Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece is widely seen as a story of unrequited love, but when he first conceived of it more than 20 years ago, it was an ode to Hong Kong’s diner culture.
Wong Kar-wai’s seminal masterpiece In the Mood for Love debuted 20 years ago, but when he first conceived of the film, it was supposed to be a movie about food.
Widely considered his magnum opus, Wong’s film uses muted colors and half-heard conversations through doorways, windows, and over the phone to tell the story of two lonely neighbors, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), in 1960s Hong Kong. Slowly, they come to realize that their spouses are having an affair together.
Originally titled A Story of Food, In the Mood for Love began life as a series of vignettes related to eating in Hong Kong, Wong revealed in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.
But throughout development, he kept obsessing over one story of a man and woman’s serendipitous encounters at a curbside noodle stall, known in Hong Kong as a dai pai dong 大排档.
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The original concept is apparent in early scenes of the movie, where Mr. Chow occasionally runs into Mrs. Su during his meals at a noodle stall. Over time, the two begin to realize that their spouses have been cheating on them.
As they speculate on how the affair might have begun, they end up at Sun Kwong Nam Restaurant, where they bond over steak. With practiced ease, Mr. Chow brushes a small dollop of mustard on Mrs. Su’s ribeye cut. “Do you like it spicy?” he asks.
Such lavish meals were a class marker of Hong Kong’s strivers in the 1960s. Restaurants like Sun Kwong Nam served approximations of European dishes such as beef stroganoff, steak, and pork chops, but with local ingredients and flavor profiles more suited to Chinese tastes.
Another such restaurant featured in the film is Goldfinch. Replete with red leather booths, emerald-colored walls, and large menus reminiscent of those at American diners, Goldfinch was the archetype of a restaurant that served “soy sauce Western,” the name for Hong Kong’s unique fusion cuisine.
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The food culture of 1960s Hong Kong plays a central role throughout the film. The lonely pair continue to run into each other at the dai pai dong, ordering noodles to eat by themselves while their respective spouses “work late.” Mrs. Chan offers to make taro soup for Mr. Chow. When a drunken landlord accidentally traps them together inside Mr. Chow’s bedroom, they pass the time by eating.
But like the film’s fleeting romance, these icons of a bygone era are slowly fading, eclipsed by glitzy malls and changing trends.
Many dai pai dong stalls closed after a government crackdown in the early 2010s. Sun Kwong Nam switched to a fast-casual curry-focused menu.
Goldfinch, despite trying to capitalize on its In the Mood for Love fame, ran into a series of financial issues and ownership changes before finally closing in 2018.
Recently, though, it reopened on the sixth floor of a shopping center.
The new establishment’s name, fittingly, is Nostalgia.