Set in 60s Hong Kong, the story chronicles the tentative relationship between a married man and a married woman (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), both of whom discover, after moving into neighbouring flats, that their respective spouses are having an affair. Drawn by their mutual cuckolded status, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-Wan soon fall for each other but, stifled by propriety and moral restraint, never act on their impulses. Instead, their relationship comprises wry smiles, furtive conversations and even role-plays where they enact imaginary dialogue between their cheating spouses in an attempt to broach the subject of infidelity. However, the infidelity is itself viewed as something of a banality. In fact, as an audience we never get to see the faces of the adulterers, only hear their voices or see scenes partly impeded by the backs of their heads.
The camera acts as an auxiliary character, documenting from a discreet distance and eavesdropping on the characters. The conversations between Su and Chow are captured in hallways, framed by doorways and through windows by an oft-stationary camera which is frequently placed where its line of sight is partially obscured. However, this style of filming is a departure from his old practices. Wong here eschews the fisheye intrusion and restlessness which pervades a lot of his work, seen chiefly in Fallen Angels, and instead adopts more voyeuristic movements to capture the sense of claustrophobia surrounding Su and Chow.
This Hitchcockian technique also articulates the importance of what remains unseen. Everything about this film is speculative: is it a Platonic relationship? Do they in fact sleep together? What expression is Su’s husband wearing when Chow talks to him? The camera highlights the mystery as well as the excitement. Wong’s long-time collaborator, Christopher Doyle, is one of two names listed on the credits for cinematography, however. Mark Li Ping-bin also shares a credit, and both, along with art director William Chang, won the Technical Grand Prize for Mood at Cannes in 2001.
In this scene Su and Chow, on their way to get noodles, pass each other on a staircase but are forced to take shelter as it begins to rain. The camera studies the anatomy of their glance, the slow motion accentuating its poignancy, while Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme accompanies (which becomes something of an earworm as it features eight times in the film). Notice the waltz between the camera and the actors, Tony Leung’s face inscribed with thought; this is beautiful cinema. It is precisely this film’s ability to capture the mood of longing and loss, not through expository dialogue or maudlin displays of emotion but with a wry smile, or a glance, or a curlicue of cigarette smoke that make it a perfect portrait of the minutiae of love.
Hong Kong is coloured with a neo-noir sensibility (a similar aesthetic adopted in Chungking Express) with all the nocturnal grace of an Edward Hopper painting. Even quotidian occurrences like this one are given an almost unworldly dream-like quality. The romanticism in these images reveals a form of nostalgic evocation both for the actors and probably for Wong who grew up in Hong Kong. These scenes look and feel like reconstructed memories, mood-drenched memories of missed opportunities and choked emotions and of a bygone Hong Kong.
In this scene Chan has rented a hotel room in order to avoid his neighbour’s gossip and asked Su to visit him. Su is wearing a white floral cheongsam and a red overcoat that blends seamlessly into the red curtains that lead to the room. As the film proceeds the viewer is acclimatised to the prospect of Chan and Su consummating their relationship. Su’s exquisitely tailored cheongsams grow more intense and vibrant in colour, Nat King Cole stops singing about aquellos ojos verdes (green eyes) and starts crooning quizas quizas quizas (perhaps, perhaps, perhaps), and the overall mise-en-scène generates the change in mood. Ultimately nothing (at least we think) happens in this scene and yet everything suggests that it could have. This visual dichotomy reinforces the fact that subsumed under this decorum is a want to consummate their relationship but as they agree at the foot of Chan’s door “we don’t have to be like them”.
The first time you see a Wong Kar-Wai film there is a temptation to dismiss his off-kilter approach as something excessively ornate; the work of a director whose visual mannerisms obfuscate the narrative structure. However, this is certainly not the case with In the Mood for Love. The camera movements and the mise-en-scène are expertly used to articulate this nuanced story and plumb the depths of human emotion without expository dialogue, making for brilliantly entertaining cinema.
If you enjoy In the Mood for Love, it would be well worth taking a look at Days of Being Wild and 2046, as these comprise an excellent informal trilogy showcasing some of the best of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema.