Every now and again a film will come along that will challenge my perceptions and understanding of the medium. I first saw 2000's In The Mood For Love on television a long time ago and remember being entranced by the sheer beauty of it. Being young then, I failed to understand its accomplishments beneath its hypnotizing surface.
Having re-visited Wong Kar-wai's stylish and sultry tale a few times, I recently felt the need to go back and attempt to really understand it. Every detail, every shot, the music and atmosphere are all carefully chosen, and nothing is done by accident. This isn't going to be a masterful critique but more just my thoughts typed out, the things I picked up on and why they're important; the things that make In the Mood for Love a perfect example of a film as more than just mere entertainment, but as pure art. WARNING: This article contains spoilers — you've been warned.
The story follows two characters (technically four, although their faces are never shown) in the form of Maggie Cheung (Police Story) as Su Li-zhen (referred to as Mrs. Chan), Tony Leung (The Grandmaster) as Chow Mo-wan (Mr. Chow) and their respective spouses in 1962 Hong Kong, who coincidentally rent apartments next-door to each other. Mrs. Chan's husband and Mr. Chow's wife both work and are often on overtime shifts or away on business trips, leaving the two on their own.
Loneliness plays a large part in In the Mood for Love. The loneliness of being without spouses or, in fact, being with them, is constantly reflected. The frequent use of slow motion as Mrs. Chan walks through the busy areas of the city reflects the slow passing of time as she often leaves her apartment to get noodles, claiming that she does not like cooking for herself. However, her strolls to the noodle stall could just be an attempt to give herself some sort of purpose. Also during these scenes, the same piece of music is played over and over: the string motif composed by Shigeru Umebayashi. This could also represent the repetitious nature of her life.
Another notable decision in this theme is the use of similar environments throughout the film, that — as pointed out by Nerdwriter1 in his analysis on YouTube — are constantly come back to, and always from the same angle, creating a further, circular sense of repetition, especially early on. We go down the stairs and through the corridor, down to the noodle bar, through the streets, and back again.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are both suspicious of their spouses, and eventually come to the conclusion that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Determined not to stoop to their other halves' level as they begin to fall for each other, Chow and Chan try to reenact how they imagine it happened. In a warped sense of coping with the ache of betrayal, Mr. Chow "plays" Mrs. Chan's husband and Mrs. Chan, Mr. Chow's wife, as they constantly coach each other on how their significant others would act, and ultimately try to seduce their own spouses as the other's spouse to understand not only how, but why it happened. By doing this, they can be in control of their betrayal, or a fantastical version of it, without having to actually confront the reality.
In regards to the themes presented in this part of the story, one of the first things I noticed right from the start of the film is how every shot is somehow obstructed by something else in the foreground — a frame within a frame. This small detail plays a crucial part in the film's mood and themes. It is a constant reminder to the viewer of that sense of loneliness, and also representative of the characters being trapped within their moralities and their desire to break out of those walls and of the social norms of what's expected of them. This occurs while we, the viewer, watch through the frames as if being a spectator, looking into their lives — observing — which (not coincidentally, I'm sure) ties into what Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow fear: gossip.
These obstructions could also be symbolic of their denial about their spouses, or the two being contained within the fantasy that they are creating. They are comfortable there, being in control and never confessing their feelings for each other. In a way, they never confess their spouse's love for the other's spouse. They can live in their own, prolonged version of reality, not having to break out and see it for what it really is.
Interestingly however, Wai also uses a lot of facial closeups in order to "[convey] the quality of a personal encounter." He wants us to connect with these characters in some way, as we look from the inside and the outside, gaining an understanding. In an interview, he spoke of being inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo and his philosophies, stating:
“I wanted to treat it like a Hitchcock film, where so much happens outside the frame, and the viewer’s imagination creates a kind of suspense. 'Vertigo,' especially, is something I always kept returning to in making the film.”
Towards the end, Mr. Chow does finally confess his love for Mrs. Chan, and they realize (or rather, admit) that they, in fact, are like their spouses. Their fantasy comes crashing down and they become what they've been determined to avoid. In order to cope, they essentially doom themselves and become a "missed connection."
It's not often that I get analytical, but In the Mood for Love demands it. It is a gorgeous and tragic tale with so much to give. It's quiet, thoughtful and painful, with the themes constantly reflected in its masterful cinematography. The only other film that I can think of off the top of my head that elicited a similar feeling is Only Lovers Left Alive, though in different ways.
Although it takes an acquired taste to fully appreciate Wong Kar-wai's work, In the Mood for Love is an intricately constructed piece of pure visual poetry. As stated by Mrs. Chan early on:
"You notice things if you pay attention."
What are some other films that have excellent cinematography? Let us know!