In the Mood for Love [Wong, 2000]
After a dizzying initiation to the world of Wong Kar Wai with his portrait of urban isolation, Chungking Express, seeing In the Mood for Love almost felt like watching a different filmmaker altogether. Thematically, these pictures are not far apart. But Wong proves himself capable of shifting his style dramatically while retaining his magnetic pull on the eye and his impeccable taste for composition.
In the Mood for Love has a simple narrative. Two neighbors discover that their spouses, who are often away on “business,” are not faithful. They develop feelings for each other. Wong is right to only give them one fleeting moment of physical contact. In doing so, it has the impact of an atom bomb. Much of the romantic gestures — glances, smirks, subtext — are imbued with seismic force by making the relationship impossible in the context of 1960′s Hong Kong. The ending of the film is a poem of politics, architecture, romance, and loss. We aren’t necessarily heartbroken — life goes on. But we understand these characters.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung turn in brilliantly repressed performances. Their hushed tones and calm gestures are in direct contrast to the surprisingly urgent visual textures created by Wong. Netflix reviewers might praise its slowness, but there is nothing slow about In the Mood for Love. For example, one sequence where Cheung’s Su attempts to visit Leung’s Chow in a hotel before backing out at the last minute is comprised of a series of startling jump cuts. It adds to the romantic haze. These characters are in love and we know because the camera tells us. As in the enamored mind, time is an elastic band. Some moments seem to skip like a record while others are slowed like lunging molasses. There is a whole series of musical interludes featuring a few repeating tracks. The music starts — Chow and Su slow down.
It is essential to recognize the outstanding employment of negative space and framing. Wong is capable of moving the camera while maintaining excellent composition in a way that recalls Ozu or Ophuls. And his keen eye for depth is a crucial element in his organization. In the scene where Chow and Su acknowledge their feelings for each other, standing outside in the street, we only see Chow’s back as he talks. And Su, only feet away from him, is just barely obscured by shallow focus. When Chow turns and directly faces her, orienting his erotic yearning, she becomes clear — no longer an obscurity.
In the Mood for Love is particularly indebted to a pair of filmmaking masters — Hitchcock and Kubrick. Wong has acknowledged the influence of Vertigo on his film, seeing a kindred darkness in Scottie and Chow. The screen makes it clear. Hitch’s belief in the erotic magnetism of cinema translates well to Wong’s evocation of his understanding that the best love scenes are played with little contact. And Kubrick’s influence inhabits every corner of this film. Released just after Eyes Wide Shut, it shares many common themes — a narcotic, dreamy intoxication; sexual repression; infidelity and its psychological impact; repetition of only a few, small musical cues. Kubrick’s plastic perfection is represented in almost every frame, tamed by Wong’s capable eye. In the Mood for Love takes great risks in imitating these inimitable styles, but Wong proves himself as a skilled apprentice en route to his own masterly touch.