In the Food for Love
Published in Doof Magazine, 2021
Tendrils of smoke waft from the bowls of upturned rice. To her left, a steamed fish. To her right, him, wearing a work suit and a look of paltry concern.
“Why aren’t you eating?”
“Nothing, moh yeh*,” Her fingers slot through her chopsticks.
The silence drums on in the curl of her ear. He’s looking at her. He sets his pair down.
Ah fuck it, so will she. Cutlery disposed of, she bellows, “Are you cheating on me?”
A note of desperation cuts through her otherwise pitched down voice. An appropriate voice for this silly game. The resolve to see it through drops when she folds in on herself, wetting his shoulder pads with great, hacking sobs. His hand coils over her shoulder and he lets her be until she can ready herself for another round of Him pretending to be her husband, before she can go toe-for-toe. The hold on her back is firm but awkward.
“There, there. It wasn’t even so bad, was it? That wasn’t even the real deal.” Their limbs untangle, and soon they return to dishes sweating under a single red bulb.
The first time I watched Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung eat together in their dress rehearsal confrontation in In The Mood For Love, it sailed unceremoniously right over my silly head. I lapped up the soft hued filters, the endless revolving door of qipaos, and the dialogue that unspooled senselessly, in no particular direction with the romantic whims of those who wanted one another. It didn’t occur to me that what I surmised as the plot moving with a mind of its own could be motivated by the taking of meals together, and the blurring of pleasure that prefaces or invites such practices.
“Desire is productive; it is what oils the lines of the social; it produces the pleats and the folds which constitute the social surface we live.” This quote from Elsbeth Probyn has long made a home deep inside my head for reasons all pertaining to my vicious love for Wong Kar-Wai’s films and nice tasting things. The two are arranged together in his work to build desire, refashioned through food to signify the what ifs, and moreover, the if not now, whens? that punctuate all emotional projections in Kar-wai’s greats, like In the Mood for Love, as well as Fallen Angels. I want to consider different microcosms at play when we turn to Kar-wai’s filmography and what gels, what makes each scene so very, very, divine. Food, as the vessel for desire, fills that void in a myriad of sultry, emotionally charged, and delicate ways.
Chronicling the romantic trajectory in the films as makeshift orators themselves; the sag of noodles passed through sweaty hands, garish Mcdonald’s and vices obtained through dubious means. I want to look at the act of eating itself and the forms this can take: alone, in spontaneity, in duress. Eating often harbours intent in a way that is inseparable from the trappings of feminine desire. This is what I am enamoured with at the current moment: thinking about consumption and its invasive connection to desire in Wong Kar-Wai’s body of work.
“I thought I was the only one who knew.”
Before the scene first introduced above where Maggie Cheung’s character, Mrs. Chan has a swift breakdown over dinner and weeps on Mr. Chow, (masterfully played by Tony Leung) before any outings of a romantic nature, all these two have are the chance encounters at the noodle stall. The cultural significance noodles hold in Chinese culture knows no bounds: the most common being a symbol of longevity and good fortune, with variations ranging far and wide from “sister-in-law’s noodles”, to “old friend noodles” (Xu 2019), all loaded with familial and intimate implications that make up greater sino-Cantonese culture. Their nighttime encounters are deliberate in their necessity — both Chan and Chow are dining solo, their respective spouses at work or abroad. Each time they meet, they engage briefly in versed sympathy for one another before making their ways back home alone. We never catch a glimpse of said noodles and can only infer that they served a fleeting purpose of filling something empty.
This leads into their first deliberate meal together; where the absence of food is stark. Against plush red upholstery, he bums a smoke while she stirs, counter-clockwise, into a jade green tea cup. Neither touch food or flag down a waiter. Cordial words exchanged, they soon find out that their meetups aren't one of convenience and dining alone but rather, the result of their partners cheating on them with one another. Though pinched, their faces reflect no emotion while they drift to their own inaction. Food or the lack thereof, guides the emotional climax and connection that webs out between Chow and Chan who become united in their muted grief. Neither explicitly speak on their shared revelation: we have to look at coded words, (“Where did you get your handbag? My wife has one just like it”) and the synonymously blank expressions both wear, like armour, when coming to grips with the actuality of what had gone on for quite some time under their noses.
The negative space of food in these two examples are glaring in their omissions of what remains unspoken. Much can be inferred about the allegorical nature of the former instance: Why noodles? Why in solitude? Could they reflect the projections of familial desires bundled up in the excuse of not washing up, or being lazy? Moreover, what of the good fortune that noodles allegedly bring? It is also key to look into how the dish itself is portrayed in comparison to its known use. Positioned as a sad, hasty substitute for a home cooked meal instead of a celebratory dish to break out at family gatherings; I could harp on about the intricacies at play in that single excursion.
On the other hand, we have the complete absence of want that permeates the first ‘dinner’ Chow and Chan share together. Everything conveyed in the scene hinges on what is unsaid, what is not being done. The meal mirrors the shallowness of the initial dialogue that the scene opens with, as a pretense insured to protect both of them from what they don’t want to hear. When the scene fades into black through the wisps of smoke emanating from Chow’s dish of choice, his cigarette, she whispers, “I thought I was the only one that knew.” In allowing a scrap of Chan’s point-of-view, her words bridge the negligence of the two’s former wants with their partners’ wants, their current inaccessibility to such desires kindred in their pain.
The Fallen Angels universe opts for an altogether different route. Where ITMFL was sparse or opulent, coral tones and swanky dine outs, Fallen Angels played around with food through a thoroughly detached lens. The focus on dining here is no less obvious but marked in reputedly different ways; all working to cheapen the relational arcs that become intertwined with each character.
“Anyone sitting here?”
When Wong gets waylaid by Blondie, the decision is made instantaneously in the dead of the night at Mcdonald’s. Blondie sidles up to the bewildered man, occupies the seat next to him and continues to eat her fries with relish while the camera pans jerkily at the expanse of space that almost swallows them whole under the greasy lights. She continues to stare him down, with one clawed hand over her soda and the other plying fry after fry into her mouth while she waits for him to realise that she isn’t going anywhere. Afterwards, they have a testy one night stand in which Blondie reimagines that Wong is her spurned lover. The forcefulness of her introduction and her role in the film is deliberate with the setting: a cheap fix for those left abandoned as the night drags on.
The focus on fast food here not only commoditises the act of sex that follows, but marks an important tonal shift for the two involved here. Wong, a contract killer, and Blondie, a sex worker, both operate on the fringes of society and more importantly, time. The story follows the two almost naturally because their encounter with one another is one that relies on rationale. Fatigued, alone, and faced with the incoming storm outside the golden arches, it makes sense that the two crave warmth long after the fries have whittled down into nothing.
Blondie especially has bones to pick with the men who have mistreated her - and tries to subdue Wong with the same ferocity that she had taken to her eating. The desire is spelled out in the lines of her body, angled towards his, and evident in how quickly and eagerly she breaks down her meal. Unlike ITMFL, where female desire is diluted to the solitary passing of time and meals, Blondie’s wants are brazen and temporally unmarked. There is no unfurling of something more, they’re in a Maccas, for crying out loud. Her wielding an invitation of something more resists structure and etiquette because she is allowed to be mobile. From a caloric substitute to one that involves friction, and even the imagination of a woeful ex, the fateful encounter between the two supports that preliminary desire can be commoditized if serving one’s needs at that given time - even at the expense of decorum.
“Although I eat well every day, I am still very cold.”
The final scene of Fallen Angels that involves food is so seemingly irrelevant to the ongoings that proceed that -blink- and you’ll miss it. I have already droned on about the role noodles play in ITMFL, but in the final minutes where Michelle Reis’ nameless character glides through her internal monologue, she struggles through a bowl of instant noodles — eyes glazed, while she holds onto a flickering cigarette. When the focus is diverted sharply away to the full-blown brawl that takes place behind her, she flinches at the sound, but continues to busy herself with her meal. The motions default to each hand almost robotically, one to take a drag at her cig and the other to slurp up the remaining dregs of her bowl. She ruminates on the trials and tribulations of her former relationship while she chews: the sound of a breaking bottle being brought down onto some coolie’s head occurs simultaneously with her serene, close-lipped smile. Even as the men fumble closer to her head, which occupies most of the frame, they never encroach on her space, and she doesn’t turn to watch. Though she is peripherally shot, very little changes in her demeanor. Eat, take a drag, think. The scene that unfolds behind her is almost comical in how much it pulses with life and conflict.
So removed are her desires and wants from the reality of the situation she is in that even the totality of her presence as visibly domineering does little to lift the oppressive mood. In her head, she settles to never meddle in the affairs of her partners - a callback to Wong, who she’d worked briefly for in providing space for his line of work before a hit was ordered on him. This can be interpreted doubly: as a warning to never mingle business with pleasure as well as being a rueful “Ah well, better luck next time”, to satiating her intimate needs without any inflection of pain or past trauma.
This scene pairs an earlier one where she masturbates and cries when she climaxes alone. She is not without her vices, and knows where to go to satisfy herself though whatever means.
The conflation of self pleasure in both instances are marked by the almost abstract conclusion that follows. The sense of something left unsaid, or undone, never reaching completion is purposeful — it teases out the strokes of unarticulated desire that can never be quenched.
Food, and the sharing of it already invites eroticism in the sensory stimuli that comes with tasting. I would go further to proclaim that it is desire in embodied form. My mind keens for a future of letting myself eat; whatever, whenever, however.
As seen in ITMFL and Fallen Angels, food becomes the vessel upon which desire is reproduced, performed, and absolved in its proximity to unactualized feminine wanting. To consume without shame, one shapes the formation of such wants around self-gratuity and away from the dimensions of the male gaze. In that, food becomes the counterfeit liberation, the gateway of possibility for the women of Wong Kar-Wai’s works as they straddle their appetites with the cultural complexities that follow their choices to do just that.
* moh yeh, meaning “it’s nothing”, in casual Cantonese