I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.
It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.
When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.
Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.
Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.
I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.
We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.
Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.