Hong Kong’s Nostalgia for Future
One of the most enthusiastically investigated and acclaimed Hong Kong film, In the Mood for Love is just as often perceived as a nostalgic film as it is considered to be postcolonial. Many critics assert that Wong Kar-wai achieves the apex of aesthetical beauty and symbolism through the film, which assists in intensifying the tragedy of a mutually unrequited romance while manifesting the themes of nostalgia and post-colonialism. Yet, it is not merely the emotional feeling that the movie aims to evoke, as Wong Kar-wai delves deeper into the close relationship between nostalgia and time and distorts the two to ultimately result in the notion of nostalgia for future, a unique phenomenon that is exclusive to Hong Kong and its dilemma.
According to Vivian Lee, In the Mood for Love engages with, if not fully expresses, the theme of nostalgia in two distinct ways: first, it characterizes itself as nostalgic by incorporating nostalgic factors within the movie and second, it serves as a critical, metacommentary on nostalgia, the effect of which it deliberately produces. In explaining about the possible interpretative frameworks on examining postmodern works, Lee describes In the Mood for Love as a nostalgic text, “a representational relation between text and desire” (Lee, 26) —that is, the film adheres to and reminds the audience of a specific time period in history, thereby staging the experience of nostalgia. Such effecting of nostalgic emotions is accomplished by explicit manifestations of objects that are distinctive and representative of a particular era and results in the arousal of direct, immediate feelings.
One of the most prominent features that evoke the particularity of time and nostalgic feelings in the film is the female protagonist’s costume: the immaculate, traditional cheongsams, many of which are stylishly decorated with gorgeous, and almost lavish, floral patterns. These eye-catching dresses successfully denote Hong Kong’s situation in the early 1960s, just when tailors from the mainland, fleeing from the Communist Revolution, immigrated to Hong Kong and brought the vogue of cheongsam along with them (“Hong Kong Museum of History – Outreach Exhibitions”). Similarly, other objects in the settings of the movie such as old-style telephones, the typewriter at Su’s office, and the movable printing devices found in Chow’s workplace all establish a vivid sense of temporality of a specific era, creating an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the 1960s Hong Kong and calling for nostalgic experiences among the audience.
Another—a more subtle yet much more complicated —way in which Lee claims that the film elucidates the theme of nostalgia is the way it “attends to the textuality of nostalgia” (Lee, 26), hence serving as a metacommentary to the sentiment. By reproducing itself as a nostalgic experience of one of the characters at the end of the plot, the film reflects the character’s relationship to his past and, in a way, objectifies and investigates the nostalgic experience that it creates; through means such as written narrations and editing techniques, In the Mood for Love defines itself as a representation of nostalgia (or of a nostalgic experience) — what Lee elaborates as “the film’s self-reflexive engagement with nostalgia as both text and desire, something that amounts to a self-parody” (Lee, 26). Hence, while maintaining nostalgic atmosphere, the film also acts as a mediator between the audience and the immediate nostalgic feeling, thereby distancing the sentiment from the viewers.
The most evident aspect of the film that demonstrates such exteriorizing view on nostalgia is the concluding narration that states, “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” This explication, unveiling that everything that the audience witnesses is a flashback, specifically a remembrance of a tragic romance, imparts the entire plot as memories. Meanwhile, several other factors bestow surrealistic qualities to the film that are appropriate for a story of longing and suppressed desires: the stylistic lighting effect that plays with the subtleties to render everyday scenes as dramatic, thereby creating an atmospheric feeling that almost reaches expressionism; the melancholic, expressive music that drowns out the static of the reality; and highly-saturated color palette that richly exaggerates the intensities of hues to enhance the almost-fantastical visuality of the film. All these aspects culminate to render the film the dreamy, evanescent quality of a memory, hence presenting the entire film as a form of nostalgia. Thus, while In the Mood for Love can be described as having nostalgic elements as it internally expresses the theme of nostalgia, it can also be perceived as a medium that reflects the characters’ (specifically Chow’s) connections to their pasts, which results in it externally serving as an embodiment of nostalgia or nostalgic experiences.
Such traces of nostalgia (or rather, the metacommentary on the concept of nostalgia) though, should be reconsidered and even modified in case of Hong Kong, because Wong Kar-wai deterritorializes the concept of linear time and thwarts the notion of history, just as Kafka is understood to deterritorialize various modes of orality. The presence of time, especially that of linearity and history, is prominent throughout the movie, as indicated by the persistently repetitive shots of a clock. Yet, it is no longer the technical measurement— of the time that progresses forward, where past, present, and future are neatly aligned in that order— that justifies the existence of time. It is neither the designation of the narrative at a specific moment nor the application of the sense of passing moments to the plot that becomes the primary function of time. Instead, the same clock shots that are repeatedly shown almost in an excessive, seemingly-empty way strip the usual implications and meaning of time. This is similar to the way that the German language is deterritorialized as “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no less than all designation” (Deleuze and Guattari, 22), as the metamorphosed concept of time renders the audience’s efforts futile in searching for everyday connotation of the concept.
Yet simultaneously, time takes on a new mode of existence as it is pushed to the point of sobriety and poverty, to the extreme of deterritorialization. This becomes apparent at the end of the movie when the camera captures the dark corridors of the ancient Cambodian temples. It feels as though the film is moving away from the temporality of humanity into that of another dimension where time ultimately dissolves and disappears away; these timeless, even immortal stone ruins that have remained, still remains, and will remain relatively unchanging for thousands of years despite all the other changes render the mechanical measuring of humanity’s time meaningless. Wong Kar-wai hence highlights the disintegration and deterritorialization of the fundamental idea of time in the deepest sense by setting of the film’s last scenes in those places of an entirely different aura and tempo of life.
Likewise, the protagonists’ role-plays also contribute to the deterritorialization of time by transfiguring the collinearity of past, present, and future. As Su and Chow not only speculate on what could have happened between their infidel spouses in the past but also rehearse for their future confrontations and departures, they distort the inherent nature of time by recreating the past in the present as a preventative measure for the future. Past is reborn in the present because of future, and this manipulation shuffles the customary order of time; contrary to the usual functioning of temporalities, with each one faithfully and independently playing its own role— the past existing as something that is bygone, the present as the given current moment, and the future as a set of upcoming, anticipatory events— the role plays blur the boundaries among them as they represent attempts to pull up the past and overlap it with the present while warping the destiny of the future as well. As a result, the separate nature of different temporalities becomes meshed into each other, deterritorializing the notion of linear time and history in that the general meaning and sense that are usually imbued to the concept disintegrate.
This distortion is further aided by the slow motion effects and repetitions of scenes that Wong Kar-wai occasionally utilizes to subvert the usual, consistent pace of time. Several shots, including the one that shows an asphalt road that is wet and shiny with raindrops, stand out from others in that their slow motion effects seem to mark, and therefore prevent, the regular stridence of linear time with abnormal moments of lags. These “idlings” of time, amplifying the significance of that moment, serve as jagged forms of resistance to the everyday conception of time as they disturb the smooth pace at which time flows. Similarly, the repetition technique defies the conventional nature of time by emphasizing certain moments of the plot, which, in turn, disorients the flow of events. For example, the alley scenes in which Su meets Chow on her way to buy noodles that are repeated throughout the movie seem to warp the sequence of how the plot unravels as the repetition of the strikingly similar scenes seem to intrude upon the logical flow of events.
What inevitably follows such tangled, and therefore deterritorialized, temporalities, then, is nostalgia, which is also of a tangled shape. And just as Kafka deterritorializes the German language until he “[a]rrive[s] at a perfect and unformed expression, a materially intense expression” (Deleuze and Guattari, 19)— what Deleuze and Guattari refers to as “intensity,” the state that is part of the range of the word, that has let the meaning escape—Wong Kar-wai, in In the Mood for Love, ultimately frees nostalgia. Precisely because the concept of nostalgia relies, if not firmly roots itself, on the notion of linear time and history, the distortion of time consequently liberates nostalgia from its exclusive ties with the past. Hence, nostalgia becomes not a thing of the past anymore, nor of the present, but perhaps of the future.
What should be made of the idea of ‘nostalgia for future’? How can nostalgia exist for the unknown, the unseen? Boym identifies nostalgia as such:
Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed… A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface. (Boym, xiii-xiv)
Boym’s suggestion of nostalgia possibly being a yearning for an illusory subject is especially appropriate to Hong Kong, which, according to Rey Chow, dwells in “an in-betweenness and an awareness of impure origins, of origins as impure… that… does not offer the illusion of a cultural virginity nor thus the excitement of its possible rehabilitation” (Chow, 157). Precisely because Hong Kong lacks pure, original culture that existed prior to the colonial periods, it can go back to neither what Chow calls ‘nativism’ nor postmodernism; due to the double impossibility of determining its proper origin, there is no way for it to “rehabilitate” what was not there in the first place. In this sense, Hong Kong’s acute craving for identity and independence can be considered to be projected towards the future, which is the only option that can materialize the fantasy of a Hong Kong-ese foundation (unfulfilled by both past and present) into reality.
Another interesting characteristic of nostalgia that Boym points out is its need for the irony of juxtaposing two polarities, which is metaphorically expressed through the cinematic technique, double exposure. She indicates that nostalgia necessarily embraces two ends of divergences that not only coexist but also are naturally superimposed upon each other. It is notable that such superimposition is the only way that the sentiment can exist and be maintained; once this double-ness should be unified through force, nostalgia will be destroyed. This runs parallel to Hong Kong’s future, which also holds ironic double-ness— of independence and dependence, freedom and continued colonialization. And because nostalgia is about yearning for the impossible fantasy, in case of Hong Kong, nostalgia for future has its basis on the disparities and contradictions of the city’s future. If there were no contradictions (i.e. the possibility of complete independence), then nostalgia for future would not exist— it would “break the frame or burn the surface” (Boym, xiv). Boym thus implies that nostalgia is about learning to maneuver between two juxtaposed polarities, rather than forcefully integrating the two into a single, artificially-made simple reality.
Overall, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love demonstrates Hong Kong’s nostalgia for future by appealing to the theme of nostalgia both within and through the film itself and deterritorializing the concept of time on which the sentiment is based. The application of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of Kafka deterritorializing German language to Hong Kong’s case is then further developed to result in nostalgia projected towards the future that can only exist in the marginal space of contradictions and in-betweenness. Hence ultimately, nostalgia, along with history, for Hong Kong is nonexistent (or merely illusional) in the past but offers hope to the future, the only means in which the possibility of the resolution to enduring problems may emerge.
Chow, Rey. “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 2.2 (1992): 157.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Vol. 30. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986. Print. Theory and History of Literature.
“Hong Kong Museum of History – Outreach Exhibitions.” Hong Kong Museum of History – Outreach Exhibitions. Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 7. Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
Lee, Vivian. Hong Kong Cinema since 1997: The Post-nostalgic Imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.