“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, whose recent success with last year’s Parasite secured his place as a leader in world cinema, offered this friendly reminder at the Golden Globes for those of us in search of something new. With Parasite‘s landmark win for Best Picture, The Academy Awards have finally begun following the path of renowned international film festivals like Venice and Toronto in recognizing the merit of film outside American borders, where overlooked works like France’s A Prophet (2009) and Mauritania’s Timbuktu (2014) await.
The importance of viewing foreign films lies not only in the appreciation of artforms of different cultures but also the shattering of our own assumptions and conventions in even the most tragic ways. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) does exactly that. The film prompts viewers accustomed to Hollywood’s signature release of tension to desperately cling to the universality of love while immersed in new thematic territory. The simplicity of this premise, in which neighbors Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow mutually deal with the grief of cheating spouses, belies the trope of most American romance scripts tailor-made to have the man and woman fall in love and live happily ever after.
Exploring the film in light of Chinese philosophy’s yin and yang symbol sheds light on the paradoxical idea that supposedly antithetical elements of love and loss are, in fact, complementary. According to this framework, the romance between the two heartbroken lovers is undoubtedly more devastating due to the film’s deceptive conditioning, whereby experiences of solidarity are seen in stylistic contrast and unity, with occasional moments of isolation.
The film’s sorrow of an ending, in which two lovers are forced to lay down their desire for each other, is only intensified by the false hopes that lie at the other end of the yin-yang spectrum, as each side of the circle occupies a small portion of its polar opposite. The numerous symbols introduced here evoke nuanced meanings through misdirection and, much like both yin and yang, their messages are always examined in context. The visual iconography of wedding rings, clocks, and food typically convey marriage, time, and communion, respectively, but these symbols betray the separation, ephemerality, and loneliness that is to come. In the Mood for Love succeeds in using these glimpses and teases of a hopeful outcome to deliver an enormous blow to viewers rooting for the possibility of a relationship between Chan and Chow.
Perhaps the most affecting scenes in the film are those that depict the familiar routines shared by Chan and Chow, shot in slow-motion and abounding in yin and yang symbolism. The sequences are far from dull, as they come to represent a welcome escape for the two characters from time spent apart, whether through enjoying a meal together or running into each other on the street. New meanings come to light as jarring cuts and dislocated cinematography surprisingly assume a playful quality, especially considering the staid environment established throughout the film. Similarly, silence and ambient noises bring out the sweetness of the bittersweet songs heard repetitively in the long takes. “Yumeji’s Theme,” in particular, leaves listeners anguished by the polarized yet intertwined dynamic portrayed on-screen.
On a larger scale, the philosophy behind In the Mood for Love represents much of the thinking involved in Asian cinema, in which filmmakers play around with cultural expectations and hard truths that are at once separate and connected. Japan’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters (2018) provides not only a simple confirmation of the fact that Asian films have a winning streak in attracting gold, but also a devastating look at the complexities underlying non-biological families and theft as a means of survival. Or, take Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), a mouthful of a title with enough style and substance to position itself as one of my global favorites and, yet again, win the top prize at Cannes. This Thai masterpiece embraces duality in serving as both a contemplative meditation on life and a scathing reaction against the country’s harsh production codes, all without losing the grandeur of its transcendent cinematic vision.
Despite even the strictest of production approval codes, Asian art films have proven that you can satisfy audiences with entertaining content while also exploring philosophical terrain. This approach has struck a resounding note around the world, so why can’t American cinema learn to have it both ways? Let’s see if Hollywood directors can follow the examples set by these talented filmmakers by using the relative freedom of expression at their disposal to create impactful movies.