The fine art of stripping

Making In The Mood for Love wasn't easy. Director Wong Kar-Wai explains to Fiona Morrow why he ended up throwing half his best shots away
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The Independent Culture

Normally I start a film with the music. It gives me a sense of the mood I'm after, and when you are explaining the film to people who will be working with you, music is much better than a script, because they can respond to the mood and the tempo.

Normally I start a film with the music. It gives me a sense of the mood I'm after, and when you are explaining the film to people who will be working with you, music is much better than a script, because they can respond to the mood and the tempo.

A friend of mine had written some music for another film-maker and there was one track I played over and over. It had became the image of the film. I asked him if he could do it again, and he said "No, why bother? You can use that."

And so that music was the starting point of In The Mood For Love. It is very classical, like a waltz - two people dancing together round and round - and this became the motif of the film.

First I had to work out the tone: is it a story about an affair? I don't think so - it should be more than that. Is it a film about a marriage? I think it is more than that. Is it about a certain period? Yes, I think the film is a history: I think the romance is not about these two characters, yet it is a very romantic film, because it captures a certain moment in the history of Hong Kong which has already vanished from our collective memory.

So I knew that the film should not be just about an affair, and I decided I didn't want to show the spouses, because I think then we are forced into making judgements: the husband is a bad guy, he did something wrong, he is cheating on her... And it would be very boring, it has been done many times before and I haven't seen any version I would call exceptional. But I still needed a point of view, so I decided that the camera should act as one of the neighbours, spying on these two characters. So it is always behind something, or hanging back from a distance, and then we have the space to see their daily lives: as she's coming back from work, does she go to the kitchen? Does she like tea maybe? And she doesn't want to hang around, but wants to go back to her room, because she doesn't want to share her feelings with the neighbours. Once I know how the characters live, then I know how to capture it.

At first the film was like chamber music to me: all the scenes happened indoors - in the noodle shops, the restaurant and the house. But while we were shooting I began to see the changes in these two people as their spouses were disappearing, and became more and more greedy. I wanted to show more - I wanted to see the street, where they work, and what happened after Hong Kong, in Singapore and Cambodia. The whole thing became bigger and bigger; we were suffocating inside, under the observations of the neighbours.

I feel that this film should be treated like a novel by one of those 18th century writers, because I think that then people had the patience to write, and also to read a book. It was as though if I were going to write a novel, I should write a novel like that, but not with a pen, with a camera; in a book you can't have the dresses stand out like this. You can describe them, but it isn't the same. With images, the body, the pattern, the movement can actually tell you something. I always strive to create a routine in my films with the shots, the angles, the music, because I think most of us have a routine in our daily lives, and it takes something very strong, like love, to cause us to move into another orbit.

Most of my films are love stories. I have to concentrate on the minutiae of a relationship because for the couple, nothing happens outside of their lives. But although they are completely wrapped up in themselves, at the same time, there are important things going on around them that matter to a lot of people. I want to create a feeling initially that they are at the centre of the universe, then at the end broaden out. It's like we have seen a close-up and now we see a wide shot, and they are only at the centre of their own lives.

I like short stories - nowadays we don't have the material for epics - and I thought that this film wouldn't be too expensive and it might take two or three months to shoot. In fact it was very difficult and took 15 months. First, we lost all the investors through the Asian financial crisis, so we had to stop the production and find new money - and we were already more than three months behind schedule. I was committed to another film, which I couldn't delay, and Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung also had other commitments.

But when we came back, it took time to capture the right feeling. Most actors need to know what the character is, in order to define it . They want the feeling of acting, but I just want them to be themselves, albeit reacting to the environment and their look. So for Maggie, with all these dresses and hairstyles you have her fixed in a certain space - she has to move in a certain way, and that affects her feelings too. But it took time for her to get into the right mood.

I started with a story and an idea, but I didn't really know what I would want from that. I made this film by building up a lot of things and then one-by-one, stripping them off; it was a process of elimination. I knew what I didn't want, but I was curious to discover what it was that I did want. I was looking for an answer myself.

Yet it is hard to lose things, all these shots you have made an effort and spent a lot of time and money to achieve, and then you edit it together - it looks good - but then one-by-one, you cut them out. I think the process was stupid, but still worth trying.

It's like I started with two friends having a quick lunch, and at the end it turned out to be a dinner party.