he were looking through a dusty window.” When I rewatched the film in 2015 [pour la restauration, ndlr], I felt exactly the same trouble. » He says he has rediscovered the vagueness in his soul that was his at the time when Hong Kong was floating between two ages. Thousands of questions undoubtedly swirled before resuming a work whose creation was long, indecisive and complex. The filmmaker has not changed his story, added nothing to the ghost scenes that have always been rumored. The film has found a new brilliance, frozen in the stunning harmony of its revived colors: “The window is no longer dusty”, writes Wong Kar-wai.

Wong Kar-wai or the art of fog

Is that all? Will the filmmaker let him rest in peace In the Mood for Love, which already appears regularly in the list of masterpieces of the 21st century? “Will there be a new window? We will see… “ he says again, spinning the metaphor as he likes to do on screen. Four years after the Cannes screening, he extended his film with 2046, sowing the greatest chaos on the Croisette (film announced missing, then arriving the same day, press screening eternally delayed). Was it a sequel or a double? A deadly rehashing or “upsettingly standing still” ? The critics were divided, as much as stunned.

The filmmaker then moved away from the radar, lost in America (My Blueberry Nights, 2007), folded in China on a kung-fu fresco (The Grandmaster, 2013). After developing a series on Chinese immigrants in 19th century San Francisco (abandoned for the moment), he returned to his roots for the adaptation of a successful novel which follows the evolution of three young men from Shanghai on several generations: “It’s very Proustian,” he said during a festival in 2019. The book delves into China’s past and depicts its changes, from the Mao years to the modernization of Shanghai. »

Wong Kar-wai was born in the immense metropolis of eastern China before emigrating, when he was 5 years old, to Hong KongIn the Mood for Love. An impressionist journey into the labyrinths of memory takes shape again: “Adapting this novel would fill the void my departure left. And it would undoubtedly offer my audience a new piece of the puzzle. In the Mood for Love And 2046 take place in Hong Kong but the characters come from Shanghai. Blossoms is the missing piece of a trilogy. »

The filmmaker says a lot and, as always, we know almost nothing. Information dissipates behind several smoke screens. The film is now a series which should be broadcast on the Chinese platform Tencent, a feature film could be made from it, the pandemic has blocked production, which seems to be restarting these days. Another scenario has appeared in the meantime, a sequel to Chungking Express located in 2036. The tracks become blurred, the ideas are multiple and scattered, they will undoubtedly remain so for a long time, before crystallizing. The filmmaker has never worked other than in an immense vagueness that he maintains at pleasure.

One of the most painful shoots in history

When we ask him today if he remembers the first idea that crossed his mind to In the Mood for Love, he responds with a concise sentence, deepening the enigma more than clarifying it: “I was inspired by the Physiology of taste, by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin [ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante, datant du XIXe siècle, ndlr], he writes. And, of course, the first thing that came to mind was the taste. » The impalpable nature of his film, his ghostly lovers, his evanescent style provide few clues. Since its release, In the Mood for Love is a well of questions which panics fantasies and, under the pressure of the curious, the veil is lifted, little by little, on the adventures of one of the most painful shoots in history.

When he arrived at Cannes in May 2000, when he had just rushed to deliver a barely mixed copy, the filmmaker confided that he was “financially and physically at the end of his rope”. In the Mood for Love turned out to be a never-ending adventure. It started three years earlier, not at Brillat-Savarin, but in Beijing. In 1997, after the presentation on the Croisette of Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai talks about moving quickly to a film that would bring together Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, Hong Kong’s favorite actors and stars, in China. He introduces A summer in Beijing like a “love traffic from one city to another”, the romantic meeting of two expatriates.

Posters were produced, but at the time of the handover, he came up against Chinese censorship. This requires reading a script before filming. But Wong Kar-wai, a screenwriter in his early days, hasn’t written any for a long time. “I find it terribly boring to film what we have written. » He has a habit of inventing his films along the way without discussing them with anyone. The project ofA summer in Beijing immediately dissolves into another, a story divided into three segments with food as the cardinal point and a restaurant, Macau, where the characters meet. Two branches of the story will end up falling, the filmmaker only keeps a thin lead, that revolving around a canteen which serves Chinese noodles. He grafts onto it the romantic intrigue of a novel by Liu Yi-chang, Duidao.

In its first version, In the Mood for Love is called “A Food Story,” that’s about all the actors know about it. However, they are invited to the filming location, where, for a long time, nothing happens. “Six months already! Maggie Cheung then confided to a reporter from Time Asia. I feel like I have this virus inside me that I can’t get rid of and I need a good doctor to tell me what to do. I don’t know how long I can last without exploding. » The feeling of insecurity is the same in one’s partner: “We don’t do any preparatory work, said Tony Leung, because we have nothing to prepare ourselves for. I just know that I have a romantic relationship with Maggie. I can only approach the role from the accessories, the clothes, the shine in my hair. But this is how we end up finding the right movements. Wong Kar-wai is waiting for us to make up the story with him. He lets us take the first step. »

“There was nothing painful about it, tempers the director today. The characters were made for them. Custom made. The biggest challenge was to rediscover the way people behaved in the 1960s. For Maggie, maintaining and wearing the qipao, the dress of the time [dont le film a relancé la vogue à Hongkong, ndlr]. For Tony, to make arrangements with the gomina. » Wong Kar-wai no longer mentions the feeling of anger and revolt that he felt in the actors and which he then confided to having nourished himself. As in the scenes of nocturnal spleen where he filmed Maggie Cheung as she was, “taken from one of his big shots of the blues which punctuated the filming”.

The film lasts ten times longer than expected

Filming was to begin in 1997, but the financial crisis in Asia stalled production and the team found itself in Bangkok in 1999, where the filmmaker unearthed the streets that modern Hong Kong had destroyed, those which revived the memory of a vanished childhood. The narrowness of the urban setting and its faded tones dictate the stifling atmosphere of his film. The writing is done in movement, one scene inspires another. Wong Kar-wai spends endless time listening to records and composing his plans, finding the right chords in the company of his decorator accomplice, William Chang. Christopher Doyle, director of photography who has always been with him, leaves the shoot (“our energy is consumed with its doubts”), he is replaced by a faithful ally of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who says he is confused by the vagueness of the instructions.

Filming ends four times, the actors think they will be released before being called back for new scenes. The film lasts ten times longer than expected, the filmmaker shoots scenes set in the 1970s. It might never end. The Cannes Film Festival is a welcome ax: “We needed it, said Wong Kar-wai, even if the delays were maddening. We finished the subtitles on the day of the screening…” In the final excitement, he cuts the love scenes between the two characters (“I suddenly felt that I didn’t want to see them”) and gives the film a singular strength and poetry, the sad refrain of touch and impossible love which will become a global success.

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