Sound & Colour: Nat King Cole’s ‘Quizás, Quizás, Quizás’ in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In The Mood For Love’
Sound & Colour is a column where we talk about memorable pairings of music and film. Think “Ride Of The Valkyries” in ‘Apocalypse Now’, and “Mrs Robinson” in ‘The Graduate’. It’s also an excuse for Matt to write about music.
(Spoilers for ‘In The Mood For Love’)
It was 20 years ago when Wong Kar Wai set the film world ablaze with the Cannes premiere of In The Mood For Love 花样年华. Since then, the film has been hailed as one of the best films of the 21st century, and namechecked by every other hipster trying to impress their dates.
For me, what makes most romance films work is that there is always a cathartic element to them that is usually hard to come by in reality. The triumphant and implausibly diabetic “I love you” complete with the warm embrace. The meeting on some park bench with an ex-lover, and them saying all the right words for you to move on.
These moments are turned up to eleven – both visually and sonically – to really drive home the goal of emotional release. In The Mood For Love manages to turn the dial down and still concote a heart-wrenching, half-remembered tale of impossible love.
In The Mood For Love follows neighbours Mo-wan (Tony Leong) and Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) as they slowly figure out that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Soon, both of them develop a romance of their own but promises each other that they won’t be like their cheating partners.
Its English title makes it rather clear of the film’s intention. But how can a film establish something as private, as vague, and as fleeting as a “mood”?
In The Mood For Love achieves this with its impeccable cinematography, use of colour, superb acting, and – perhaps, most apparently – with music. Its visuals are textbook examples of “show, don’t tell”; like a faint and intimate whisper laden with words piercing the heart. The film’s soundtrack, however, is far from subtle.
Consisting of instrumentals and songs in Spanish and Mandarin, the music makes it rather clear that the audience is listening in to the characters’ emotions. From the melancholy of “Yumeji’s Theme” to the careful excitement of Nat King Cole’s “Aquellos Ojos Verdes”, practically every song used can be analysed and appreciated. But none are as heartrending as the use of Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”.
So the lovers are in place and the mood is right but there are obstacles that they cannot overcome to be together. It is made all too clear that this is the film’s emotional core. And when the characters finally reach an unreturnable junction and are forced to make a choice, Wong Kar Wai cruelly responds with: “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”
The Music – Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”
Celebrated jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole was one of the first few successful crossover stars of American music. Marked by his unforgettable voice, he was already an established star in the States by the mid-1950s with multiple hits and his own television show. His music remains widely recognisable with his songs being Christmas staples.
The story goes that Cole was in a nightclub in 1950s Germany when he heard a German singer covering a few of his songs in English shockingly well despite him not knowing the language. This inspired him to study Latin American songs, before eventually travelling to Cuba in 1958 to record the album “Cole Español”.
The collection of Spanish songs – most of which are covers – turned out to be a smash hit and made Cole a superstar in Latin America. During his trip to Brazil, he was received by a large crowd including even the president of Brazil.
Included in the album is “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, a cover of Puerto Rican singer Bobby Capó’s 1947 hit. With its title translating to “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, the song’s lyrics harken to an unrequited love. The repeating lines about losing time and days gone by emphasise this notion that the singer has been stuck in a cycle for quite a while, making it increasingly frustrating with every plea ambiguously answered.
As Cole couldn’t actually speak Spanish, he had to learn the songs phonetically. This may have made his version sound more American-accented, but it also inadvertently made the lyrics sound more precise and playful compared to the original’s melancholic tone – especially when he usually performed the song with a boyish smile. Meanwhile, the version’s swing music instrumentation lends a classy and sophisticated air that sounds as grand as any silver screen romance.
So why did Wong choose Latin music to soundtrack a 1960s romance half the world away? Well, Filipino musicians have had a long musical history in Asian port cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong since the 1910s. By the 1940s and 1950s, they were a mainstay of nightclubs and bars in Hong Kong, performing Spanish language hits which probably would have included “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”.
Plus, the song is an indubitable classic that just so happens to fit perfectly with the emotions of the film’s ending.
The Sequence in Question
“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” crops up three times in the latter half of In The Mood For Love. At this point, Mo-wan and Li-zhen have both searched their feelings and realised that they are in love. Not wanting to commit the same mistakes of their cheating spouses, and pressured by the norms of conservative Hong Kong, Mo-wan decides to move to Singapore to put an end to their blossoming romance.
A phone rings for a while and stops, kickstarting the frantic clacks of a typewriter, assumed to be Li-zhen at her job as a secretary. “If there is an extra ticket, would you go with me?” That is the question Mo-wan poses to Li-zhen – but one that is implied to be left unsaid with the unanswered phone call.
Cole’s classic steps in as the camera pans to Mo-wan staring out of his hotel room’s window in contemplation. He cracks a smile before preparing to make his journey to Singapore, leaving his room in darkness. The music rises to nestle its dark corners, punctuating his brief romance with a bittersweet “perhaps”.
Years pass, Mo-wan stomps around his room in Singapore. He is looking for something missing but all he could find is a stubbed cigarette with familiar lipstick. We soon find out that Li-zhen paid a visit earlier in the day while he was away at work.
She rummages through his belongings to assemble a resemblance of his presence, before taking home the only artifact Mo-wan has left of her – a pair of slippers. Li-zhen gives Mo-wan a call before she leaves. He picks it up, but she can’t find it in herself to say anything. The song slips into their lives again, with Li-zhen deciding that their romance is best left with a heartbreaking “perhaps”.
A few more years pass and Li-zhen visits her old landlady. She peers out the window while holding back tears of memory, and enquires about the room Mo-wan used to live in. Everybody from the floor, including Mo-wan and the landlady herself, have decided to move out.
The song pays one last visit as Mo-wan drops by his old apartment. He looks out the window towards Li-zhen’s room, before finding out from the new tenants that her room is now occupied by a mother and her son. He considers knocking on the door to see if Li-zhen is there as Cole playfully taunts in the background. Mo-wan walks away, remembering that the both of them will always be a “perhaps”.
Bringing It All Back Home
With its framing, angles, shots, and locations, In The Mood For Love is a film that rhymes and repeats to not only feel like poetry, but also as an attempt to grasp at the abstract mood of romance. These similarities create a feeling that time has hardly passed between the pair, with Li-zhen’s rotating collection of gorgeous cheongsams and their burgeoning emotions being the only indications. It is in those hypnotising rhymes that contrasts and thus puts focus on the pair’s growing love, represented by what only the audience can see and hear.
It’s not just about the songs used but rather how they are used as well. Up till the last third of the film, its music paints a mellow grey, before the comparatively more upbeat “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” twists the melancholic mood into one of physical, tangible loss. This use of contrast leaves a lasting note. The familiar, repeating poetry of their surrounding world finally melds with their emotions, bookending their short-lived love with the three bursts of a song’s title.
Even the song choice was perfect. I listened to every version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” I could find – from the bitter aggression of Cake’s to the raucous cover by Buena Vista Social Club. I felt none captured the emotion that comes with “perhaps” more than Cole. Despite not knowing the language, he confidently serenades throughout, as if there is an understanding between him and his lover that it’s all just playful flirtation – they are already in the mood.
It’s a song that is clumsily yet adoringly interpreted. Its wide appeal speaks to the universal language of love that Cole effortlessly encapsulates. For the audience peering into the film, that universality is painfully understood yet is sorely lost in Mo-wan and Li-zhen’s world.
Everything about the use of the Nat King Cole’s classic in In The Mood For Love is perfect. From how Cole mischievously mocks the situation of the film’s leads, to how the visuals dance along with every swagger and beat, anybody would be hard-pressed to think of any other song that could possibly match the emotions and depth delivered on one of the best romance films of the 21st century.
This is the part where I was excited to share that Cannes had plans to screen a restored 4K version of In The Mood For Love to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the film’s launch, with a worldwide release later in the year. I caught Apocalypse Now in 4K and that film made me tear up during the “Flight of The Valkyries” scene with how gorgeous it looked. I can only imagine what this film would do to me. But anyway, here’s hoping In The Mood For Love reaches our shores one way or another.
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