“I didn’t expect you to fall in love with me.”
“I didn’t either. I just wanted to know how it started. Feelings can creep up just like that.”
With sensual camera movements, an erotic burst of colours and a heart-wrenching yet graceful mutual pining between the lead pair, In the Mood for Love is Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece, having within itself the capacity to ruin the audience’s romantic expectations.
Wong cleverly fetishises the concept of heartbreak and doomed romance. Having shot the film in Bangkok, the filmmaker manoeuvres shadows, frames, closed spaces and alleyways cleverly, steeping every sequence in poetic melancholy, manipulating the setting to look like 1960s conservative Hong Kong. The film chronicles the journey of Mrs Chan and Mr Chow who find themselves held back by their loveless marriages while being unconditionally attracted to one another. The transience of romance shatters all expectations, the visual beauty of the film emphasises tenderness, hinting at pain, loneliness, love, seduction and adultery.
Stifled in their respective marriages with cheating spouses, Mr Chan and Mrs Chow live in a dingy Cantonese apartment and are next-door neighbours. Bearing the misery of existence and alienation on their own, they share stolen glances along the cramped up hallway, during various game nights and while frequenting the noodle place which leads to a platonic friendship and gradually culminates into mutual love and longing for one another. Wong puts the structure of the Cantonese apartment to clever use as he intentionally creates an effect of voyeurism and scrutiny by employing frames within a frame. The hapless lovers are held back by sociological and psychological barriers, aware of the intrusive eyes of the neighbours and the prying gaze of the audience. Strategically using the placement of objects, walls, windows and more, the director binds their movement within a particular space that they cannot escape. The audience is led by the director to pay close attention to every intricate detail where the woeful unfurling of their story sends pangs in their hearts.
The neutral tones at the beginning of the film are subsequently overtaken by vivid colours, especially a bright, fiery red, notably in scenes where the duo is present. The air of shared silence is thick with unsaid words and desire. Their unrequited passion is heightened by Shigeru Umebayashi’s haunting stringed composition known as the Yimeji’s theme which emphasizes the atmospheric despair and desolation. The missed chances, stolen glances, hopeless pinings and innumerable “what-ifs” and “could-have-beens” frustrate the audience who are rooting for them. Their spouses remain absent throughout the film. Their individual perspectives help the audience conjure an image of Mr Chan and Mrs Chow. Wong deliberately refrains from introducing the spouses as their presence looms large over the film, preventing the union of the lovers.
The brilliant cinematography is slow and deliberate and intentionally flirts with the concept of romance as the platonic relationship gradually culminates into love. Initially, the duo is rarely seen in the same scene, as shown in the dinner scene where the camera rapidly pans from Mr Chow to Mrs Chan as they speak. As they bond over their respective spouse’s infidelity, Wong hints at the established connection by showing them in the same screen space as they walk out of the restaurant. The shared physical space is indicative of the shared emotional space as they both feel cheated and dejected, betrayed by the ones they are bound to. They soon assume the roles of their respective spouses, and Mrs Chan attempts to order food that Chow’s wife would enjoy while Chow speaks in a baritone similar to Mrs Chan’s husband. As Chow’s cigarette smoke clouds their ability to comprehend, they engage in a somewhat masochistic roleplay to get an essence of the infidelity committed by their absent spouses.
Re-enacting the possible seduction scene, they are fixated on comprehending the art of falling in love rather than seeking revenge or feeling hurt. This scene is shown through the bars of a window which casts a shadow like that of prison bars on their faces. This is extremely significant as the characters are unconsciously trapped within their own little psychological and emotional prison where they engage in perverse roleplay in tandem with each other that does not help them yet hinders them from being together. The “borrowed robes” do not fit them and this is shown significantly well when Mrs Chan does not fit into Chow’s wife’s heels and hurts her feet. As pariahs in each other’s lives, they spend a night pining for one another, a night of palpably fruitless desire and sensual sadness that is intensified by the indistinct hubbub and stereo ramblings.
Mrs Chan and Mr Chow part on sombre terms where the poignant scene is accompanied by the dull street lights and a slight drizzle as Chow, quite heartbreakingly confesses his love, alluding to the fact that he never intended to do so. Although he is aware of the implausibility of the situation given the unbridgeable gap between them, Chow, who is irrevocably in love, ends up trying to cling to Mrs Chan with the last iota of hope. As he departs for Singapore leaving a sullen Mrs Chan behind, the film continues torturing the audience with missed chances yet again when Mrs Chan goes to visit him after a year yet refuses to communicate via phone. The silence speaks volumes as she fatalistically confesses her love for him. He arrives a little late to his apartment to find her gone. It is even worse when Chow knocks on the wrong door on his arrival to Hong Kong and leaves the audience gasping for respite. The harrowing tune of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” breaks innumerable hearts and sets an inevitable mood of heartache, delicate emotions, discomfort and loss.
The film ends on the most striking and significant note. Wong introduces Tony Leung’s Chow finally coming to terms with his feelings when he whispers his secret into a hole in the wall before plugging it with grass in the Angkor Wat. The background music accentuates the feeling of loneliness and unattainable love. Chow’s love for Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen or Mrs Chan remains unforgettable yet irredeemable. Ensnared in their personal prisons of sorrow, hopeless desire and desperation, Wong emphasises a sense of intimacy via their separation, smirking at the innumerable possibilities that play inside the audience heads about alternative endings. With erotic cinematography, engrossing frames and hopelessly romantic characters, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love is a tale of yearning, restlessness, suffering and alienation rooted in the theme of love, loss and separation.
“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”
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