I grew up in Mumbai. You can tell a city has no more room when the buildings start to travel upward. With an approximate population of 20 million people, Mumbai most notably has no room for anyone. In the last two decades, the city skyline has been filled with skyscrapers — and we still seem to have no space. There is always construction in Mumbai; it is difficult to dismiss the acres of land devoted to creating taller, more optimised edifices.
I moved to the city with my parents when I was three. Much like many other families that migrate to Mumbai for work, we had no family in the city — it was just my dad, my mum and me. Much of my early childhood and adolescence involved adjusting to create and be a part of communities, realizing early on that to be a City Girl was to also learn to cope with feeling alone.
Two years ago, I saw Wong Kar-wai’s “In The Mood for Love” for the first time. It’s since become my favorite-ever film, one that I can watch endlessly — sometimes for the simplicity of its writing, sometimes for its soulful, almost mournful soundtrack and always for the two leads who are just attractive enough to keep the frames beautiful.
Wong’s most celebrated film, “In The Mood for Love,” is about two very lonely people in bustling Hong Kong who discover that their respective partners have been seeing each other. They spend the rest of the film in an aching, beautiful state of torment — slowly, they fall in love, but are too scared to act on it, too nonconfrontational to tell their partners and mature enough to eventually work through their previous marriages.
All of Wong’s movies feature a very specific kind of urban loneliness — he loves to feature characters as they navigate city life, most often on their own. We follow Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) as she heads to the noodle shop to pick up dinner, in the hope that she will run into Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), even if it’s just for a few seconds. In “Chungking Express,” characters cross paths at their busiest moments, unaware of the ubiquitous worlds that connect them. In Wong’s world, these are moments of interest. He likes to focus on the specific feeling of solitude in a space that is teeming with people — that it is possible to so intensely yearn for companionship in spite of it being all around us.
His movies feel like home — the constant chug-chugging of trains throughout “Fallen Angels” sound just like they do from my high-rise apartment in Mumbai; the navigation of cramped spaces and tight corners feels all too familiar, and the prying gossip of neighbors and the shouts of street vendors can be found meters away from my house.
I think Wong’s idea of urban loneliness is particularly specific to the developing world — Hong Kong and Buenos Aires aren’t too different from Mumbai. The soundtracks in his movies are always foreign — it feels like the characters in his films are always looking outward to the rest of the world, often looking to Western ideals for guidance. The crux of the developing world is that it is yet to be developed — unlike a New York or a London, these are cities that are still constantly building, with hundreds of people whose aspirations see no ceiling. Wong is able to take the realities of developing cities and gloss them with the beauty of their possibility.
I’m drawn to Wong’s movies because they reflect me — in this very specific, cultural way. Loneliness isn’t reflected in his characters moping at their desks, static and sunken; it’s reflected in their glimpses of hope when they brush hands with someone they’ve always found attractive, or when they strike conversations with their coworkers in an attempt to build a connection. His characters are constantly looking for companionship in cities that don’t have the time — nor the space — for them.
I’ve also long had a sneaking suspicion that people who love movies — love, with their whole entire heart — are lonely in even the tiniest of ways. To put your life on hold, to find solace in the emotion and the experiences of another world in vivid technicolor is an addictive feeling, one that is even more tempting when it isn’t readily available to you. To watch Chow and Su’s love story in the midst of it all is a reminder of the fact that city life will always feel a little lonely — but to see my life reflected in film comforts my own peculiar urban loneliness. I will continue to watch the film on repeat, and as I escape into that beautiful, soulful world, I will remember the possibility that is woven into each ubiquitous moment of life in Mumbai.