Food and Confusion of Identities in In the Mood For Love

“The age of bloom, the spirit of the moon, the cleverness like ice and snow. A beautiful life, a passionate couple, a successful family.” This song named One’s Young Life like Flower (Huayang de Nianhua) was the theme music of the film In the Mood for love (Huayang Nianhua) which was directed by Wong- Karwai in year of 2000. This film is about the love story between Mr. Zhou (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) who are both married. In the beginning of the film, Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen discover the affair between their spouses. They wonder how their spouses’ affair might have begun. Therefore, they re-enact what they imagine what might happened. Later, Mr. Zhou invites Mrs. Chen to help him write martial arts serial for the papers and their relationship gradually develops. As time passes, they find out that they have feelings towards each other, but they could not be together since they refuse to become “cheaters” as their spouses. Then Mr. Zhou moves to Singapore and they are separated. Even Mrs. Chen tries to contact with Mr. Zhou, they have missed the chances of being a couple.

This paper focuses on food and confusion of identities in the film, In the mood for love. Food in this film helps to display Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen’s confusion towards their own identities. There will be three main evidences to support this argument. The confusions between their social roles and “true selves”, the person whom their spouses interested in and their own identities, the “ideal self” they desire to become and them in real life. All three evidences will be explained through examples of food in the film such as the food they supposed to eat and actually eat, the food showing their wills to “become another person” and the food suggesting their relationships. Food as a necessary element in the film, not only help to present how the relationships between Zhou and Mrs. Chen develops, but also reveals both of their perplexing attitudes towards their various identities under different circumstances.

To begin with, Zhou and Mrs. Chen tried hard to play the social role in front of all the neighbors and colleagues, but still could not conceal their own emotional needs as “themselves”. Throughout the whole film, the personal names of Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen were rarely called. Instead, they were more recognized by others as Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen, which refer to their marriage status. In other words, they appeared in the society as someone’s spouse, but not their own identities —- they must introduce themselves as a part of their “family” rather than individual identities. The fact that their social roles were over their personal identities was not only showed through the repetitive appearances of marriage rings on their hands, but also displayed by the food they are “supposed to eat” and the food they actually ate. For instance, there was a scene of Mrs. Chen showing rice cooker bought by her husband from Japan to the neighbors. All the people admired that she was so fortunate to have such a great husband who cared about her a lot. Even Mr. Zhou also asked her if her husband could buy another rice cooker for her wife. This scene of rice cooker is supposed to present how Mrs. Chen was a Mr. Chen’s beloved “happy wife” and how Zhou cared about his own wife. Ironically, neither of them had dinner with their “caring” spouses by using that rice cooker later in the film. In fact, Zhou and Mrs. Chen usually met at an outdoor Dim Sum stand downstairs of their apartments because their spouses were not at home with them. Their fancy clothes stood out in the Dim Sum stand since everyone else just wore casual clothes such as shorts and sleeves shirts. Obviously, the fine appearances of both Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen were not consistent with their real situations. Even though they have met in café once and it seemed that their fancy clothing finally matched with the environment of the café, the smoke of the cigarettes and steam of the coffee reminds the audiences of the steam of the food in Dim Sum stand. The foggy image of the smoke or steam on the one hand revealed the depressing feelings of the two characters; On the other hand it suggested their uncertain attitudes towards their roles inside and outside of their family as well.

Moreover, Zhou and Mrs. Chen are being confused about being themselves and being the person whom their spouses interested in. The most obvious example in the film was a scene in a restaurant. Zhou and Mrs. Chen ordered the favorite dishes of each other’s spouse and tried to pretend that they could eat the same thing as their rivals did. Significantly, Mrs. Chen usually did not eat spicy food but she forced herself to eat steak with curry since that was Zhou’s wife’s appetite. It was interesting to note that the two characters used the way of eating others’ favorite food to protest to their spouses, or to prove they can do exactly what their rivals did. The appetite of every person might be different which was nothing inappropriate. However, Zhou and Mrs. Chen forced themselves to play another person’s role by “having” that person’s appetite. Although they might eat the same food as their rivals did that day, they were not able to cheat their tongues and stomach. Each person has his/ her different preferences for food and therefore every person was a distinctive individuality. Zhou and Mrs. Chen definitely knew this but still want to “become” another person to retrieve their spouses’ love. After this dinner, they re-enact what they imagined how their spouses’ affair had begun. Mrs. Chen played the role of Zhou’s wife and Zhou played as Chen. At this moment, they almost lost their awareness of being “themselves” but eager to become the person of their spouses “new love” to find a sense of comfort. Their attitudes towards “being another person” did not remain constant though. Later in a hotel room while they were eating lunch, Zhou played as Chen again and Mrs. Chen rehearsed the scene of questioning “her husband” of his affair. This time, at least Mrs. Chen became herself and felt the sorrows she supposed to feel, even food could not conceal her emotions. Mrs. Chen has been gradually pulled back to her own role and accepted the reality she must face. The third time Zhou and Mrs. Chen rehearse their own moment of parting. They finally did not pretend to be “others” and have courage to “feel their own emotions”. Although they were not together at the end of the film due to some reasons, they have found back part of their own identities as their relationship has developed.

In addition, Mrs. Chen and Zhou’s confusion between another self they desired to be and the self in reality are expressed through food in the film. They imagined or eager to become a person who owns their lover’s love and start a family with their soul mate. In their case, they wanted to show their natural, clean, spontaneous affection towards each other in public, just like any other couple. When Zhou was sick and his friend unintentionally told Mrs. Chen that Zhou wanted to eat sesame paste, Mrs. Chen made a large pot of sesame paste right away and shared it with all the neighbors including Zhou. Moreover, they often eat together while writing martial arts serials in hotel room as normal couple. Also, they once were trapped in Zhou’s bedroom while other neighbors were playing Mahjong in the living room. They did nothing but shared the noodles and sticky rice with chicken (糯米鸡). No matter they were happy or depressing, they shared their emotions through sharing these daily foods. As the food, their company to each other has became a necessary part of their lives. Yet, they struggled of being a person who had freedom to own love and a person who still wanted undertake the responsibility towards his/her “dead marriage”. They refused to become “cheaters” as their spouses and still wanted to commit to their marriages. Thus, they both agreed on that the sesame paste was a “coincidence” and their common happiness/ depressions could be only contained in space where others did not know. Another crucial scene represented their relationship in the film was that both of them sat against the different side of the wall while Mrs. Chen was boiling the water and Zhou was holding a rice cooker. The confusion of their ideal identities and their identities in real life was metaphorically like that wall between them. If they choose to break the wall regardless of any concerns, they would be able to cook the meal together, representing the start of a new family (一顿饭一个家).

However, they chose to eat by themselves— a life without each other’s company and their relationship finally became a secret in the hole of an old temple wall.

In conclusion, the element of food in In the Mood For Love displays the questioning towards different identities of the two main characters: Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Chen. Through food, the audiences are able to see Zhou and Mrs. Chen’s confusion of social roles in public and their true individual identities, of the roles in marriage and the true selves, and of the ideal identity they dream to reach and their identities in real life. The characters have struggled or made decisions among these identities under various circumstances, but the confusions of these identities still remained in character’s mind and even could not be clarified by time.


One thought on “Food and Confusion of Identities in In the Mood For Love

  1. Do you think that there’s a relationship between the role-playing that goes on in their “real” lives, and the fact that they are collaborating in also writing a fictional martial arts story? What are the overlaps between reality, pretend, and “really pretending”? Can those differences in category also apply to the relationship with food?

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