Asian Cinema Month – In the Mood For Love

In the Mood For Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

In writing poetry or prose you have a toolbox called language. This toolbox contains things like grammar, syntax, meter, rhyme, etc. Film has a toolbox as well, but is much much larger. And the idea of having more to work with sounds like it would be easier than writing, however more does not equal easier. In the film toolbox you have elements like sound and images. And subsets of sound would be dialogue, character’s accents, soundtrack, sound effects, sound mixing. Under images we find art direction, costume design, lighting, and the most vital of all cinematography. For even the most seasoned artist, misusing these tools is an easy thing to slip up and do. With this feature from director Wong Kar Wai every single tool is used perfectly and produces a flawless example of how rich style can blend with very clear, stated substance.

The film opens in Hong Kong in 1962. Chow (Leung) is renting a room in an apartment building on the same day as So (Cheung). They pass in the hall, barely acknowledging each other. Cut to a few days later and they happen to both be moving in on the same day. Chow’s wife is seen only from behind, her face intentionally not revealed. So’s husband travels abroad to Japan almost every other week and is glimpsed in a similar fashion. The months roll on and both Chow and So become convinced that their spouses have begun an affair. Not knowing how to deal with this they attempt to recreate the circumstances that led their spouses astray with themselves to understand what happened.

The plot is very loose and is carried mostly by the atmosphere created by Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographers, Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee. You rarely see cinema filmed so beautifully and with such delicate craft. I found this to be the kind of film where I don’t remember scenes of dialogue or action, rather I remember images like paintings. Chow sits over his typewriter working on a story and the smoke from his cigarette billows up above his head. The rich detail of every gray tendril of smoke is captured on screen and I felt excitement at such a profoundly beautiful image. The film’s simple theme (a longing tune played on violin) is used repeatedly in scenes where Chow and So are navigating past each other, both physically and emotionally. The camera peeks around door frames, into crowded rooms of neighbors gathered to play cards. We see Chow and So separated by these people who are caught up in raucous laughing, and the tension bleeds off the screen.

The film is able to convey the conservative social pressures of the time. Chow and So meet in his bedroom, merely to share food and must be cautious of Chow’s landlord. They are unable to touch, made clear in a scene where So reaches for Chow’s hand after being caught up in a rare moment of happiness and then quickly withdraws. The film is greatly concerned with absence: the absence of the spouses, the absence of companionship or love, the absence of the spouse’s full identities. A title card that introduces the film reads “the past was something he could see but not touch”, a phrase that sums up what this lush film is all about.

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