Parasite winning the Oscar for Best Picture last year was certainly a monumental event in more than one way. Aside from the optics of a foreign movie bagging the top award for the first time, it was also Bong Joon-Ho's impassioned appeal to overcome the "one-inch barrier" of subtitles that grabbed eyeballs. While this certainly acted as a catalyst in propelling Asian cinema into the consciousness of the global audience in a big way, it was certainly the auteur/director Wong Kar-wai (along with Park Chan-wook) who deserves the plaudits for winning the world over with his erotic and visually distinct films, which brought 21st-century Asian cinema to the forefront at the global film festival circuit, launching him into superstardom – an image further reinforced by his now-iconic omnipresent sunglasses.
In the Mood For Love marked my initiation into the Wong Kar-wai oeuvre (it still remains the favourite) and totally blew me away. Set in British Hong Kong of the 1960s, In the Mood for Love portrays the ebb and flow of the relationship of Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen/Mrs Chan, neighbours with both their spouses away and, as they come to know later, having an affair. The use of vibrant hues of red reflects the erotically charged meetings of the protagonists, but it is the reality of the constrained spaces – where there is hardly any privacy – that symbolises the practical and moral restraints of the companionship.
Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow engage in numerous rounds of playacting, wondering how they will react when confronting their partners about their infidelity, sequences that transcend the boundaries between their imagination and their deepest desires – something which both are afraid to confront.
"I thought I was in control," Mr. Chow says, complaining of being tired with gossip about his "illicit" relationship with Mrs. Can, even though they both had agreed to never become like "them" (their partners). And as we wait with bated breath to see the impending farewell, we realise that this too was another in the series of imaginary scenarios, a distinction that progressively becomes harder to characterise as the characters are trapped: trapped in their own fears. It is the fear of becoming like their spouses that prevents them from giving in to their passions and consummating their relationship. The oft-repeated refrain of "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" keeps reminding us that there isn't any hope of a union.
It is the act of being unfaithful, not so much the act itself, that they abhor. In the final moments, the movie changes colours dramatically from warmer shades to lighter ones: once again, colours serve as Wong Kar-wai's preferred medium of communicating with the audience. The courtship has ended, we come to know, and both the protagonists have moved away. Repeated tries from both to re-establish what once was have failed: it is, we realise, the "fate" of their trajectory. The film ends with Mr. Chow whispering a "secret" into a tree hole. Nothing is mentioned explicitly but once again, the master Wong Kar-wai manages to convey feelings without needing to resort to too many dialogues.