Searing Emotional Melodramas for a Cold Winter Night

Film Society at Lincoln Center's "Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama" gives a sweeping survey of passion-inducing films.

by Larissa Pham
Jan 5 2018, 7:59pm

In The Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, is sumptuously lit, richly colored, and brimming with a kind of restrained excess. In precisely composed vignettes nearly abstract in their beauty, the love story of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) unfolds with heartbreaking slowness. When they first meet as neighbors in the same crowded apartment building in Hong Kong in the '60s, they treat each other with a friendly politeness, but as time goes on, they learn that their spouses are having an affair with each other. What results is a delicately mannered melodrama, in which the two take turns role-playing as each other’s husband and wife—at first as a way of understanding each of their separate betrayals, and later, as a kind of thinly veiled performance that brings them unbearably close. “We won’t be like them,” they vow to each other, and indeed, though their longing for each other feels just as palpable as the movie's aching soundtrack—a diverse, evocative mix including Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, and a haunting waltz by Shigeru Umebayashi—their only touch is in passing.

Yet despite the self-control of the characters, excess is everywhere. Hiding in each other’s apartments, they eat meals together—noodles unfurling out of paper take-out boxes; dumplings, piping with steam. The thick sweetness of a pot of sesame syrup; an American-style fried steak, huge on the plate, spicy mustard on the side. The sheer amount of food in the film makes you feel hungry yourself—for love or for noodles. Visually, the film is almost too much, drenched in its own glorious styling: an improbably enormous plume of smoke rises from Tony Leung’s cigarette as he works late in his office, drifting to the ceiling in hypnotic swirls that take over the frame, while Maggie Cheung, dressed in an endless array of body-hugging, colorful qipao, is lit throughout the film as though she is the only woman in the world.

“People always want to give themselves over to that movie,” mused Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Editorial Director Michael Koresky, in an episode of The Close-up, Lincoln Center’s in-house podcast. In the Mood For Love might be considered the centerpiece of the Film Society’s ongoing series, “Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama,” a dynamite series featuring 62 films, all tributes to the genre of melodrama, which runs December 13 to January 7. In the Mood’s star-crossed lovers are featured on much of the series' promotional materials, imbuing it with dramatic shades of red and gold.

In the Mood For Love was one of the first titles we mentioned and in a way, it was an anchor for the contemporary selections,” series programmer Florence Almozini wrote to me. “Plus, it is always such a treat to watch it on the big screen—it is so, colorful, so lavish, with a perfect soundtrack.”

Though certainly a centerpiece of the programming, it’s by no means representative of the entire 62-film selection. The films of “Emotion Pictures” fall into four broad categories: silent screen, Hollywood Golden Age, international classics, and modern/postmodern drama. The curation wasn’t necessarily based on sheer weepiness; rather, many were selected based on how extreme they were in conveying emotionality itself, and it was a requisite that at least one curator had to feel strongly about each film selected. “Something bigger than life is not necessarily something that makes you cry, but it’s so hyperbolic at times it’s kind of fascinating to watch,” said Tyler Wilson, another programmer of the series.

“It was very interesting to explore the international angle of melodrama,” Almozini told me. “Silent and classic Hollywood, women weepies, and filmmakers like Sirk and Minnelli are more known, and on display here, but we were excited to go further to complete the series. Japan has a rich history of melodrama with Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Ozu, which are maybe more known here than some of the selections from other countries such as Korean melodramas. It was important to us to represent the variety of melodramas from different countries, and it is an easy point of entry into international films for a novice audience.”

Two other films from the series demonstrate this international range: The Housemaid, a 1960 domestic drama from Korean director Kim Ki-young, is another classic melodrama that’s as riveting and violent as In The Mood For Love is restrained. Emotionally over-the-top, with a dramatic soundtrack reminiscent of Hitchcockian thrillers, it’s piercing and psychologically troubling. The Life of Oharu, a 1952 historical film from Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, sensitively portrays the life of a woman undone by bad luck and the cruelties of sex. Instead of dramatic excess, the film wrenches one’s emotions through small gestures—an expression on an actress’s face, a camera angle, a pause. When her family is exiled from Kyoto, after Oharu has been accused of prostitution while acting as part of the imperial court, her parents immediately bow to acknowledge the magistrate’s punishment—but Oharu, stricken, remains upright for just a moment longer, then leans forward, slowly, doubly under the weight of her elaborate garments and the strict social structures by which she is subject to.

Writing to Almozini, I asked how the series came together. Why melodrama? Why now? And why in the middle of winter? Then again, I thought, winter seemed to be the perfect season for such an emotionally wrenching series.

“The starting point of that discussion was the classic ‘Comedies do not travel well but Dramas do’ and the idea that everyone can get affected by the same melodrama, tearjerker, or tragedy,” she wrote to me. “We had done Sirk recently, paired with Haynes, and wanted to explore that going further, from the silent era to contemporary films, examining the line of influences within the genre and its borders. It was conceptually very rich—to the point of overwhelming, when we had to narrow it down. But as you said, it seems to us a perfect show for the season, the cold days, watching dramas, some for the hundredth time and some for the first time, and having a large audience full of teary eyes around.”

Florence Almozini recommends not missing Pola X—in her words, an extremely intense viewing experience, and not a classic melodrama. It’s screening on Sunday, January 7th, and the rest of the series schedule is here .

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