It is raining. Only the patter of drops can be heard against the rooftops. A man in a gray suit leans against a worn wall. His hair is wet. A woman, out of focus, stands next to him. The man begins to speak. He says that he is moving to Singapore. He is in love with the woman, he says, but knows she will not leave her husband. The woman’s face remains out of focus. Despite the company of the woman, he is alone, isolated with his feelings. It is the visual language of love unfulfilled, of loneliness even when speaking to a beloved.
There is a cut in the film. Now we are watching the woman. She wears a floral dress with an elegant cowl neck. Now the man is out of focus. But he keeps speaking. The words matter little. We are transfixed on this beautiful woman’s face as she realizes that their time together is ending. We do not pay attention to the man’s reaction. All we see is this woman’s pain, the companion shot to the man’s unrequited love.
In the preface of William Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads,” often considered the first work of romantic literature, Wordsworth describes poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[i] I’ve always thought of that quote as a good working definition of romanticism. Above all else the romantic movement was about feeling. It was a reaction to the ordered rigor of the enlightenment where rationality was valued above all else. Enlightenment thinkers thought of God as a watchmaker, an unknowable being whose invisible hand directed the world. The romantics thought of nature as God personified. Rather than being unknowable, God was personal, experienced in the flower bed of lilies or the drift of leaves at a slight gust of wind.
As someone who has always trusted his feelings over his rationality, I have always felt connected to the romanticism of Wordsworth and others. Rationality has always felt foreign and hollow. As a child I lived in a dream world of my emotions. I wandered by myself, lost in reverie in my backyard, creating fictional worlds with army action figures. I sat in my room many nights alone, creating fantasy baseball leagues with players I invented. I was lost in play, out of touch with reality. My mother aptly nicknamed me “The absent-minded professor.”
My intuitive trust in emotions is why I’ve taken heartbreak so hard. My emotions for women I’ve fallen for have always been overwhelming. Conscious or not, I felt implicitly that strong emotion were my guide and that they would not fail me. I had found love. That was the most important thing. But it did fail. And in some ways, I have not recovered. And maybe I never will. My narrative has lost its way, and now I often feel like an unmoored ship.
In some ways I’ve always known my romanticism was a lie or at the very least a half-truth. And now, fully aware of the suffering that life can bring, I am more aware of it than ever. But that has done nothing to prevent me from seeing the world with a sense of awe. When I am walking, I can see beauty in the ugliest of settings like the way the sun glints against a polluted canal. And sometimes when I am talking to a woman, my heart swells and in an instant I can imagine my whole life with her before reality returns and the feeling has passed.
Even my suffering has become romantic. Sometimes I remember the last girl that I loved, a woman with strawberry-blond hair. The first time we met, her hair lit up in the dim January night like a red-tinted cloud just before sunset. I still feel a pang of nostalgia for her and that moment, the pang of an unrequited love that will never happen. I doubt that feeling will ever fully disappear. But I also feel gratitude for it, know that it is a gift that I can feel so strongly even during the sting of loneliness and sadness. It is this romanticizing of suffering that connects me to the films of Wong Kar-Wai especially “In the Mood for Love.”
Wong Kar-Wai has been called a “fetishist of romance.”[ii] The major theme of his cinema is to show unrequited love in all of its aspects. This reverence for the unrequited love borders on obsessive.
One of the most striking examples of this happens early in “In the Mood for Love.” The scene starts in slow motion, and its lush, ornate theme, Yumeji’s Theme, begins to play. Our two main characters, Mrs. Chan, played by Maggie Cheung, and Mr. Chow, played by Tony Leung, walk by each other in the rain on their way to get noodles. Their spouses are not home as they are both having affairs of their own. Like every shot in this film, their hair, clothing and faces are flawless. They are not ordinary people despite their ordinary setting. They are movie stars, Ms. Cheung’s large, evocative eyes desiring a meaningful connection, Mr. Leung’s sculptured cheekbones glowing in the polished light. The two of them look each other as they pass. The slow motion accentuates the movement of their eyes. The sad wail of the violins evokes their loneliness and disconnection from each other.
Except nothing happens in this scene. If it was filmed without slow motion, without beautiful people and clothes, without rain and a rich color palette, without a romantic, violin theme, if it was more akin to everyday life, it would be just two people walking by each other in the rain. But it is Kar-Wai’s particular style that makes it drip with atmosphere, so much so that we, the audience, can see why this particular ordinary moment is both heartbreaking and unfailingly romantic. It is the film making of a man who sees beauty even in the mundane and painful.
This film is not flawless by any means. But few works of art are. For one, it fetishes fashion, as the perfectly manicured hairstyles and color palettes can be distracting and feel over-indulgent. One of the criticisms thrown at Wong Kar-Wai is that his films are shallow, more concerned with outward appearance rather than any sort of meaningful theme. Although I disagree with this, I do understand the point. A filmmaker’s visual language should enhance its theme. Often enough the images on the screen are there because Kar-Wai likes “pretty pictures.” And his use of slow motion while when used well can evoke romance and mood, also can evoke laughter at its overwrought attempts at style.
But despite these flaws, when I watch this film, I see a work of art that reflects the reality my own suffering, and my own romantic relationship to that suffering. Despite my pain and heartbreak, despite the strawberry-blond haired girl who I will never see again but loved, despite feeling lost and unmoored, despite the mundaneness of work and everyday life, I still feel happy about being here at this moment. And that in the end is as romantic a feeling as there is.