On In the Mood for Love

This movie, written and directed by Wong kar-Wai and filmed in Thailand in order to recreate the atmosphere of Hong Kong in the 1960s, manages to marry the claustrophobic mood of illicit, romantic longing to the epic proportions of the cinema of that same decade. Director Wong kar-Wai was first brought to the attention of many American viewers through Quentin Tarantino’s enthusiasm for Chunking Express, a 1994 movie that harbingers some of the techniques employed in Mood For Love but registers nothing near the impact of this melodrama set mostly in the cramped confines of tenement houses and business offices – a setting that makes those epic proportions all the more an achievement.

Chief among these techniques are the slow motion shots and the discreet ruptures of time and sequence to emphasize the confusion inherent to the predicament of the two major characters. Where slow motion sequences in Wai’s previous work were often halting and combined with out-of-focus camera shots, in this movie they are languorous and intensely erotic as they follow swaying hips and swinging arms of characters simply moving from one room to another. These shots are usually close-ups at torso-level (front or back) and encourage in the viewer the kind of obsessive observations made by lovers in close quarters.

The action begins in 1962 as Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move in to adjacent rooms with their respective spouses. Since the heart of the story follows their co-discovery and reactions to the adultery committed by these spouses, there is an element of surprise that evokes sympathy for the Chow and Su as they fumble their way through a web of tangled emotions within their private lives. This, even as they struggle out from under the oppression of a society that places more burdens on them than on their sneakier spouses, whose faces are never seen and their voices never heard. No wonder that love soon blooms between them as well. On the pretense of writing a martial arts serial together they begin meeting more frequently, and their growing friendship is characterized in the movie by their unification within single frames, where they had hitherto been more often separated by individual shots. Their intimacy increases even as they remain faithful to their already broken marriages, and the poignancy of their choice is most evident in their efforts to keep their relationship secret.

The importance of secrecy is apparent when Chow shares with a co-worker a fable about confession rather than the details of his life. According to the story, in the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share, they went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud, and left the secret there forever.

Perhaps a three fourths of the way through the film moves forward: first to 1966, then to, and finally to Cambodia in 1966 following De Gaulle’s visit to Phnom Penh. The era is vividly evoked by a soundtrack that includes Nat King Cole and other standards of the decade. Other staples of the mid-60’s aesthetic are the bee hive hair doos and cheongsam dresses worn by Su.

Compared, say, to Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, or for that matter, Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman’s Faithless, Wai’s movie seems at once both staid and daring in its treatment of adultery. It isn’t that morality is sacrificed, but rather the full dimension of moral responsibility is explored in such a way that something more than titillation and lacerating guilt is brought to the drama. To pursue the story of the aggrieved partners is an interesting choice, if not totally unheard of. What makes it work as well as it does is Wang’s restraint, which is translated on film as the self-control of Chow and Su. This decision brings its own pain, as when he helps her rehearse for the eventual confrontation and revelation. As viewers we never see this confrontation: we are left to imagine it just as they imagine it. Of course we don’t want to, any more than they do, and soon we are returned to the private life shared by them.

The final sequence observes Chow’s pilgrimage to Angkor Wat, perhaps as a search for love and reconciliation on a religious plane. He’s seen whispering into the hollow space of pillar, confessing his secrets in secret. Though we can’t hear, we understand the significance of those whispers, and of such a mysterious ending to such a mysterious movie we are privileged observers indeed.


  1. 1minutefilmreview says

    Nice review. Loved the film, we’re Wong Kar Wai fans too.

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