The Mastery of "In The Mood For Love"
On May 20th, 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival, Wong Kar-wai premiered his masterpiece, In The Mood For Love, starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. It's easily one of the most appreciated Asian films in the west and arguably cemented Wong Kar-wai as one of the greatest living directors worldwide. But what makes this slow paced, emotional film as extraordinary as it is? Why isn't it just your average romance film? I'll tell you exactly why...
Wong Kar-wai has been one top rated directors ever since I started seriously getting into film, and In The Mood For Love has always been my favorite from him. I've been watching it for what seems like a lifetime however it wasn't until this December when I got the chance to view it in a proper cinema on 35mm film, the environment it was intended for, and I have to say, it allowed me to gain a whole new appreciation for the movie as a whole.
In The Mood For Love tells the story of two next door neighbors, Mrs. Chan (Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Leung), living in Hong Kong, 1962. They're both aware that their respective spouses are cheating on each other. Mrs. Chow is having an affair with Mr. Chan, the two main characters find out and decide to stay quiet. despite their knowledge. It's clear that their loneliness along a shared love for martial arts serials causes Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan to develop feelings for each other. It's a "slow burn" movie, only there's no climactic moment where the two embrace in the rain and all the problems of the world fade away, followed by a credit roll, it's much more complicated than that.
Through the relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, Wong Kar-wai is able to bring some of the most complex human emotions to screen. In the wrong hands, this movie could easily be a vapid, sex-filled, popcorn flick, and while I'm sure that must be disappointing for some, I promise it's for the better. What's unique about the film is that despite the title, In The Mood For Love portrays almost zero physical affection throughout the entire runtime, but that subtlety is what makes it so unique. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are not each other's side pieces, instead they merely act as a shoulder to cry on for the other, someone who understands exactly what they are going through, someone to meet at the noodle stand every night to get some fresh air.
Much to the dismay of pretty much every audience member, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan do not end up getting together by the end of the movie, but there's a good reason, one that most of us wouldn't even consider. It's evident from the beginning that Mrs. Chan is a lot more distraught about her spouse's affair than Mr. Chow, yet she is the most reluctant to "get revenge." Mr. Chow tries to subtely pursue her multiple times however she refuses despite her obvious desires to be with someone else. In Mrs. Chan's eyes, starting an affair of her own with Mr. Chow would put her at the same level of morality as her own cheating husband, and no matter how much time passes, she cannot bring herself to do it. In The Mood For Love dares to explore the morality of desire like no other romance film has before. It's no wonder it was nominated for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It utilizes some of the same storytelling techniques as La La Land and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, real love stories rarely end the way you want and are completely wrapped up with a bow by the end of 90 minutes, Wong Kar-wai clearly understands that, which is what makes this project so breathtaking upon first watch.
Mrs. Chan is easily one of the best written characters I've had the pleasure of watching. It feels like you know her or at least someone like her. She's extremely polite, proper, and put-together, always thanking others for their kindness, never letting herself be a bother. She adorns herself with gorgeous, form-fitting, colorful dresses and always has her hair and makeup neatly done. She might look an oil painting, but on the inside, she is drowning in her own thoughts, her lonliness, her conflicting emotions. Her climactic moment comes in the form of a scene where she sobs uncontrollably in the arms of Mr. Chow, the only time she shows any obvious emotion in the film's runtime. In a way, Mrs. Chan is a tribute to all the women of the world who put on a brave face in the face of adversity, never letting anyone see them at their weakest.
Wong Kar-wai's film is also unique because it has an incredible soundtrack that only consists of three prominant songs that are repeated multiple times throughout the film: "Yumeji's Theme" by Shigeru Umebayashi, "Aquellos Ojos Verdes," and "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" by Nat King Cole. I can vividly remember watching In The Mood For Love for the first time, as soon as I hard "Yumeji's Theme" for the first time, paired with the delicate, slow-motion cinematography, I knew it was going to be an astonishing film. The story is also told in a way where we intentionally never see the faces of the cheating spouses, even though we see Mrs. Chow from afar sometimes, her face is always obscured from the camera's view. This is clearly intentional and I interpret this as the director letting the audience know that these characters are not important, theirs is a story that has been told thousands of time, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are the one's you need to be focusing on.
Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love is a tale of quiet agony, a story of words left unsaid, and above all, an absolute masterclass in filmmaking. In the time since I first watched it, I have yet to find a film that captures its uniquely humanistic charm. I simply cannot recommend it enough to our readers, and if you ever get the chance, make sure you catch it on 35mm film.