To coincide with the home release of Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels, LWLies is pleased to introduce a brand new mini essay series about the art of movie soundtracking.
There's much that makes Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love memorable; from flawless performances from its two leads Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung to the lush, expressionist cinematography and achingly stylish costume and set design.
Set in the cramped, oppressively hot confines of Hong Kong in 1962, the film tells the story of two neighbours, Mo-Wan Chow and Li-Zhen Su, who discover their respective spouses are having an affair. Subsequently they strike up a relationship of their own based on a mutual love of martial arts serials and the shared loneliness brought on by their partners' frequent absences.
From this simple set-up Kar-Wai conjures up what is surely the purest expression of the themes of alienation, unrequited love and the moment missed that have occupied him throughout his career.
Chances are though that many viewers' most abiding memory of the film will be the haunting, insidiously catchy melody that accompanies the shared moments between Chow and Su as their relationship develops from the exchanging of neighbourly pleasantries when passing on the stairs to the regular meetings of confidants sharing a common grief.
The plucked pizzicato strings, keening, richly timbred violin and simple plaintive refrain perfectly mirror the frustration, loneliness and helplessness felt by the two as they struggle to make sense of the capricious forces of fate that have conspired against them.
It comes as something of a surprise then that the piece was originally written for a different film. Composed by Shigeru Umebayashi, the former frontman of Japanese new wave group EX, it was first commissioned for use in Seijun Suzuki's 1991 Taisho-era ghost story Yumeji but ended up only playing a minor part in the finished film. Kar-Wai thought the piece the perfect expression of the longing and repressed desire his film so elegantly details and opted to use it as a recurring leitmotif.
The piece appears in the film on eight occasions, each time accompanying a woozy slo-mo sequence in which Chow and Su meet. These scenes are completely free from diegetic sound giving them a dreamy, otherworldly feel and express the mixture of emotions felt by the jilted neighbours as they find themselves being drawn together.
The remainder of the film's soundtrack consists of a disparate melting pot of styles and sounds. For Kar-Wai this type of sound collage is key for the development of a fully-realised cinematic world. "For me, music is not only for the mood, but also the sound," he has stated, "I came to Hong Kong when I was five, and the first things that impressed me were the sounds of the city, which were totally different from Shanghai."
For those unfamiliar with the musical culture of 1960s Hong Kong, the use of several of Nat King Cole's Spanish numbers may appear somewhat incongruous. A case of style triumphing over authenticity perhaps. But in fact Kar-Wai chose the three songs ('Aquellos Ojos Verdes', 'Quizas, Quizas, Quizas' and 'Te Quiero Me Dijiste') based on memories of his own childhood in Hong Kong. Cole was hugely popular amongst the Cantonese during the 1960s and also happened to be one of the favourite singers of his mother.
There was also a huge Latin influence on the music of this period thanks to many musicians travelling to Hong Kong from the Philippines making the playing of Spanish language music in bars and cafes commonplace. As with 'Yumeji's Theme' Kar-Wai uses the Cole numbers during meetings between Chow and Su, though here the carefree, playful and even romantic atmosphere of the encounters is enhanced by the choice of music which helps to illustrate the shift in the nature of the relationship seen in the 'will they/won't they?' middle act.
Aside from a few incidental Peking Opera numbers and period pop tunes heard only in brief snatches, the sole native language piece in the film is Zhou Xuan's 1940s classic 'Hua Yang De Nian Hua' (Age of Bloom). This song appears just once in a heartbreaking scene in which Su's absent husband has a radio DJ read out a dedication on her birthday. It is from this piece that the film gets its original Chinese title.
In contrast to the aforementioned key scenes, the film closes with a rare piece of original music. In the final scene Chow travels to the Cambodian Temple Ankor Wat to carry out an ancient custom that involves whispering a secret into a hole in a tree and plugging the hole with mud to ensure no one will ever hear it. Again Kar-Wai presents the scene with a complete absence of diegetic sound relying instead on expressive camerawork and the mood created by the music.
The composer of the piece, Michael Galasso, took the essential elements from 'Yumeji's Theme' and systematically unraveled and reconstituted them to create a darker, more sinister variation. The resulting piece, 'Ankor Wat Theme', has a painful,wounded edge and provides the perfect final release for the tension built up through the repeated use of 'Yumeji's Theme'.