Blog Directory CineVerse: In the mood for a lovely movie

In the mood for a lovely movie

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

CineVerse is on a roll discussing back-to-back top 20 Sight and Sound picks this month. Ranking #5 on that list is Wong Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love, which debuted in 2000 and has been praised by cinema cognoscenti as perhaps the finest film of the 21st century so far. This romantic drama unfolds against the backdrop of 1960s Hong Kong, presenting Chow and Su (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) as nearby neighbors who forge a connection upon suspecting their spouses' infidelity with each other. Despite their burgeoning shared affection, they grapple with societal norms and their own moral compasses, opting to suppress their emotions and deny their passions.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

The film's allure lies in its exploration of themes such as yearning, desire, and solitude, as well as Kar-wai's distinctive storytelling methods—including a nonlinear narrative and poetic imagery that infuse the storyline with layers of depth and intricacy. But it’s In the Mood for Love’s captivating visuals, marked by sumptuous cinematography, intricate compositions, and rich palette of colors and light, that particularly resonate. The filmmakers adopt a stylized aesthetic, utilizing slow motion takes, swift fadeouts between scenes, noticeable distances between the lens and the subjects (who are often separated from the viewer by glass or doorways), closeups of clock faces, wafting cigarette smoke, shadowy high-contrast color cinematography, and revealing camera pans. The recurring musical motifs of a pining arrangement for strings and Spanish language numbers sung by Nat King Cole significantly underscore the romantic tension between Chow and Su.

Kar-wai refrains from showing us the faces of the cheating spouses, and he often avoids showing both Su and Chow in the same frame when they converse. Collectively, these choices suggest emotional remoteness and the inability of the couple to connect with each other or their spouses fully. At the same time, the tight framing and compositions often feel voyeuristic.

This has been widely described as a “mood piece” and a film driven more “by feeling than by thought.” We’re given a cliché, shopworn setup of two conveniently accessible people whose spouses are engaged in an illicit affair, but it deviates from our expectations for how they will behave and react to their feelings in light of this knowledge. For many viewers, this can be an exercise in frustration and disappointment; for others, its unpredictability and emphasis on mood, tone, and aesthetics create an enriching emotional experience. New Yorker critic Kyle Chayka wrote: “The film’s impossible sumptuousness is meant to be just that—impossible. Wishing that the two of them ended up together means missing the poetry of the dance.

Interestingly, the story concludes (SPOILERS AHEAD) by jumping ahead a few years. Chow returns to the old apartment and ironically doesn’t realize that Su is behind her old door. A few years later, during the Vietnam War, he embarks on a journey to Cambodia, where he explores the magnificent Angkor Wat Hindu-Buddhist temple; while being watched by a monk, Chow softly utters a secret into a crevice within a wall, sealing it with mud afterward. We can assume this secret is his spoken love and desire for Su.

This could be the most effective film ever made about the emotional and erotic power of displaced desire and repressed romance. Chow and Su’s choice to suppress their amorous feelings creates a potent yearning that feels palpable to the viewer. In a carpe diem modern world where we continually observe screen characters who quickly indulge in taboo trysts, one-night stands, and erotic assignations, how more refreshingly romantic can a delayed, unconsummated romance be?

In the Mood for Love is also a meditation on the repercussions of moral discipline, rejecting a taboo intimacy, and holding onto and letting go of a secret. “We won’t be like them,” we hear our protagonists promise each other, and they stay true to that pledge but consequently suffer by refusing to indulge in their repressed passion. They re-enact and imagine how their spouses met and engaged in their secret affair, and they rehearse future conversations with their betrothed partners: Chow and Su practice how, for instance, Su will inquire about her husband’s affair and reply to his responses.

Asynchronous love is another core theme. We see Su and Chow pass each other on the stairs, pursue each other at times when the other person isn’t there, and come together only to separate several times, implying that they are out of sync and on different paths, yet continually running into each other.

Kar-wei and collaborators muse on the fate versus free will question, too. Criterion Collection essayist Steve Erickson asks: “Have their lives already intermingled before the moves ever take place, before the movie even starts? This is a film where all our initial assumptions circle back on themselves, where the crisscrossing hallways mark the coordinates of destinies already mapped. Is it, in fact, Chow and Su who were fated all along to be lovers, and out of fear and rectitude defy and lose one of the rare chances for happiness that life offers?

Most importantly, In the Mood for Love contemplates how the passing of time and the extent to which we change as we age can shape our memories. Recall the intertitle that reads: “He remembers those vanished years as looking through a dusty window pane. The past was something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” Slant Magazine reviewers Calum Marsh and Jake Cole wrote: “Has there ever been a more apt description of the cinema’s capacity for imperfectly rendering our memory, lost to time, which we are forever desperate to reclaim?...And so what seems conspicuously ‘indistinct’ about In the Mood for Love—the pervasive sense of simplicity that governs the drama, from the convenience of its setup to the vagueness of what proceeds from it—becomes, in retrospect, a sophisticated expression of the fundamentally abstract quality of memory and reflection, not so much a paean to past love as to past love remembered in the present…Perhaps we could say that In the Mood for Love’s real subject, then, is the gulf that divides the past from the present.”

Similar works

  • Lost in Translation
  • Love (2015)
  • Three Colors trilogy
  • Carol
  • Summer Palace
  • The Spectacular Now
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • The Remains of the Day
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)
  • Spring in a Small Town

Other films by Wong Kar-wai

  • Chungking Express
  • Days of Being Wild and 2046, which form a trilogy with this movie
  • The Grandmaster
  • Happy Together
  • Fallen Angels

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