Spike’s Classics: In The Mood For Love
In the Mood for Love was the western breakthrough for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. While his earlier works had enjoyed some success, In The Mood for Love managed to break through into mainstream, a rare task indeed for a film that was both foreign and dealt with themes and ideas that were not particularly mainstream material.
What is even more surprising about the film’s success is that aside from its stunning design there is nothing that could be classed as a hook, nothing that on paper would interest a western audience. The fact of the matter is that despite the very alien setting and culture the story of two hurt people seeking solace from each other is a universal tale.
What makes the film so compelling is the chemistry between the two leads. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, both Kar-Wai regulars, playing Chow and Chan deliver beautifully restrained yet emotive performances. These central performances serve as an anchor for the film that at times does drift into being overly ponderous.
However these ponderous moments help showcase Kar-Wai’s skill as a director and Christopher Doyle’s extraordinary talent as a cinematographer. Every shot of the film is beautiful, the lens telling us everything that Chan and Chow cannot admit to each other.
It is easy to see why many people view In The Mood for Love as Kar-Wai’s strongest film. It is a film of regal majesty, beautifully judged and shot with the tenderness and care only a director with a definitive vision could. Dialogue and plot are largely thrown away to instead focus on composition and overall mood. The characters speak to each other a lot but they never truly communicate on a verbal level.
The film is simply astonishing to look at and taken as stills each frame could be seen as a work of art. But it is only when the still image coalesces with other elements that the sheer magic of the film is allowed to flourish.
The use of slow motion is perhaps the more memorable element of the film, long thoughtful takes with the haunting string based score providing the only sound as the characters go about their daily routine.
It is the mastery of these elements that makes the film so successful. On its own the cinematography would be great, but when combined with the wondrously emotive score, inspired costume design, use of space, and breathtaking set design In The Mood for Love becomes a modern masterpiece.
In a lot of ways In The Mood for Love plays like a modern fairytale. It mixes realistic themes and notions with an almost dreamlike production sense. Everything that the characters do feels real, but the world they inhabit is like a stylised painting. From the swirls of luxurious smoke that emerge from Chow’s cigarettes, to the delicate dresses that Chan wears everything in the film has a hint of unreality to it. They exist in a place that is designed down to the smallest detail, a meticulously crafted stage to showcase the characters.
Wong Kar-Wai trusts his audience to make links and figure out plot points with minimal guidance and the general ambiguity of the end scenes is perhaps the greatest indication of this. In the Mood for Love is a difficult film in a lot of ways because it does require active participation by the audience. They have to work out what is going on largely for themselves and a lot of the emotional payoff comes from having a general investment in the characters.
Kar-Wai creates this audience participation right from the start with the moving scenes. We are shown Chan’s meeting with the landlady and agreement to move in, we are then introduced to Chow who asks for the same room, he is denied but told a room is going next door, we see him knock at the door and then the scene shifts to the moving stage with no interaction between Chow and his landlady. Then after the moving scene we are shown the couples happily moved in. It is this collection of scenes that prepares the audience for Kar-Wai’s shorthand storytelling technique and also forces the audience to pay attention to what is going on.
The camera tells the story more than the characters themselves, this is especially true of scenes involving the spouses of Chow and Chan. Both partners do appear on screen but you only ever see their backs. You hear their voices and there is interaction between the two couples but the errant partners are for the most part ciphers which allows for the audience to easily make a connection between Chow and Chan.
In one early scene we see Chan get taken away from her husband’s side by Chow’s wife, leaving the room closely followed by Chow himself. It is also worth noting that this is the first of the slow motion scenes that take place throughout the film. It could be argued that the specific use of music and filming style could indicate a certain displacement for both characters as the technique is used again when they both make their jaunts down to the rice sellers. While the music itself is pretty and the cinematography stunning the scenes are in a way almost tragic, people accepting their fate and just getting on with what they have to do.
It is also interesting to note that the internal geography of the sets is used to reinforce another key element of the movie. Chow and Chan can never be together, they are still too tied to their partners and too meek to leave. In the first half of the movie, before the discovery of infidelity, the two characters are separated at all times by shot composition. They rarely appear in the same shot together until the restaurants scene and a lot of communication is done while focused on one character, with the other off screen. This same use of geography is put to use again, and rather more obviously, during the last act where the two characters are sat back to back against a wall, both listening to the same thing but both worlds apart.
The two characters also do not start off in love with each other. Both characters are very much in love with their spouses and as such the conversations between Chow and Chan are very genial. In fact in one early scene Chan is walking up a flight of stairs and turns past Chow, neither character seemingly interested or aware of each others presence. When both characters start to realise the truth they become more interested each other, the scene on the stairs is repeated but this time with both characters exchanging glances.
In the Mood for Love does not start out as a love story it evolves into one. The primary focus of the second act, after the infidelity is discovered, is about the burgeoning friendship between Chow and Chan. They don’t bond because they are in love they bond because they are both displaced by their partner’s adultery. They both just want to know what happened and how it happened, how their partners were lured by someone else.
They become allies not in a bid for vengeance but in a quest for understanding. They are never overtly angry at their partners, they just accept that their own actions drove them apart. Chow and Chan’s relationship is mutually supportive despite the wildly different courses of actions they both take. Chow feels tied down by marriage and takes the infidelity as a chance for freedom he pursues his dream of writing and moves away from the apartment, Chan however still has feelings for her husband and uses Chow as a way to understand what happened and a way to rehearse her inevitable reconciliation. Even when they are trapped together there is a gulf between them, Chow and Chan seemingly occupying wildly different sections of the same room.
It is only after spending time together that Chow starts to feel something for Chan and he knows that he cannot separate her from her husband. Because he can never have her he instead flees from the situation ending up in Singapore and later Cambodia. When he travels back to Hong Kong he is presented with an opportunity to see Chan again but turns it down. In the end he knows that their moments of friendship and gentle love can never be revisited and as such he buries his feelings away, never to be known again.
In the Mood for Love like many of Kar-Wai’s movies explores the many facets of love that exist. It is not a story about a passionate romance, that is more the partner’s story, but instead a look at reconciliation and the sacrifices people make for each other.