2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

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Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

In The Mood For Love offered something so rare and specific amidst the frenetic climes of the millennium’s pivot it had a drug-like appeal for the international film scene. A bathe in a dreamlike evocation of the past, a tale of illicit passion played by pre-sexual revolution rules, a dose of heady exotica ready to go. Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed and beloved film, In The Mood For Love has also proved a creative millstone for its maker, at least in terms of his receptive audience, as everything he did after it was largely doomed to be found wanting, and what he’d done before a mere warm-up. From a slightly longer perspective, In The Mood For Love might well be Wong’s highpoint but, if not exactly an outlier in Wong’s oeuvre, certainly an obsessive distillation of one, singular aspect of it. After his debut with As Tears Go By (1987), a resituating of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) streaked with powerful hints of Wong’s emerging sensibility, the director hit his stride with the first of his studies in romantic eccentricity and ambivalence, Days of Being Wild (1990). Not for the last time in his career, Wong found himself stymied as he tried to get an ambitious work off the ground, as he struggled to make his purposefully eccentric take on martial arts melodrama Ashes of Time (1994), so in the meantime created Chungking Express (1994), a diptych of melancholy romances that gained him significant attention in the west.

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Wong quickly followed those works with Fallen Angels (1995), a darker take on a similar epic of super-modern social fragmentation, evanescent longing, and genre film caricaturing to that glimpsed in Chungking Express. Happy Together (1997) offered a more careful and considered study in a crumbling relationship with a queer twists and an international scope. Wong again found himself unable to make one film, the ambitious embarkation in metafiction 2046, and so developed a project designed to work in tandem with it, one that would ironically see the light of day first. Wong and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, had developed a specific and very influential aesthetic on their ‘90s films that they were already leaving behind on Happy Together, with Doyle’s swimming camerawork and blurred surveys of action and settings evoking a universe in a constant state of flux even as Wong’s refusal to traditionally bracket his sequences rendered the flux perpetually past-tense, at once immediate and anxiously remembered. The calmer style of Happy Together reflected a deepening concern for the pains of coupling, that attempt to fix one’s own nature by mixing it with another, whilst also taking Wong’s fascination for people compelled to wander to an extreme.

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Filming on In The Mood For Love went on for 15 months as Wong laboured to nail down the aesthetic he was chasing, leading to Doyle departing the production and being supplanted by Mark Lee Ping Bin, but the result assimilated them both, and the halting disconuity became an aspect of its style. In The Mood For Love returned to Days of Being Wild’s milieu of the early 1960s in Hong Kong, with Maggie Cheung playing a character with the same name as the one she had in that film, Su Li-zhen. Where in that film the character had been a lovelorn shopgirl who learns wisdom after burning her fingers in a romance with a callow, self-destructive womaniser, the one in In The Mood For Love is married and proper, feeling less like a mature version of that character as a different manifestation. But if there’s one notion that flows through all Wong’s films, it’s fascination for the way a human individual is often many different people in the course of their lives, changing apparel, jobs, roles, aims, lovers, even fates, often entirely reshaped by experience but with some core being unchanged. Taken on face value, In The Mood For Love is a story of romantic longing foiled by manifold forces and principles, but fundamentally, like most of Wong’s works, it’s actually about individuals trying to escape themselves but doomed to only graze against others because of forces both within and without.

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In The Mood For Love has a story, and people who inhabit it, but it’s just as fundamentally a work of incantation, resurrecting not only people but of a specific time and place, the Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood. A humdrum colonial outpost turned by tides of history into a pivot of civilisations and way-station for the dispossessed and yearning. Long before the halogen-lit markets and swooping road tunnels Wong would capture so exactingly with Chungking Express and Fallen Angels arrived, this was a place with streets of peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster, buildings packed to the rafters with human flotsam, people thrust so close together they can barely see each-other. The cheek-by-jowl romanticism of all-night mah-jong matches, basement food courts, and rain pattering on rusty street lampshades, the infestations of period kitsch, sunburst clocks and boss nova albums. The literally translated title original title, The Flowery Years, betrays the sense of nostalgic longing for a time of blooming possibility. Before prosperity would throw up skyscrapers, getting hold of a decent apartment is a matter of deep personal achievement.

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Two married couples move into neighbouring rooms, each sub-leased from the holders of larger apartments. The Chans’ room is in the flat of Mrs Suen (Rebecca Pan) whilst the Chows lives with the Koos, who like getting drunk and playing mah-jong together. We never properly see the other – better? worse? – half of the two couples, leaving us with Mr Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs Chan, aka Su Li-zhen. Their partners become abstractions, variations in an algorithm, cut off from the audience’s knowing except through signs and oblique depictions. Chow’s wife is glimpsed askew manning a lobby desk festooned with postcards, gatekeeper of the world’s promise and seller of cardboard dreams. Li-zhen’s husband has a job that takes him to Japan for unstated reasons whilst she works as the secretary for Mr Ho (Kelly Lai Chen) at a shipping company. Japan is a faraway mystic land of attractive consumer goods, the ironic key to identifying glitches in the system: the goods Su’s husband brings back are shiny and desirable and give away lapses in fidelity.

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In The Mood For Love’s narrative unfolds over a long time period, weeks and months and then years, but Wong’s scene grammar falsifies immediacy and logical connection. Telling moments clipped out of the familiar texture of time and experience and assembled in a manner that makes a sort of sense. Hitchcock’s rule of cinema as life with the boring bits cut out is both cited but also challenged: the action, the big moments of drama, are largely what’s cut out. Recurring patterns, and violations in those patterns, are instead the flesh of In The Mood For Love: “You notice things if you pay attention,” Su states at one point, not long before she subtly warns her boss into changing his tie, one she knows his mistress rather than his wife bought for him. The sensitivity to detail is engrained in the film’s texture: the languorous slow-motion sequences sensitise not just to Wong’s evocation of a lost and melancholically recalled past but also to objects and dress of the period usually dismissed as decoration, but which Wong identifies as the stuff that makes up people’s lives. The consumerist fancies that Mr Chan brings back with him are totems of another, more prosperous world – rice cookers, handbags, fashionable ties – and also lodestones of personal meaning and recognition.

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Whilst Wong never shows Mrs Chow’s face, the film represents her with the recurring sight of the workspace she inhabits, and glimpses of her bobbed hair. At one point, after Su knocks on the Chows’ door when she hears voices and correctly thinks she can hear her husband within their apartment, only for Mrs Chow to stonewall her, a phone conversation between her and Mr Chan is heard as she suggests they not see each-other for a time. Wong then privileges a mysterious, gauzily shot glimpse of Mrs Chow weeping whilst showering in some hotel room. Obsession is a matter of both display and receptivity. Chow (and Wong) is mesmerised Su’s slim form clad in a series of lush cheongsams, whilst she wears them to express stifled desire and boredom as well as her own elegantly correct sense of how to live. Chow’s colleague and pal Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam) offers comic relief whilst representing a type of human without the same kind of governor mediating between his appetites and impulses that ultimately foils both Chow and Su.

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Ah Ping brings a touch of amoral zaniness to Chow’s life with his misadventures like getting fleeced in betting on a horse and then visiting a whorehouse all after being in hospital (“You were in no shape for sex!” “I thought it would improve my luck.”), whilst his shameless but incompetent ploys in making a play for Su contrast Chow’s more gentlemanly approach but also render him something like his personified id. Ah Ping works with Chow in a newspaper offer touched with the same atmosphere of seedy romanticism as the rest of the locales in the film, a place where tousled, barely functional men work in a miasma of perspiration and cigarette haze. Place, exile, travel, all are major facets of In The Mood For Love despite most of the drama happening within one apartment block. That building itself is a kind of way-station for people who have found a momentary toehold. Chow, Mrs Suen, and others are former residents of Shanghai now crammed on a tight little island, the old Hong Kong soon to be swept away in the mad scramble for real estate in a city-state with a very finite amount of it. Wong had to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in Bangkok for that reason. Wong had gone the other route in Happy Together in portraying its fraying male lovers at loose in the world and also adrift. He would return more ostentatiously with The Grandmaster (2013) to the mythical Hong Kong of his youth as a tide pool where folk heroes and collective memories congregated and went mouldy amidst the project of survival and hybridisation.

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Mr Chan and Mrs Chow both cover their trysts easily because they travel a lot for work, with Chan often going to Japan on errands for his Japanese boss, whilst Mrs Chow’s workstation abuts a rack of postcards. Every place is exotic to some other place, particularly when you’re going nowhere. Wong’s period Hong Kong is mysterious to itself, a mythical place created by the pressures of history and human need, a place where eastern and western sensibilities don’t so much mingle as cohabit as restlessly and energetically as its people. to Wong’s eye it was a place of bygone splendours, nondescript urban architecture with the faintest curlicues of traditional architectural style here and there, the damaged glamour of a glimpse of a cracked wall and a window frame with fading paint and the glimpse into another person’s life-space, inside of which expression blooms in riots of clashing colour and teeming decoration, ringing to a meshed music of laughter and argument and work and soft radio sounds. Wong’s fastidious, usually rigid framing keeps turning portals and passages into frames within frames, with a careful conspiracy between Lim Chung Man’s art direction, William Chang’s production design and costuming, and Doyle and Lee’s cinematography helps create this lush world, half memory, half dream, part Edward Hopper, part Matisse painting, part classical Chinese scroll art. Many shots are filmed in distorted fashion, through fogged glass or using lens effects.

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Other shots are delivered with a dazzling clarity that only renders them stranger, like a shot down a hotel corridor where red curtains gently billow on a draft and the leaves of a potted plant tremble, absent any being and yet vibrating with mysterious life. The obsessive texture is exacerbated by the music cues, alternating composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s languid pizzicato string theme and a vintage Nat King Cole recording version of the Cuban song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” musical themes that manage to denote both immobility, the sense of arrested time and foiled action, and a dance-like sense of possibilities in play that come and depart before they’re even truly registered. Echoes here of course to one of the restless heroines of Chungking Express whose constantly played leitmotif was The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” whilst existing within a world of escalators and shoebox apartments and hole-in-the-wall businesses. But whilst there Wong remained outside of the bubble of floating insouciance she used the song to weave about herself, In The Mood For Love is Wong’s entry into and projection of that kind of bubble. Fallen Angels was an insomniac fever-dream about people who try ever more frantically to control life’s formlessness by contriving to dispense that formlessness, trying to live purposefully alienated and rootless lives, but eventually falling victim to gravity regardless.

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In Happy Together the post break-up pains of its lovers is couched not simply in the pain of losing a mate but also in the ultimate personal act for each man in confronting their own specific reactions and quirks of character that degraded the relationship, confronting the limitations and perversities of spirit that foil happiness and turn the wealth of possibility into a debit of rueful waste and costly experience. In The Mood For Love operates as its echo and amplification as well as its inversion: the portrait of characters who maintain discipline and personal integrity sees them even more thoroughly haunted by what wasn’t. Wong’s gestures and stylistics accumulate meaning as In The Mood For Love unfolds, as Chow and Su inhabit the same discreet zone by virtue of both being mostly alone and stricken with an initially confused but increasingly certain sense of wounding and abandonment. They pass each-other in their evening strolls down to the food court, waiting out rainstorms, smoking the odd pensive cigarette, swapping the odd word of greeting.

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Early in development the project that became In The Mood For Love was titled A Story of Food, and it is that, with the food the characters eat – rice, noodles, sesame syrup, steak – made a vital aspect of how their lives, habits, and gestures of affection interact. Chow and Su’s first, and for a long time only, real conversation takes place when Su visits the Koos’ apartment to borrow a newspaper because she’s keeping up with a martial arts serial story, and Chow mentions his liking for the genre, which he once made an abortive attempt to write in. Wong here nods back to Ashes of Time, which had taken on stories by Jin Yong, a real-life Hong Kong journalist-exile turned fiction writer, and translated them into one of Wong’s portraits of drifting, disconsolate people who, when separated from the romantic glamour of their prowess as warriors, are case studies in longing and confusion. The frontier post where the master warriors wait for work in Ashes of Time likewise is a kind of way-station of fate like the apartment building here.

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Part of what distinguished Wong particularly in the 1990s was that Wong was a formalist with a sense of what style could accomplish: In The Mood For Love was perhaps the most accomplished work of high style in narrative film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and it shares certain nagging fascinations with that film, most particular its sense of dreamy melancholy and portrayal of swarming city life. Wong’s regard for genre writing, however sarcastically reflected through his resolutely slice-of-life tales, engages here with the roots of such storytelling, noting the mid-twentieth century and its wealth of creativity as stemming from people clinging on in such places, dreaming intense dreams, fantasies of power and freedom shot through with reflections of damaged humanity. Wong’s fascination for how people inhabit an urban space together but also entirely separately is here illustrated with an intensity that renders it close to a philosophy of life, depicting people who, for whatever reason, cannot ever quite leap over the divide that separates them as bodies and minds.

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Wong would deromanticise the theme with purpose when he finally got to make 2046 (2004), as he went to the opposite extreme of portraying desperately carnal relationships only to confront the same spectacle of who people who cannot surrender themselves. When Su finally invites Chow to dinner, it’s to try and get to the truth linking them through their partners, a problem that must be approached circuitously, through laughing admissions before direct statements, as when Su final notes that her husband and Chow both have the same tie despite them being bought overseas, proof that Mrs Chow bought them both. Wong’s squared-off shots, engaging both actors in profile within the crystalline perfection of the period setting with studied back-and-forth shots of the two actors heightening the sense of formal games, before a precise violation of the style when Su finally directly queries Chow about what he thinks is going on, Wong moving the camera laterally from behind Chow onto his face, depicting the queasy, blindsiding moment of truth exactly.

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The point of connection between Chow and Su is initially a kind of osmotic attraction in shared romantic desolation and the absence of their partners. The deeper one that forms is creative. Thrown into each-other’s company as people drawn together through a mildly perverse instinct to penetrate the separate psychic and physical world of the people who are supposed to be close to them but have in fact created their own distinct pocket of life, Chow and Su vow “we won’t be like them.” as they’re quickly driven to begin role-playing in answering Su’s pondering of how the affair might have begun. Wong tips the viewer suddenly into momentarily bewildering vignettes where the two flirt and make protestations of love only to then break character because of some detail that seems off or, rather, cruelly accurate, before resuming or restarting. The two set down at dinner, each eating a meal the person they’re standing in for would usually order.

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This presents a kind of method acting offering proxy introduction the tastes and personalities of the missing person for the person filling their role, and also a casting session, seeing how well the other can fit into their assigned role. “You have my husband down pat,” Su comments when Chow uses a line on her, “He’s a real sweet talker.” These odd rituals are nonetheless ones that helps Chow and Su fumble towards understanding, creating a fiction that explains reality, whilst also elucidating Wong’s interest in the similarity, even interchangeableness, of people, the recurring codes of behaviour and the finite variations that constitute individuality. They also lead to the duo beginning to collaborate in trying to write a martial arts story, a collaboration that begins as a panacea against boredom and loneliness but soon becomes a genuine success for Chow that he sometimes privileges over his journalism. Chow’s habit of hiding from life by hanging around the newspaper office at night becomes a portal of escape into dreams of a heroic past. So compelling does this pursuit become that the two consult in Chow’s room only for Mrs Suen and the Koos and other friends to suddenly return from a night out drunk and rowdy and settle down to a marathon mah-jong game that goes on for a night and a day.

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Chow and Su are besieged in their room, afraid for Su to take a chance to dash back to the Koos’ apartment in case she might be seen, so Chow covers for her whilst ducking out to bring back food, and the two keep working on the story: Chow is inspired by the sudden arrival of the blotto Mr Koo to introduce a drunken master into the story. Finally the game breaks up and Su gets to return to her room, where she strips off the high-heels she’s been wearing with palpable relief, hoist on her own well-dressed petard. The chasteness of Chow and Su’s relationship and their toey fear of being apprehended in a compromising scene gives this vignette its irony, as well the old-fashioned brand of sexual tension inherent in their situation as a couple of good-looking people in a small room, the kind that could have fuelled a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is indeed one of the many retro things Wong nods to. His plot has the quality of something William Holden and Nancy Olson’s characters in Sunset Blvd. (1950) might have cooked up, or provided a solid premise for a Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle. This misadventure also inspires Chow to rent a hotel room – numbered, with totemic import, 2046 – for a time to try and get the story finished, and also perhaps presenting to Su a locale where they can meet without being found out.

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In The Mood For Love contrasted most of Wong’s previous films insofar as those were mostly tales of characters who can scarcely control an inner drive pushing them into irrational acts, people who are conduits of spasmodic behaviour. Those urges might drive them across the world, to cling to or to cruelly spurn a lover, or face a situation of life and death, in search of something that gives shape to their lives. The torment of being inescapably themselves was often simply intensified rather than cured by gaining what they want. In The Mood For Love is instead the tale of characters who pointedly can control themselves, and yet their actions ultimately come to seem just as deeply rooted in satisfying inchoate need. It’s compulsory with In The Mood For Love to note that it’s a film about a love affair without physical intimacy beyond a moment of hand-holding, at least, not that the audience is privy to. Wong’s venture back in time also accepts the idea of two people with a sense of personal honour, a gesture that feels equally bygone in its idealism and yet still reflects truth: how many of us day in and day out rein in all kinds of impulses?

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The film’s opiated haze of nostalgia, its acceptance of the past as another country, can only be sustained as long as Chow and Su don’t give in to their romantic impulses, because once they do they become of the earth again. The very lack of any momentous significance in their relationship, its everyday and ephemeral texture as light and brief as morning frost, is precisely the quality Wong sets out to celebrate, to hold as vital to the sustenance of the world as any cataclysms. It can also be read as the two lovers sharing a trait with their creator, a dislike of cliché. Chow and Su’s resolve to keep things above board seems as much about their own embarrassment in potentially getting caught being unimaginative as immoral: it would too humiliatingly crass to reproduce their feckless partners’ betrayal, although Wong’s oblique portrayal of that verboten tryst suggest it’s every bit as complex and tortured. More immediately, Wong tries to illustrate without sentiment the fate of falling in love whilst also dealing with heartbreak, leaving his two lovers trapped in a limbo where pleasure is also painful, tender gestures constantly running the risk of mimicking another, and abandoned as they have been by their partners Chow and Su serve as stand-ins for the vanished lover, to be both cherished and also farewelled.

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A montage depicting Chow and Su’s happy writing collaboration, which is also clearly signalled to be the process of their falling in love if all their happy smiles and pleasure in each-other’s company is anything to go by, also sees Wong make a constant refrain of including mirrors, often with more than one facet, in his shots. These split his protagonists into multiple versions, each imprinted with a separate reality, some branching off to become the ones glimpsed in 2046, some uglier, some more perfect. this islet of ease ends when Su gets a lecture from Mrs Suen about being out too often and asking when her husband will return. Despite there being no hint of connection between them, Su still tells Chow they should spend less time together, a moment that despite the vow “not to be like them” nonetheless echoes Mrs Chow’s earlier warning to Mr Chan to stop seeing each-other for a time. The two drift in the course of their days subsequently, Su distracted amidst raucous mah-jong games and Chow gazing out through the newspaper office window, and when the word finally comes to meet up again, Chow comes dashing through a downpour for a confrontation that finally demands the two speak honestly but also makes a choice.

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The choice is made: Chow decides to accept an offer to follow Ah Ping to Singapore. But the catharsis of admission also finally allows shows of feeling, as Su sobs in Chow’s arms and leans on his shoulder as they ride in a taxi together and hold hands, a vignette of perfection to last decades, and Wong would indeed return to it in 2046 with just that meaning. Wong shows Chow and Su on either side of the wall that separates them in their rooms engaged in listless meditation. Finally, Chow retreats back to the hotel room and leaves a message for Su to come join him there if she wants to leave with him. Chow is seen leaving the hotel room with a look of sad but slightly wry acceptance that Su never came and he must head off alone. Su eventually makes a dash to meet him, only to finish up seated on the hotel room bed alone and weeping, suffering the hellish fate in being entrapped by unwitnessed solitude and kitsch décor.

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The film’s last act offers vignettes that refuse to underscore the drama with any kind of dramatic declaration, accumulating instead as a long grace note signalling Chow and Su maintain a long and halting sense of connection, misty-eyed memory of their time together but refusing to violate the seal of perfect imperfection about it. Chow, working in Singapore, is disturbed by something missing in his room, and finds a cigarette with traces of lipstick on it. Soon afterwards Wong offers a sequence, possibly Chow’s imagining or a flashback, depicting Su entering his room and leaving these traces, a glitch in his stable reality. When she actually does call him at his workplace, he answers, but she hangs up after a moment of silence. Later they’re both drawn in turn back to the old building where they once lived. She speak with Mrs Suen, the last of the old crowd still around and herself packing up to move to the United States to help her daughter with her kids. The moment is changing, the mood: Mrs Suen is uneasy about the political situation in Hong Kong, and so is ready to move. Su herself has a son and merrily assures Mrs Suen he’s doing well, but no more is revealed. The old balance has shifted, history’s tides are rolling on. Su chooses a return to a comfortable setting, taking over Mrs Suen’s apartment.

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Chow arrives with a present for the Koos but finds them long gone, and leaves it instead with the new tenant who agreeably lets him look around, turning a wistful glance across to the window of the neighbouring apartment oblivious to the face Su has returned there. The film’s final portion is Wong’s most allusive and subtle, as he briefly interpolates some old newsreel footage of Charles De Gaulle as French President visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966. A final flourish of postcolonial cordiality, a last glimpse of a vanishing moment of stability. Soon Cambodia will dissolve into anarchy and genocidal tyranny as the Vietnam War spills over its borders and monsters are birthed. Chow seems to be there on assignment, but we only see him visiting Angkor wat, the ancient temple-city: Chow performs a little ritual obedient to an old folk practice he mentioned to Ah Ping, of whispering a secret into some nook and sealing it away to divest one’s self of the past. This he does in a gap in Angkor’s walls and plugs with a sod of earth and grass, before leaving the ruin which accepts all such memories great and petty. Wong ends the film with a series of slow, exhaling shots of Angkor, weaving a powerful sense of the temple as something at once desolated by time but also standing as a perpetual marker of history in a violently changing world, abiding under the early-rising moon in the waning Cambodian day.

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2010s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Musical, Scifi

The Shape of Water (2017)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro

By Roderick Heath

Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.
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Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.
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In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.
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Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.
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The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.
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As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.
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The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a postgenre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.
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One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.
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Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ’50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.
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Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.
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There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.
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There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’s Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’s film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.
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Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).
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Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.

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