In The Mood For Love – An Appreciation
Watching Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love (2000) recently, I was reminded again of how great this movie is. Wong Kar-Wai is one of the world’s very best directors working today, having the ability to take simple themes such as love and loneliness, and melding them in a style reminiscent of the French New Wave directors. His career started as a writer, ironic being that now he does all of his projects without the use of a concrete script. Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial efforts prior to In the Mood were often times flashy and eccentric, such as in As Tears Go By (1988) and Chungking Express (1994). This certainly is not a bad thing, in fact quite the opposite, but for In the Mood he took a different turn stylistically: his camera slowed down, the colors became more lush, shadows and lighting became more apparent, smoke filled the air like a scene from a film noir movie, appropriate for a story about longing and unspoken desire.
It is 1962, in Hong Kong. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) works as a writer for a newspaper; Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is an administrative assistant. They are both married. In the beginning of the film, we find them moving in to the same crowded apartment complex, next door to each other. Their spouses are never seen but heard and talked about much throughout the film. This is an important directorial touch by Wong Kar-Wai: to not show Mr. Chow and Su Li-zhen’s spouses, we concentrate less about them (the spouses) as characters and more about the consequences of their actions upon these two people.
Mr. Chow’s wife always has to work late, Li-zhen’s husband is always out on a business trip. One day, Li-zhen catches Mr. Chow’s wife hanging around their apartment. Suspicions arise. Finally, in a quiet but effective scene, Mr. Chow and Li-zhen come to the realization that their spouses are cheating on them with each other, with the clever use of purses and neckties. How can their spouses possibly do this? How did it start? As Mr. Chow and Li-zhen explore these questions, they begin to build a friendship of their own, which inevitably creates the main question of the film: as they grow closer and ultimate fall in love themselves, should they follow the same paths their spouses took or should they take the moral high ground and stay at arm’s length? This moral dilemma creates scenes of great complexity with these two characters that obviously care for each other deeply, but must navigate the waters of Hong Kong, where this type of situation is frowned upon highly, and where rumor can spread like wildfire.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are two international superstars, and here we see them at their very best. Cheung plays Su Li-zhen with two faces: the first as the proper, elegant wife, always dressed up with her hair perfectly fixed, who seems to always have her composure in front of others, the other as the broken and lost soul, in search for comfort and understanding. Leung, who would go on and win the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie, plays Mr. Chow perfectly. I had known of Leung previously, but it was with this film where I first took notice of him as a tremendous actor. With the right mix of subtlety and emotion, Leung has the ability to express the hurt, loneliness, and desire his character feels with the slightest look, the slightest turn of his head, the slightest puff of his cigarette. It’s almost as if the less that Leung does, the more powerful his performance becomes.
Wong Kar-Wai captures these two performances behind a stylish yet refrained directorial style. With his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, he places his actors often times framed in hallways and doorways, giving the film a more intimate atmosphere. The soundtrack is filled with music by Nat King Cole, often times repeated at different emotional points of these character’s story-arcs. A particular musical theme, Yumeji’s Theme, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi, is a sad yet haunting score, one that stayed in my head for days. Wong Kar-Wai, often during the film, uses slow motion during what seems to be ordinary daily activities, giving these scenes a heightened sense of reality. The use of color is probably the best I’ve seen in any movie. The film is filled with bright reds and yellows, light sources are seen on screen; these images look full and picturesque. For example, at a certain moment Mr. Chow stands by and simply looks at Su Li-zhen. The combination of color, lighting, music, and camera angle creates an image that doesn’t look like it was simply shot with a camera, but almost as if it was painted on screen.
The best romantic stories are those of unrequited love, the kind of love that never quite goes ultimately fulfilled. Like in the real world, life goes on, words are not said, and regrets are made. Wong Kar-Wai has made a masterpiece of a movie with In The Mood for Love, perfectly capturing two boats passing each other in the night. He would go on to make other notable films, such as the underappreciated 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), his first English-speaking film. Both would share common traits, but never reach the heights that this movie has. There is a time and place for everything, for the two lonely people of Mr. Chow and Su Li-zhen, they are in the mood to fall in love, but the time is not now, and the place is somewhere else.