Wong Kar-Wai, is known for his brutally honest, no-holes-barred portrayal of love in all his films. But it is his depiction of longing, and platonic desire in In The Mood For Love that earned him worldwide critical acclaim.
The film opens with Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) getting acquainted while moving into neighbouring apartments that they’ve rented out in Hong Kong, China. Mr Chow is a newspaper editor and Mrs Chan an executive assistant at a travel agency. They have fixed schedules that seem to coincide with each other’s, resulting in fleeting encounters in corridors and hallways. Their spouses meanwhile have jobs that demand a lot of travelling, leading in each half of the couples feeling isolated. Eventually, through astute observation, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan discover that their partners are having an affair with each other. Instead of the conventional plot turn a Hollywood film would adopt, neither of them rushes into the other’s arms or beds, instead they sip tea together and brood as to how the affair started out in the first place. The film then follows them as they try to enact their own interpretations of how their spouses got together.
The claustrophobic mise en scene aims to provide you an accurate description of the highly populated and intrusive society of Hong Kong. Numerous scenes begin and end with Mr Chow and Mrs Chan conversing in corridors and hallways as it’s the only place with any modicum of privacy. This is endemic to the Hong Kong that Wong spent his childhood in.
Five minutes into the film, and the first thing you notice is that each scene is a frame within a frame. You never get the chance to view the characters directly, instead they are shot through a door frame, mirrors, or some sort of object that is always placed within the camera’s line of vision. Wong employs this technique to make the audience feel that they are spying on the couple, or eavesdropping on their private conversations and that we have no right to do so. The neighbours and landlords further guilt the couple into denying themselves time with each other, their self-restraint stemming from their own sense of morality. Here we see the typical Asian take on the situation “What will people think?” In doing this Wong evades the Hollywood ideal of love and stays true to the cultural implications of Asian society.
Wong infuses his signature style of slow motion track shots and limited dialogues into each second of the film. A single colour dominates each shot, as he saturates them in luscious, deep reds, yellows, and blues. The film is set in 1960’s Hong Kong and was shot in the late 90’s, but its inception was much earlier. Wong’s spark of inspiration for In The Mood for Love is accredited to Liu Yi- Chang’s novella titled Dui Dao meaning Intersection. And the film is punctuated with intersections at every turn, from the location of the film, to their dialogues, to the transitions between shots. Hong Kong in the 60’s was the intersecting point between the mainland’s communism and the west’s capitalism. The characters too are at an intersection in their lives between their unmarried selves and married selves. The intersection of light and colour, silence and tears, ageing eyes and youth. Wong is known for solipsistic dramas centred on longing, passion and connection (Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997) . He is also known for Wuxia films like Grandmaster (2013). Wong is known for his chaotic production of his films, relying on the actors interpretation of the character rather than a premeditated script, to take the project forward.
He often cited Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo as an inspiration for the cinematography of In the Mood for Love, as that film also contains singular colour frames and characters acting out a relationship. In The Mood for Love itself has some of Christopher Doyle’s signature sweeping track shots which Wong uses to show a flux of consciousness in our protagonists. In In The Mood For Love, Wong abandons his usual frenetic MTV style fast paced editing, and experiments with neo noir-like elements with the colours of passion, love and jealousy. He uses the philosophy of less is more, and implements a reduced narrative to address the characters’ inadequacy. The cheating spouses are left off screen and he uses step printing to completely omit showing their face.
Time is an ever present motif in In The Mood for Love. Shots periodically cut to frames of a clock that Wong never fully uses, thus defying Chekhov’s pistol. The clock never gives you an accurate understanding of what time it is and where the film is going. The point of the clock is to relay to the viewer, the concept that love is all a matter of timing. The circularity of the clock is meant to convey the temporary nature of the character’s lives. They have an infinite amount of time to be with each other, but there’s a significant amount of time they’ve already lost.
Entranced with a melancholic, violin themed background score ( Yumeji’s theme and Spanish ballads crooned by Nat King Cole), the audience is made painfully aware of the fact that they are indeed in love, but they continue to deny themselves of it. The soundtrack is played in only three scenarios: when conveying routines, when the characters are whispering secrets and when they’re overcome with emotions. Each time it begins, the viewer is transported to a state of utter hopelessness. It makes you want to jolt them out of their misery, and let them know they deserve to be happy. The soundtrack is used in conjunction with slow tracking shots to slow down the viewer’s thought and make them aware that the characters are wounding themselves with imaginary scenarios that chip away at their already withering self esteem.
Replete with sensorial triggers like cigarette smoke, food (especially noodles), music, subtle gestures, slight smirks, light rain showers(which he uses as a device to force the characters into a cramped space) and eye movements, Wong reveals to us the story of two individuals that are displaced and feel like they’re spectators in their own lives. He exposes the audience to a novel idea, that intimacy can be possible without romance, and vice versa. The film was originally shot in Cantonese, but the issue of language never arises. Because the couple converses with body language, not extensive dialogue. The film ends with a documentary of Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia. Signifying a change in the geopolitical spheres in China. The space that once served as a safe harbour for their love to bloom, is now changing, change being the ever present muse in all of Wong’s oeuvre.
A coda at the end of the film summarises their relationship across Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, leaving the audience bewildered and stunned.
Hughes- D’Aeth writes, “Both Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, beneath their suave mannerisms are paralysed by a single devastating idea, I am not enough for the other.”
In The Mood For Love is not just a technical achievement in Hong Kong’s second new wave of cinema. It’s an attempt by Wong himself to understand the fleeting nature of the human heart. It’s the possibility of a connection that sustains Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, not the connection itself. Their paths cross, but their intentions rarely do. As the voice of Nat King Cole glides over the monologues by Mr. Chow, we hear ‘Quizas, quizas, quizas…’ Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…we can reclaim that missed ephemeral vapour of love. It’s basically poetry on film, and like poetry, it’s hard to express what the film does to you. You have to experience that yourself. Because the mood is set, and hidden between those sights and sounds is the reason we fall in love in the first place.
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I’m Shanaya Sequeira. I’m a student from Mumbai, who has a fascination for the arts. I would like nothing more than to escape into a Kafkaesque world crafted by Soseki. I enjoy writing about poetry, sometimes philosophy and everything in between. And I can’t resist cozy cafes.