For today’s post, I once again did a familiar film and an unfamiliar film. Although, I have seen some of the films I’m looking at before, I hadn’t previously looked at a film I’d seen more than once. Today I’m looking at one of my favorite films of all time.
Today’s films are:
Wong Kar Wai – In the Mood For Love (2000)
Mike Nichols – The Graduate (1967)
While I had never seen In the Mood For Love, The Graduate is usually among the films I mention when I talk about my favorite films of all time. I first saw it when I was in college at the turn of the century, and it was one of the films that made me seek out classic film and break out of the bubble of recent studio releases I had been watching.
I chose In the Mood For Love because it had been on my shelf for a year or so, and I had never watched it. It’s been on my radar for awhile, and I was glad to finally sit down and watch it.
So let’s get into it.
In the Mood For Love (2000)
In the Mood For Love is a film by Wong Kar Wai, and it raises a lot of questions. First of all, how do I abbreviate Wong Kar Wai’s name? Wong? Kar Wai? Wai? I think I’m going to go with Wong since his IMDB credits him as Kar-Wai Wong.
This is a film about two married people who move into apartments next door to each other on the same day. They pass each other by politely until they realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other, and they begin to cling to each other for comfort.
This is a hard film to write about. The film is told almost as a series of small vignettes, fading to black and then coming back up frequently. It also leaves out connecting material that most other films would include. This makes it sometimes feel like the film is playing with time, as characters will talk about things that we didn’t see happen.
This is a hard film to write about.
In addition, as the main characters discover their partners infidelity, they wonder how it happened, and play the role of their cheating spouses, playing out the scene different ways. Seeing similar scenes played out but with slightly different dialogue can get confusing until the viewer understands the conceit.
Finally, this film is made for a Hong Kong audience, and I don’t have the cultural background or understanding of the complicated political past of Hong Kong in the 60s(the films setting) to fully appreciate how that affects the actions and reactions of the characters.
But I think there’s still a lot to talk about. Because while I didn’t get every nuance of the story, the broad strokes are all right there, along with the emotion. So I’ll do my best.
The story centers on Mrs. Chan, and Mr. Chow, the two neighbors I mentioned earlier. They move in on the same day, and the movers mix up many of their belongings. They officially meet when trading their belongings back and forth.
We see their daily lives go by, Mrs. Chan works in an office as an assistant, helping her boss complete his work, and also hide his affair. Mr. Chow works at a newspaper, but dreams of writing martial arts stories for a living. Mrs. Chan’s husband is frequently in Japan for business, and Mr. Chow’s wife seems unhappy.
However, while we hear the voices of the spouses, and see them from the back, we never see their faces in the entire movie. They’re practically invisible. This is a fascinating choice that allows Wong to focus on the two main characters and their reaction to the affair, rather than spending time on characters that aren’t important to telling the story he wants to tell.
The film also includes a series of slow motion scenes featuring Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. These scenes show their normal, mundane lives, but the slow motion and the music allows us to focus on the loneliness and longing these two feel without their spouses. These often happen when the characters are just passing each other by, either on the streets, or in the halls of their apartment building. The film savors these moments, letting the audience savor them as well.
We see Mrs. Chan learn of the affair first, as she goes next door after hearing voices, and meets Mrs. Chow who claims she is home alone. We don’t see what she sees, but in the next scene, Mrs. Chan is crying in the shower, telling the audience everything we need to know.
In a scene shortly after, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are together at dinner, but we haven’t seen any invitation. In talking to each other, they slowly confirm the truth with each other. Mrs. Chan recognizes a tie that Mr. Chow is wearing, telling him that her husband wears the same tie as a gift from her boss which was purchased abroad, while Mr. Chow notices that Mrs. Chan has the same type of hand bag that his wife carries, which she also bought abroad. The truth was known to them before, but is undeniable now.
They begin spending more time together. In one scene, Mrs. Chan asks Chow why he called her. In another, she asks him why he didn’t call her. They wonder to each other how their spouses relationship started. They play it out together one way, but Mrs. Chan objects, saying her husband wouldn’t have done that. They play it out another way, with Mrs. Chan taking the lead. In another dinner scene, Mrs. Chan asks Chow to order for her, to see what his wife is like. In a cab on the way home, Chow tries to hold Mrs. Chan’s hand, but she pulls away. Is everything in the film just playacting? I’m not sure.
In these scenes, we see these two characters struggling to reconcile the betrayal of their spouses with the realization that they might be happier together. Still, they make it clear to each other that they won’t be like their unfaithful spouses. There are scenes that could be interpreted as them crossing that line, but it is not there specifically in the film, so I choose to believe that the characters did remain faithful. One scene gives us some evidence here. One evening, the two are having dinner in Mr. Chow’s room when his landlords come home unexpectedly. They can’t be seen together in his room, and there is no way to exit the apartment without them seeing her. They hope that their landlords will leave soon, but they stay up all night, and most of the next day. They both have to call in sick rather than chance being seen.
During the entire ordeal, Mrs. Chan sleeps in the bed, while Mr. Chow sits in the chair. There is clearly enough room for both of them to sleep in the bed, but they won’t take that step. If they won’t allow themselves that level of intimacy for comfort, then it’s hard to claim evidence that they’ve crossed that line for pleasure.
In some scenes, Mr. Chow stays at a hotel, though it is not clear why. Perhaps he and his wife are completely estranged, and when she is in town, he gives her the room next door to Mrs. Chan. I didn’t quite parse that detail. Regardless, Mrs. Chan visits him at the apartment often. He begins writing martial arts stories, and she helps, editing and rewriting. He publishes them, and we see several scenes of them writing together.
In one amazing scene, Mrs. Chan asks her husband directly if he’s having an affair. He denies it at first, but when she presses him, he finally admits it. She slaps him. The camera turns around to find Mr. Chow. They’ve just been practicing again. It’s hard to get a grasp on a film that plays with our expectations so frequently. This scene fooled me completely because of the rules the film has already set up. We have heard her husbands voice before, but never seen his face. This is exactly the setup we have in this scene.
As time goes on, Mr. Chow gets an offer to go to Singapore to work and decides to take it. Mrs. Chan objects, but Mr. Chow says he knows that she will never leave her husband. She tells him that he never expected him to fall in love. They say goodbye, but she returns to his arms crying. He reassures her that it is still only practice.
The film follows Chow to Singapore. Mrs. Chan calls him, but cannot speak. We move ahead. Mrs. Chan visits her old landlord as she is moving out, and asks if she can rent the apartment. She stares out the window where Mr. Chow would have been.
Mr. Chow visits his old landlord later, but finds they have moved on. He has a nice chat with the new owner, and almost knocks on the door of Mrs. Chan’s old apartment, but moves on. The camera shows us the inside of the apartment, and Mrs. Chan is in fact there, with her young son.
The film ends with Mr. Chow visiting a temple of some kind, and a title card which tells us that he can’t touch the past, but can only see it through a cloud of mist.
This is a deep, deep movie, and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s actually happening in it. For a film not even 20 years old, it appears on a lot of ‘best films of all times’ list, including Paul Schrader’s, the 1001 films you must see before you die, and the Sight and Sound Top 250 films of All-Time. To be that renowned in such a short time is practically unheard of.
But because it’s so deep, it’s also challenging to watch. I found myself skipping back several times to pick up details I hadn’t seen, or check if details were there that I expected might be. But I wasn’t bothered that it was confusing. I wanted to understand, which is a sure sign of an engaging movie.
But even though I didn’t understand every second of the film, I can still see it is a beautiful, powerful film. To me it plays like a series of clues that are completely decipherable, but it would require a few additional viewings to fully understand. Unfortunately this format doesn’t allow me the luxury of watching a film several times before discussing, but this film will definitely get those views from me in the future.
The Graduate (1967)
So now we come to The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross among others. The story focuses on Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, having just graduated college and unsure what to do with his life. He begins a relationship with a married friend of his parents, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) after she comes on to him, and things get more and more complicated until he meets and falls for Elaine(Katherine Ross), Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.
This is another film that’s a bit hard to write about. Not because it’s obscure, or difficult to understand, but because it’s so well known. So many scenes, lines, and plot points in this film are burned into our collective pop culture memory, I imagine anyone reading this is already familiar with the film. What insight could I bring to one of the most famous American films of all time? But I’m ok with that. While I love hearing from people reading, at the end of the day, this blog is mostly for me.
The Graduate is a film that is both hilarious and emotional, much like a previous film we looked at Design For Living. It’s essentially broken up into two parts. The first part focuses on Ben’s anxiety about his life, and his casual relationships with Mrs. Robinson, the second part on Ben falling for Elaine, and the fallout from that decision. The film gets a lot of comedy out of Ben’s awkwardness about receiving Mrs. Robinson’s offer and then trying to actually start the relationship.
One of the funniest sequences occurs after Ben calls Mrs. Robinson over to the Taft Hotel for their first meeting. It becomes a comedy of errors as Ben awkwardly tries to navigate the hotel and get a room without revealing his true purpose. He plays against Buck Henry here in one of the funniest scenes ever put on film. Mrs. Robinson is all cool confidence, she knows what she wants, but Ben is beside himself trying to figure out how to act and what to do. When they arrive in the hotel room, Mrs. Robinson undresses while Ben walks over and touches her breast. She doesn’t seem to notice. Ben walks away and starts to bang his head on the wall. This was apparently an adlib, and Hoffman started to laugh, which led him to walk away to avoid ruining the take. Nichols loved it and kept it in.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a better film debut for any actor. Hoffman was experienced on stage, but this was his first film. He embodies Benjamin Braddock completely. He plays comedy, tragedy, romance, and never loses the core of the character. He always has this awkwardness, except in one case: when he’s with Elaine. We’re able to see how he changes when he’s talking with her.
The film sets up Elaine early. Mr. Robinson insists that Ben call Elaine when she comes back from college, and Ben’s parents love the idea. It keeps coming up during Ben’s relationship with Mrs. Robinson and she tells him in no uncertain terms that he should avoid Elaine at all costs. Finally, Ben’s parents threaten to invite all the Robinson’s over if he won’t ask her out on a date. He relents, fearing the awkwardness of having to see his illicit lover with her husband and his parents.
On the date, though, he tries to sabotage it, to ensure Elaine won’t want to see him again. He takes her to a strip club and humiliates her, but seeing the tears in her eyes, he realizes he’s been far too cruel. He chases her down, and convinces her to have dinner with him at a drive-in diner, opening up to Elaine in a way he hasn’t been able to in the film before.
When he tries to see Elaine again, Mrs. Robinson intercepts and threatens to tell her everything about their relationship. He realizes she’s serious and tries to get to Elaine first. He’s ready to tell her the truth, but before he can, she figures it out, seeing her mother hovering nearby. She understandably screams at him to leave.
There’s a great shot here as Ben leaves and Mrs. Robinson casually says “Goodbye Benjamin.” The shot is a closeup on her, but zooms out to reveal Ben standing there, and shrinking Mrs. Robinson to almost nothing. The film is full of amazing cinematography like this.
Time passes, and Ben is as directionless as ever. He watches Elaine, and sees her return to college. He finally comes to a decision. He’ll go to Berkeley and convince Elaine to marry him. Of course, Elaine hasn’t been informed of this plan. But Ben is persistent. After revealing himself and his plans to her, Elaine confronts him in his room. She reveals that she was told he raped her mother. But she soon realizes that it wasn’t true.
She leaves and returns later that night, accepting him back into her life, telling him she might marry him, but that she also might marry someone else. Her parents find out about the meetings and Mr. Robinson arrives to warn him off, telling him to stay away from Elaine, and that they’ll go to any lengths to keep him from her.
Ben of course ignores this advice and desperately tries to find Elaine. He learns that her parents have planned a marriage, and he tries anything he can think of to find out where it is to try and stop it. He manages to find out where the wedding is, and races there. He finally arrives, leading to the famous scene where he bangs on the window screaming Elaine. She calls back to him, and they escape the wedding, ending up on a bus, riding into their uncertain future.
There’s one moment in here that I picked up on, that I don’t think I’d noticed before. As Elaine is trying to escape the wedding, her mother grabs her arm and yells “It’s too late!” Elaine responds: “Not for me!” Earlier in the film, we understand that Mrs. Robinson is unhappy in her life, and that she gave up all the things she loved when she got married. When Elaine says “Not for me!”, she’s telling her mother that she’s not going to follow the same path, that she’s going to live life for herself and make her own choices. She won’t be tied down by expectations.
Expectations are a really powerful theme in the film. Ben is expected to have a bright future, he’s expected to go to grad school, or get a great job and take the world by storm. Then he’s expected to go on a date with Elaine. The scene where his parents insist he take her on a date happens in the pool. Ben is on a floating raft, while his parents are fully in the water. His father circles his raft like a shark while his mother threatens him.
Once he relents and finds something special with Elaine, he’s then expected to stop seeing her. The threats get stronger and stronger as the adults attempt to control the world of their children. With Ben, the threats start small, we’ll have a dinner party with the Robinson’s, then move to ‘we’ll find a way to put you in prison’. When Elaine makes her own decision about Ben, her parents intervene, expecting her to marry the other man.
In addition, none of the adults in the film have first names. Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Robinson, etc. This impersonality places the film firmly in the perspective of Ben and Elaine, and another time. Parents are authority figures and antagonists, not friends, colleagues, or confidants. Like a Peanuts cartoon.
This film is an all-time classic and for good reason. The casting and acting are essentially perfect, the soundtrack is revolutionary, and film is hilarious, full of memorable scenes and lines.
I really related to this film when I first saw it when I was just finishing up college. Not knowing what to do with life, and having a lot of future to think about in the meantime. I don’t think I was ever as directionless as Ben, but I understood how he felt. Seeing it at this point in my life as well reminded me of how we’re never really sure in life.
I hope I don’t always find the story of feeling lost in life relateable, but the film will always be special to me.
The Double Feature
This felt like a good pairing. While one is a comedy and one is a drama, they both deal with forbidden relationships and how characters react to those relationships. In addition, there’s a layer of impersonality in each film. In The Mood For Love refuses to show us the cheating spouses, while none of the adults in The Graduate have first names.
It was interesting to watch these back to back. With the challenge of understanding the deep and serious In The Mood For Love, and the relatively straightforward and hilarious The Graduate, it made for a pairing I didn’t quite expect. I don’t know if they really work together. In earlier pairings, I talked about the value of the palate cleanser, where we watch a serious movie, then a funny movie as a way to decompress. But I have yet to watch a light movie followed by a serious movie. I might try that for the future.
Of course, The Graduate isn’t necessarily a light movie. While it is funny, it deals with some real and serious emotion. But In The Mood For Love is such a serious movie, there are very few movies that wouldn’t be lighter than this one.
I started this film blog as a way to take a break and reflect on things in my life. Seeing Benjamin Braddock struggle with his future definitely makes me think about my own. Four years ago, I started grad school, and left my old life behind. I quit my job, gave up my salary and health insurance, and my future security. Initially, I thought I would just deal with that uncertainty for a year. But I finished my masters degree, and decided to pursue the PhD. At the time, I felt certain I was going to go into academics as a career. But as I’ve proceeded, I learned that I don’t think I really enjoy academics. There’s value in the training I’ve received, but I’m definitely at a crossroads. Not knowing if I want to pursue an academic career, or a career in industry. And not knowing where I’d be happier.
That uncertainty is powerful, and it’s tough to not let it take over your life. This blog is a way for me to take a step back and really think about these issues. I’m fairly close to finishing the PhD, so I don’t want to quit, but I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision pursuing it in the first place.
It’s strange. In December, I felt totally certain. I had a plan. As I mentioned in my first post, I wrote three papers in a short time, and felt entirely driven. And two of them were published. But when the third was rejected, it made me question everything. It really shouldn’t have. Two out of three acceptances is an incredible rate for an academic. But I’ve lost the joy, and I’m trying to find it again.
The films definitely bring some joy. Writing these posts brings me some joy. I like watching these films carefully, and trying to find my own truth in those films, and understand how they relate to my life. That’s the power of film. I can watch a character from another era, doing things that I’ve never done, having experiences that I can’t possibly have, and understand something about myself. There have been a few life-changing films in my life. The Graduate was one back in the day. I don’t think it will have that impact on me again, but it reminds me of a time where I was lost in life, and I can look back and think about the ~15 years since then when I thrived and achieved a lot of great things. I believe I can get there again.
I haven’t thought a ton about the next pair of films, but I think I’d like to look at a couple of much lighter films, as a bit of a break. Watching heavy films can sometimes be cathartic, but there’s a lot to be said for seeing much lighter fare. So I’m going to let my brain take a break this time.
So I’m going to a couple of things I haven’t done yet. First, I’m going to watch two movies of very similar genres, and I’m going to repeat a director for the first time. That was always the plan, but I don’t know if I expected to do it quite this soon.
The next two films will be:
Ernst Lubitsch – The Love Parade(1929)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen – Singin’ In The Rain(1952)
I’m doing two musicals, and I’m selecting another Lubitsch film for a very important historical reason. We’ll talk about that next time.
Thanks for reading.