In the Mood for Love (Wong 2000): the universal language of the human experience
Like wine, some films need time before we fully appreciate them. Despite a lukewarm early reception, In the Mood for Love (Wong 2000) has aged well, developing a rich body with deep notes that have inspired the next generation of filmmakers.
Simplicity is striking in this film. The well-documented lack of a script creates a sort of literariness. Like a literary novel, the characters and the situation are the draws. Small but powerful moments stitch the story together. As Paul Arthur says in his self-proclaimed “love letter” to In the Mood for Love disguised as a review, the film lacks dramatic conflict, yet viewers remain transfixed (Cineaste 40). The masterful use of body language, shot composition, costuming, set design, and music captures viewers.
Set in a Shanghai-immigrant neighborhood of Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love places Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) as outsiders who find themselves abandoned in a strange place that was supposed to be liberating. Their lives are askew. “Otherness” is a familiar trait within this community, evident in how everyone interacts in the quest to find a new normal.
The music choices are bizarre yet beautiful. Nat King Cole singing in Spanish to narrate a Cantonese-language film is ironically brilliant. There’s no actual need for dialogue. When Cole sings of “Those Green Eyes,” “Perhaps,” and “I Love you,” he’s broadcasting our main characters’ thoughts of jealousy, possibility, and loyalty. The songs lay out the conflict. I don’t have to know Spanish to understand the emotional shift happening in these moments. The score also works well to amplify emotions and propel the film forward.
Mrs. Chen dresses like a fashion model yet cannot maintain her husband’s attention. She’s sat on a proverbial shelf. Her landlady recognizes this abandonment and tries to bring Mrs. Chen into the boarding house community of wives. However, dogmatic loyalty doesn’t allow Mrs. Chen to waiver from her seat by the door, literally holding her husband’s slippers. That is until she hears her loneliness shout out back at her through Mr. Chow. Together, they act out how their spouses’ affair might have happened. Through a series of “rehearsals,” they grow more independent and self-aware, yet they cannot seem to break away from their philandering mates nor give in to their own hearts’ desires.
These desires are masterfully expressed through slight movements. Leung’s and Cheung’s faces never betray their characters’ emotional journey. I cannot count how many times I held my breath when Mr. Chow reached for Mrs. Chen or Mrs. Chen leaned his way. The suppression and self-restraint that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen exhibit create an eroticism. These are two beautiful people who have been wronged. Should the two indulge in the desire they try to hide, they could easily find justification. The compressed closeness of the boarding house, the corridors, and the stairwells are luscious and all-consuming. Wong turns us all into greedy voyeurs.
Their repression is visceral. Not only do their neighbors recognize and share Mr. Chow’s and Mrs. Chen’s pain, but the audience does as well.
In a 2000 interview with Time Europe, Wang expressed his dislike of love stories, yet his films have a central love story masked as a compulsion for closeness. Wong also said that the Setting is a character in his films. In the Mood for Love utilizes its place to a sumptuous, layered effect that is immensely satisfying but also leaves viewers wanting.
The tight framing of most of the shots places these characters’ emotions literally in the center of the film. There are moments when Mrs. Chen is in profile of the frame while life happens around her. Other shots of Mr. Chow’s cigarette smoke swirling in the air as he’s lost in thought imply that perhaps they’re thinking of each other.
The film’s verisimilitude becomes most potent when Mrs. Chen goes to get noodles. She is so posh and utterly out of place as she carries her tin pail through an alley to an open-air market. Then she passes Mr. Chow again and again and again. Each time they cross paths, the distance between them shrinks and practically suffocates viewers with anticipation.
The repetition calls into question the reality of their experience. Each “rehearsal” plays to a different end. In “Make Mood, Not Love,” Wong’s filmmaking style is described as a master take or a rehearsal. Maggie Cheung, who plays Mrs. Chen remarked on “how much was left out.” Even Tony Leung (Mr. Chow) said the final film was nothing like what he thought he’d spent the previous twelve-plus months making (Corliss, Short 2000).
What is real, not just for the characters, but for the actors and audience?
This open-ended-ness is like a literary novel. The reader invests in the characters for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Often, there is no tidy ending, only possibilities. In the Mood for Love gives its audience many opportunities to fill in moments after the “rehearsals” end. Wong has designed a vivid scenario with real people. He doesn’t like love stories; he likes life stories.
There’s so much to say about this film and all its tiny but impactful moments. These are the kinds of stories I love. They stick with you. They’re the stories we discuss for decades and create college courses about. Wong’s impact on the next generation of auteurs is justified, as is In the Mood for Love’s place among the all-time best of cinema. This isn’t highbrow cinema—it is Art as an extension and expression of humanity.
Arthur, Paul. “In the Mood for Love.” Cineaste, vol. 26, no. 3, Summer 2001, p. 40. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=vth&AN=4830430&scope=site.
Corliss, Richard, and Stephen Short. “Make Mood, Not Love.” Time Europe, vol. 156, no. 20, Nov. 2000, p. 80. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=asn&AN=3762565&scope=site.
In the Mood for Love. Dir. Wong Kar-Wai. The Criterion Collection, 2000. Kanopy. Web. 10 Oct. 2020.
“The Goddess - 神女 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive, 2010, archive.org/details/thegoddess.
Parkes, Douglas. “How Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love Became a Modern Masterpiece – 20 Years after It Premiered.” South China Morning Post, 18 May 2020, https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/article/3084877/how-wong-kar-wais-mood-love-became-modern-masterpiece-20-years.