A still from 'In the Mood for Love'twitter/pablodpaez

Wong Kar Wai is obsessed with time, movement, expiry dates. He pines after things which have changed, things which will change. The Chinese title of his 2000 film In the Mood for Love captures this so poetically: 花樣年華, the ‘age of blossoms,’ a metaphor for fleeting moments of beauty and love and interlocking fates.

In the film, set in 1960s Hong Kong, the ‘age of blossoms’ never actually comes to be, existing only spectrally as Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Ms. Su (Maggie Cheung) role-play as each other’s spouses having an affair. They never act on romance beyond fantasy, never reach out to pick the blooming flowers. Mr. Chan asks her to move with him to Singapore – but she misses the boat. She travels there a year later, coming and going without a trace except for her lipstick stain on a cigarette butt in his room.

I was born in and grew up in Hong Kong, but the first time I watched In the Mood for Love, I didn’t recognise it. It’s impossible to, really: it was filmed in Thailand and Macau precisely because many of the physical traces of the city in the 1960s, literally in the interiors and exteriors of buildings, had vanished by 2000, two years before I was born. Even by the end of the film itself the city has changed. Ms. Su visits her old landlord, who is packing to immigrate to America. Mr. Chow visits sometime later, realising that his past landlord has left for the Philippines. New tenants now occupy his room. The blossoms are beyond wilted.

“Wong Kar Wai both loathes and is enamoured with change”

The story of Hong Kong is nothing without movement and migration. Wong Kar Wai himself immigrated from Shanghai as a child; I write this in my room in college, in the town my parents got married in, and about the home they moved back to which I will not return to for months. The first half of this year has witnessed nearly 90,000 people emigrating from the city, creating the biggest drop in population since, in fact, the decade In the Mood for Love is set in. People are incessantly leaving and returning, buildings demolished and new ones erected, and so the city changes. A city feels different, too, when there is a sense of departure when you arrive. Everything seems temporary, pointless with their stamp of impending expiry. Doom is branded on the flowers before they even begin to blossom – that is, after all, the law of nature.

"They never act on romance beyond fantasy, never reach out to pick the blooming flowers"twitter/pablodpaez

Wong Kar Wai both loathes and is enamoured with change. 2046 (2004), the sequel to In the Mood for Love, is him at his most experimental and most aggressively, dizzyingly, heart-wrenchingly nostalgic. Mr. Chow has returned to Hong Kong, forming relationships with one woman after another while still pining after Ms. Su. He writes a novel about a train allowing people to recapture past memories by bringing them to room 2046, where sadness does not exist because nothing ever changes. 2046 is the hotel room Mr. Chan rented where he wrote stories with Ms. Su, but also the final year before Hong Kong’s status of self-regulation ends. “So 2046 is the last year before the promised date,” Wong Kar Wai explains, “We wanted to make a film about promises, and we wanted to make a film to explore how things change in life.” A city in limbo, stamped with a life cycle of 50 years in a political treaty, is unsurprisingly restless.

The image of the still-burning, lipstick-stained cigarette in In the Mood for Love, exhaling hazy smoke in an empty room, is seared in my mind. It is tragedy expressed in stillness, an unmoving camera capturing the most ethereal trace of human presence – of transitory human presence just missed when Mr. Chow eventually enters the empty room. My relationship to the city sometimes feels like this. In movement, we leave traces of ourselves in other places, and find the city that we left behind swept away and written over like a palimpsest when we return. People come and go, just as I do. When I returned home it felt like I was just temporarily passing through. Cantonese felt unfamiliar on my lips. I didn’t recognise the city in my displacement: my memory of the humidity, or the sound of shuffling mahjong tiles, were far from visceral.

2046twitter/philippe_rouyer

It was in my immobility, as Covid bound me from returning to Cambridge last year, that my familiarity with the city began to materialise. I felt the suffocation of the hot summer air; I gossiped, played mahjong, got steaming noodles to-go, and ended days on taxis at night. I bade farewells – or didn’t, before people already left. It is also in the city’s dynamism, movement and change, and the tension, yearning, heartbreak and beauty which are borne out of it, that I finally recognise Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong.


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Just as I recognise my city, it changes, and I leave. Time chugs along, or more like drags us along as we yearn for the past, for the moment before things change. A passage flashes on screen at the end of In the Mood for Love, subtitled as: 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.

In the Chinese text it reads further: if he could burst through those dust-ridden windows, he would return to those long-vanished years. But even if Mr. Chow imagines a train to 2046, or if Wong Kar Wai sets the film in the 1960s, they cannot, and we cannot.