Revisiting why we love Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love
Dawson College’s Tsinema Club recently screened Sinophone filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 movie In the Mood for Love. The film is about two married individuals, Mr. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) who discover that their spouses are cheating on them with the other’s spouse. To understand how the affair developed, Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen decide to role play as the other’s spouse. Eventually, the two develop feelings for each other but are unable to express them due to societal obligations and their personal moral grounds. The narrative follows their fate through a series of unspoken yearnings and missed connections. The film foregrounds a unique storytelling technique for period melodramas. A breadth of history and emotion come together in a minimal interior space through sound and visuals.
Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the plot is propelled by the socio-economic conditions of the newly middle class. The city is experiencing rapid urbanization and immigration, resulting in cramped accommodation where families share private space. This creates a forced intimacy between tenants in the same apartment building, such as the protagonists. The two couples – the Chans and the Chows – move into adjacent apartments on the same day. The fate of the couple is foreshadowed early in the film when their belongings keep ending up in the wrong apartment. The incident also establishes the central role commodities will play later in the film.
Hong Kong’s mercantile culture is heavily responsible for creating an organic association for the two protagonists. Over the course of the movie, Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen unceremoniously run into each other borrowing books, taking out food from the noodle shop, or asking the other to order a rice cooker from Japan. Their interactions are limited to the functionality of these objects, until one day, Mo-wan notices Su Li-zhen’s handbag. This prompts Mo-wan to take Li-zhen out to a diner where they discover that their spouses are cheating on them with one another. They realize Su Li-zhen’s handbag and Mo-wan’s tie were gifts from their spouses, but also belonged to the other’s spouse. How these props determine the fate of the narrative highlight the significance of commodities in Hong Kong’s social life.
As the movie progresses, we witness the two protagonists fall in love with each other. “We won’t be like them,” Mo-wan keeps reminding Su Li-zhen. The courtship bare- ly has any other dialogue. Instead, Wong Kar-wai delivers to us a brutal meditation on melodrama; the film’s melodrama comes from its emotionally powerful content and the script’s failure to recognize the heavy emotion of the affair. Wong Kar-wai combines slow waltz music and intricate set designs to document this conflict. The repetition of the musical theme and use of bold colours illuminate the thrill of a love affair bred out of another love affair. The characters’ strong but invisible emotions become apparent through sensuous shots taken mid-height that focus on a singular body part, such as the hand. This technique suggests that the film is purposely repressive in form and in content. The audience observes Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen through mirrors, windows, and door frames; sometimes separated by walls, sometimes separated by the curve at the end of a staircase. We never even get to see the face of the spouses. The film’s form is just as fragmented as the nature of the affair. While the characters experience emotional constraints, spectators feel this through narrative and visual constraints.
The latter part of the affair between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen becomes rather gendered. Su must sneak around to avoid gossip. Her landlord advises her against fre- quently staying out of the house until late. The situation escalates when Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen start meeting at a hotel room to collaborate on a martial arts serial and they realize their desires for one another. Even this confrontation shows Su Li-zhen breaking into tears while Mo-wan maintains an emotionally indifferent stance. Finally, when Mo-wan confronts the affair, he does so by offering to run away from gossip. Su declines, citing her moral obligations as a home maker. At the end, Su is still holding onto her unrequited love for Mo-wan and unable to change her situation. She remains in her relationship with her cheating husband and has a son with him as well. This twist in the affair focuses on the predicament of women in taking control of their own fate.
The complexity with which Wong KarWai weaves conflict and history makes In the Mood for Love a remarkable study of style and form even 17 years after its release. It captures an array of human experience in an extraordinarily limited interior space. Rarely does one come across a movie title that says so much about the experience of film watching. In this film, the director is straightforward in his mission to give viewers a mood instead of a plot—and that is what makes it so memorable.