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REELING AND SPINNING: The soundtrack of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is a sensual culture clash

by Matthew Seitz
July 6, 2011 11:15 AM
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By Craig D. Lindsey
PressPlay contributor

Whether you know it or not, In the Mood for Love is about the radio.

While it’s not implied, the radio is a heavy presence in the 2000 movie. In her essay on the film’s music, which can be found in both the soundtrack’s CD booklet and on the 2002 Criterion Collection DVD, Joanna C. Lee wrote that Mood is very much about writer/director Wong Kar-wai’s radio days: “The collage of musical styles, ranging from traditional opera to theme songs from popular films of the 1950s, represents a world of music that Hong Kong listened to and in which Wong Kar-wai spent his childhood.”

In a 2010 The Sheila Variations blog post, Sheila O’Malley wrote that the movie may be captured from the perspective of radios: “There are multiple shots of radios, in every space, every setting, and it’s rare that there is not music in the background. This may be me going out on a limb, but one thought that occurred to me was that the entire film was from the radio’s point of view. We saw what the radio saw. If it was placed in the living room, and people were talking down the hall in the kitchen, then the camera was placed in the dark living room and we peeked down into the lighted room in the distance. When people stood up, the camera didn’t move, because the radio doesn’t move. We are at the radio’s level, which is around the waist-line. The radio is omnipresent in the film (although subtle, it works on you, rather than presenting itself blatantly), so I wondered if the entire thing was seen from within that box of music in every space.“ Even the director has said inspiration for the movie, set during 1960s Hong Kong, came while he was listening to John Coltrane music on a cab radio while the cab was driving past Tiananmen Square. It’s amazing how inspiration can hit you when you’re listening to just the right melody.

It’s possible that even the most diehard fans of Mood may not even remember radio music being played in the movie. The music that is most remembered from Mood is “Yumeji’s Theme", an entrancing waltz done by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, which he originally composed for the 1991 Suzuki Seijun film Yumeji. But it’s very likely Mood will be the movie that this piece of music will forever be associated with. Used nine times throughout the film, its haunting, pizzicato rhythm is used as theme music for the movie’s would-be, married (but not to each other) lovers, Mrs. Chan/Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Whenever the theme plays over the movie’s soundtrack, Wong slows down the movie, catching his two protagonists’ every movement -- each glance, each touch, each thought they convey. Never has a film captured the awkward elegance that comes when two people try to figure out just what the hell they are to each other. It’s also here where we see Wong’s flair for cinematic rhythm, crafting oh-so-appropriate visuals (with cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Bing-pin as his co-pilots) to match the music that plays over it, at work. Whether it’s cigarette smoke wafting above Leung’s head as he’s alone at his desk or the sight of Cheung’s behind sashaying down the street in those tight-ass cheongsam dresses (I will forever be in love with Cheung because of this film), the fluid, hypnotic, almost dreamlike moments that are on display whenever that theme appears are priceless.

But the music that’s played through radio airwaves equally serves a purpose to the film’s narrative. As Lee mentioned, the radio music is a collection of tunes from Wong’s childhood, but it’s also music that reflects on the quietly tempestuous love affair being laid out in front of us. We start out hearing pingtan, traditional Chinese storytelling (or “story-singing”) with its themes of forbidden love and secret desire, as Chow and Chan first get to know one another.

Then, we move into more popular Chinese music, specifically somber melodies performed by legendary singer/actress Zhou Xuan (aka “Golden Voice,” one of China’s seven, great singing stars of the early 20th century) and contemporary singer/actress Rebecca Pan (who also plays the landlady), when things start to get serious. (By the way, it’s Xuan who sings the title song, titled “Hua Yang De Nian Hua.” Not Bryan Ferry, as he does in the trailer, which isn’t even in the movie. You’re welcome.)

Pan’s track in Love,”Bengawan Solo,” is an English-language track, an example of how Eastern music began to be influenced by Western styles in the mid-20th century. Like most of Wong’s previous films, Love shows how Western popular music would become – and had became -- just as substantial to Hong Kong residents as traditional and popular Chinese music. (Wong fans may remember how he brilliantly established this in his breakthrough film Chungking Express, which memorably used The Mamas and the Papas “California Dreamin’,” Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” and co-star Faye Wong’s own Cantonese version of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” as background music.)

Wong kills three birds with one stone when he picks up three tunes from Nat King Cole. First off, by using Cole, Wong gives love to his mom, whose favorite singer was Cole. Secondly, he uses Cole’s three tunes from Cole’s Spanish-singing phase – “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” “Te Quieros Dijiste” and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (aka the Spanish version of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”) – to shout out the Latin-influenced music being played in and around Hong Kong at the time. Finally, can you think of a better, Western voice of that era to serenade these conflicted lovers than Cole?

There is original music, provided by American composer Michael Galasso. Before he passed away in Paris in 2009, Galasso became a favorite of Wong’s, who used a track of Galasso’s for his breakout film Chungking Express. Galasso continued in the lovelorn, melancholy vibe “Yumeji’s Theme” stirs up for the film with “Angkor Wat Theme,” which is played in the movie’s final scene. A tender cello highlights this composition, as Leung’s Mr. Chow walks away from the awe-inspiring ruins of a Angkor Wat monastery (beautifully captured by Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle), leaving behind a past that’s just as fragile and heartbreaking. It’s in these moments that In the Mood for Love reveals itself as a film that both romanticizes nostalgia and reveals how little of it is fondly worth remembering. From Wong’s perspective, the past can be both blissful and painful. Sometimes, it’s best to move on and hold on to the memories that are worth treasuring, those memories that hit you when you’re listening to a good song -- on the radio, for example.

Craig D. Lindsey used to have a job as the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now he's back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, The Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, The Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog now. You can also hit him up on Twitter.

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