Food as Concealment and Intimacy, Not Love
By Alyssa Davis
Set in Hong Kong in 1962, In the Mood for Love is very much a period piece, revealing the trends of the day in regard to fashion and music, as well as portraying the crowded way of life many city residents adapted to during that time. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the city, two people – Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan – come together in light of their spouses’ affair with the other. From the moment of their discovery, the film transforms into a bizarre story of role-playing and rehearsing how Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s spouses’ affair came to fruition. In the process, however, the two protagonists fall in love themselves. The director, Wong Kar-Wai refers to this film as a composite of three love stories – the least obvious one being a love story about food. His original story about neighbors who frequent a nearby noodle shop, “was supposed to be a quick lunch and then it became a big feast.” (Kar-Wai, indiwire.com) Though the love story between the two protagonists takes precedence, it is food that illuminates the sense of repression the two protagonists embody as they avoid confronting their true feelings for the other. Moreover, the way food is captured cinematographically conveys the way their self-contained manner is mirrored in the atmosphere of Hong Kong in the early 1960s.
As Kar-Wai subverts the notion of the romance genre, the food in the film subverts food’s usual role as a means for expression and openness. In Hong Kong during the 1960s, the sharing of a meal among apartment neighbors was common in Hong Kong at that time, and is alluded to in the film. Yet the primary use of food in the film is carefully concealed in shiny containers, or used as a way to build upon the façade of these characters’ affected relationship. In order to avoid further gossip of their budding relationship, they must share their meals in private, away from the eyes of nosy neighbors. In this way, food is at once at the core of their intimacy, as well as the primary form of deceit they participate in. It obfuscates identity, while trying to find truth in a conflicted situation.
The way the shots are put together, using repetitive sequences of movement and score, jarring camera movement such as flash pans, and tight framing, creates the atmosphere of oppression Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan must endure in order to maintain good-standing reputations. Each detail, “of decor, props, and costumes are contrasted with veiled psychology, innuendoes, and oblique references to explore subtle changes in the main characters’ relationship.” (Li Cheuk-to) From the high-necked collars of Mrs. Chan’s silk dresses to the leitmotif of mirrors as closing in space, these details enhance this oppressive feeling and color the actions of the characters. Even color is more subdued throughout the film, with the exception of the close-up shots of food from the second dinner scene. Golden yellows, deep blues, and glowing greens combine to hint at both the intimacy and the tension between the two protagonists. In the second dinner scene, the lighting is almost clinical in nature, thus rendering the food unappealing to the viewer; the meat looks plastic and the sauces are grossly luminescent. For these characters however, the food is unappealing because it represents the transgressions committed by their spouses – the sharing of a meal as an aspect of their adultery.
To convey the power and multifaceted nature of food, Wai uses food as a vehicle to heal their sadness. The sesame syrup that Mrs. Chan cooks up after learning of Mr. Chow’s ill health epitomizes the more literal sense of “healing.” More importantly, the sequences depictive of the sharing of noodles, or sticky rice, are instances of respite that strengthen their resolve in confronting their spouses’ wrongdoings. The food parallels the gradual progress they make in becoming closer, and opening themselves up to the other. Just as the food is concealed from view for the first half of the film, and then is taken out of its container to be consumed, their true feelings do not reveal themselves to one another until they are overwhelmed by their passion for the other. The tension built throughout the film releases in the cloud of steam that emanates from the noodle container Mrs. Chan carries in multiple scenes.
The second dinner scene in particular, encompasses the myriad of roles food assumes within the film. At the heart of the film though, and the core of their dining experience, is the desire to reach satisfaction. The lonely spouses are looking to the other, and their shared meals, as a way to fulfill that lost part of them their respective spouses trampled on. Kar-Wai is masterful in showing his audience the “combustion of yearning and isolation, the need for closeness within the life sentence of solitude,” (Corliss) present within his characters. It is no coincidence then, that the characters’ not only adopt the food preferences of the others’ spouse by assuming their eating mannerisms or their favored condiment, for example, but also relish the meal as a suitable substitute for their own solitary meals of noodles in shiny containers.
Thus, it is the paradoxes of food that form the base of their relationship and shape the arc of the film. Whether food is at once revealing a larger truth or covering it up; or, simultaneously acting as a form of self-care and self-isolation, it is food that centers the film and their passion. While these paradoxes augment the tension between the two characters, ultimately it is the mutuality of the shared meal, which mirrors their heartache that brings them closer. Regardless if it’s façade or reality, at least they have each other.
Kaufman, Anthony. “Decade: Wong Kar-wai on “In the Mood for Love.”” Indiewire.com 6 Dec 2009. Web. 25 Feb. 2012
Cheuk-to, Li. “In the Mood for Love.” Criterion.com Web. 09 Feb. 2012
Corliss, Richard. “Make Mood, Not Love.” Time.com. 16 Oct. 2000. Web. 10 Feb. 2012