IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE: ANGUISH IN FORBEARANCE
Many struggle to understand In the Mood for Love, just as many struggle to comprehend the spontaneity of life. The irony in that statement lies in the fact that ITMFL is far from spontaneous. Despite being written on-the-go over a long 15 month shooting period in Thailand, the masterful grasp that Wong Kar-Wai has over constructing a disjointed yet somehow enticing narrative is exemplified in this film. Frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle and replacement Mark Lee Ping-Bing’s smooth, yet sometimes blurry, cinematography elevated the film’s complexity.
ITMFL details the story of Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung), who move into neighbouring apartments in 1960s Hong Kong with their spouses. Eventually, they uncover that their partners are engaged in an affair – to their dismay – with each other’s other half. The way they decide to respond to this information is by play-acting each other’s loved ones in order to find out the root cause of the affair, to an indefinite answer. However, in the process, they develop a certain fondness for each other. This is only resolved, perhaps to a heartbroken audience, by Mr. Chow physically leaving Hong Kong…
Despite Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s beauty making it quite impossible for one to imagine the love story in ITMFL to feature a third character – often one finds oneself willing to stare, trancelike, at these figures and nobody else – Wong Kar-Wai is never slow to remind you that this is a story of infidelity. It begins in infidelity, and it continues and ends in this guilt.
This essay proposes the most effective theme of ITMFL to be that of the main characters’ ill-fate. Their love is as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, yet they are not bound by familial traditions, but by moral ones. The narrative techniques of utilising repetitive spaces contrasted with shifting characters, the appearance of clocks to serve as a reminder of time which rapidly flows, alongside the highly noticeable ‘framing-within-a-frame’ voyeurism that involuntarily makes the audience one of the neighbours are three key techniques that contribute to this. This essay contends the struggles of the characters, teasing out a moral unease, yet breeding a curiosity, to be key to the film’s success.
Essayist’s Note: This essay is best accompanied by Yumeji’s Theme, available on YouTube.
A Familiar Change
There are only about a handful of sets within ITFML, all approached from similar angles. From the very beginning of the film a sense of claustrophobia is evoked by the hallways that will become so prominent within the film. The stairs leading up to the apartment rooms, the stairs that mark the katabasis-like descent the characters undergo when they move in the direction of the street vendors, the hallways leading into their respective apartments, as well as the hallways in their apartments, Mrs. Chen’s office, Mr. Chow’s office, the hallways outside of Mr. Chow’s new office, the restaurant the two individuals dine at, the taxi they share, and most importantly, the street outside of their apartment building. All of these set locations, often filmed to present the same shot, appear as an Archimedean point for the story to progress from. However, what is not the same in each of these shots are the characters, both emotionally and physically.
The first time we see Mrs. Chen descend the stairs to the street vendors, dressed immaculately in a white, blue, and red dress, accompanied by Shigeru Umebayashi’s sorrowful Yumeji’s Theme, we have been scarcely introduced to this alluring and mysterious woman. She briefly brushes past Mr. Chow, in a split brown-and-white tie, yet no interaction is induced by such a run-in. However, as this sequence is repeated, the characters and locations do not change, but somehow, the dynamic does.
Mrs. Chen and Mr. Chow are often adorned with new clothing, with Mrs. Chen’s wardrobe of Qipao totalling to more than 20 by the end of filming. In addition to this, closer shots of her side profile will often reveal that Mrs. Chen has changed her pearl earrings for another gemstone, an ongoing trend. Mr. Chow’s changes are slightly more subtle, often only substituting his tie. His oily hair and suit seem to be imprinted onto his figure, worn with his weary and perplexed complexion.
Similarly, the characters’ feelings and behavioural changes shift in the hallway outside of their living compartments. From the hectic yet platonic relationship they have at the start of the film when moving in – with their interaction reduced to a brief conversation when the moving company has misplaced some magazines – to the absence of Mr. Chow when he is ill and Mrs. Chen responding to a prompt by Chow’s co-worker Ah Ping to make Mr. Chow’s dish of yearning, many of the most important plot points occur in this area. The locations remain the same, the characters have not changed too much, yet the audience is sensibly brought to these acute transpositions in mood.
There are also two details that I wish to draw up from these scenes. Firstly, the introduction of Mrs. Chen within the very first scene in this hallway was earmarked by her inquiry of the room. Throughout that interaction with the Shanghainese landlord, Mrs. Suen, she explicitly introduces herself with the fact that her husband’s surname is Chen. Similarly, in that first interaction with Mr. Chow when moving, this same fact is uttered and restated. This is a subtle choice of language that stays continuous along with the location, yet the very fact that there is the introduction of Tony Leung’s character shifts the dynamic.
What highlighted the clearness of the two’s inevitability in romance was the choice to mask their spouses. We never quite ‘meet’ Mr. Chen and Mrs. Chow, despite sometimes hearing their voices and getting a glimpse of their silhouette. Conversations between Mr. Chow and Mr. Chen are filmed from an unorthodox angle adjacent the door of Mr. Chen’s abode, only showing Mr. Chow’s face. The most we get of Mrs. Chow, in line with with this principle, are from phone conversations, featuring an obscure angle from the side that only shows us part of her workplace - therefore the audience is allowed to sharply focus on the two main characters, and perhaps the distance from the remaining parts of the marriages are symbolise to their drifting.
Similarly, the second point I draw is from the absence of Mr. Chow. By this point, Mrs. Chen’s husband has embarked on a business trip overseas to Japan alongside Mr. Chow’s unfaithful wife. It is this absence of all three remaining components of their relationship that makes Mrs. Chen’s act of listening to Mr. Chow’s co-worker, and subsequently making sesame paste for him, truly out of her own volition. It is also by virtue of this that the audience is able to take note of such a change as an exercise of her own free will.
Before Mr. Chen and his adulterous lover left for overseas, however, there is perhaps an even more landmark scene signals to the audience the extent of their infidelity. The main characters both share an affinity for Wuxia novels and upon returning some of these novels to Mr. Chow’s household, Mrs. Chen is met by his wife. The camera, in this instance, focuses on the language of Mrs. Chen’s eyes, and her slightly uncomfortable body language from the side, as opposed to revealing the insides of the Chow apartment. The exchange finishes, and the audience and Mrs. Chen hear the muffled voice of Mr. Chen asking who it is – only to hear Mrs. Chow responding that it is his wife. The camera is only willing, after the fact, to pan onto the shutting door, before returning to Mrs. Chen’s very conflicted face. This is another case of character dynamics shifting within the same location, that allows for the visual lack of appeal in scenery to be replaced by a wrenching reveal in heart.
Somehow Wong Kar-Wai is able to absorb an audience into his visual world despite a lack of physical variation in the set. The intentional choices to regularly change the attire of the main characters mark their changing emotions, whilst the similar locations breed a sense of continuity to maximum effectiveness. Without a doubt, this is also a great compliment to the camerawork.
An intentionally repeated scene within the film seems to be the unassuming Siemen clock – having nothing to do directly with the narrative. Seemingly, this device would denote the amount of time passed in between events, but that case does not ring true for ITMFL. Due to the timeline of the film unapologetically skipping days at the time within a single cut, the clock itself does not serve the expected purpose of denoting change within a single day. Rather, it serves as an unobtrusive transitional device, highlighting the importance of time in the film.
To continue on that example of sesame paste – there is no scene directly showing Mrs. Chen handing over the dish to Mr. Chow at any point. We do not see Mrs. Chen herself making the cuisine, only her fetching the equipment required from the communal cabinet. It is implied that a certain amount of time passes before this detail is matched with its pay-off, with Mr. Chow thanking her for her treat from ‘the other day’. The effect of this is twofold; the more surface level reading is to distinguish the fact that their run-ins, at this point in the film, are not as commonplace. Mrs. Chen’s reluctance to actively seek out Mr. Chow when he is ill, as that may give rise to suspicion, is amplified through this effect of time. Furthermore， the more subtle point is in the non-artificial nature of their following interaction. It is commonplace for us to find ourselves thanking another person for their hospitality at our first convenience, but for such a small act of kindness, it does not necessarily warrant Mr. Chow making this his first priority. If anything, it may come across as forced if Mr. Chow were to chase after Mrs. Chen to express his gratitude. His forbearance here, rather, allows for the motif to be recycled in the flow of conversation, all the while still denoting the passage of time.
The fractured nature of time is better exemplified in an interaction, or lack thereof, between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chow. A scene depicts Mrs. Chow calling Mr. Chow to inform him that she will be late back during that evening, yet the scene directly after the cut shows Mr. Chow picking her up despite her explicitly saying that it is not needed. Initially, the effect of this is for one to assume that Mr. Chow, out of affection and passion for his wife, had gone out of his way to surprise her. That assumption very quickly betrays the audience. Mr. Chow is then seen speaking to an off-screen character, who coldly expresses a light surprise that Mr. Chow did not know she had clocked off from work, only for Mr. Chow to attempt to resolve the awkward conversation with a hidden disconcerted tone of laughter in his response. These are two separate instances, with time having passed between, in the same scene.
These types of cuts in time forces the audience to reconsider their conception of time when approaching the film – echoing life’s nature to “flash by in the blink of an eye”. Wong Kar-Wai was methodical in removing all the extra baggage in terms of time, but he does choose to focus over a twelve-hour span in particular.
Later on in the story, there is an instance of the neighbours’ early return from their outing, trapping Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen in the former’s bedroom. The intimacy in this scene is a product of the unexpected timing of the noisy neighbours, who indulge in a game of Mah-Jong until early morning. The night is drawn out. We see various interactions between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen within the bedroom, with Mrs. Chen placed on the left of the screen on a bed, as opposed to Mr. Chow being sat in a chair on the right, working away at his new Wuxia novel.
Apart from the framing-within-a-frame that evokes a sense of oppression, the key to this scene is the element of time. Mr. Chow, at one point, prompts Mrs. Chen to go to sleep briefly, after inquiring from the neighbours nonchalantly about their intended stay at the Mah-Jong table. The cut back, within the same scene, then expresses Mrs. Chen’s slight distress at the fact that the neighbours are still present despite her having woken up. This same form of distress is echoed by one of the neighbours, when they see Mr. Chow (the only one who can exit the room to avoid rumours) returning with a peculiarly large portion of sticky rice chicken – citing that it is odd for him to be awake at such an hour. Time, in this instance, forms part of the oppression in a juxtaposed way, contrasting its usual role of crafting a free and quick narrative storyline.
Perhaps the most intentional and presented example of utilising time in this film is actually within the final act(s), when Mr. Chow then travels overseas. A black screen with white text is utilised twice, once to denote the passing of the year to 1963 when Mr. Chow moves for Singapore, and once again in an abrupt jump to 1966, during a visit to ancient Angkor Wat. For a film where the majority of the narrative takes place within the span of about a year, this change is surprising. However, they both accentuate a certain quality, the quality of a lingering, unrequited love.
In the instance of Singapore, the visuals indicate that, despite having moved to an entirely different location (the transition being marked by a gloomy blue shot of the sky that departs from the films main colours of red and green), Mr. Chow kept and brought Mrs. Chen’s slippers. He is then tormented to find that somebody has actually taken the slippers from his room, only for him to spot a lipstick-stained cigarette within his ashtray. The sequence unfolds as such: Mr. Chow confronts the landlord about the incident, then we cut to Mrs. Chen in the same room following an intermittent scene, taking away the slippers and leaving the cigarette, before calling Mr. Chow and knocking three times (this being of importance to them, as this is how she entered his working space), cutting in between to Mr. Chow piecing together the clues and seemingly picking up the phone to answer her before Mrs. Chen hangs up within uttering a single word. Whilst the predominant tension from the scene comes from the pain in the actors’ faces when they are performing such a sequence, as well as the absence of words, what is undeniable is the star-crossed nature of fate in the fact that Mrs. Chen’s actions precede Mr. Chow’s as we are only watching the impact of them unfold on the owner of the room.
In the case of Cambodia, then, we gain a sense of the lingering effects that it has on Mr. Chow – the fact that he finds the need to ‘find a hole in a tree, yell his secrets, and bury them for eternity’ in one of the pillars of ancient Angkor Wat. We understand that 3 years has passed for Mr. Chow, yet it was, in reality, about 3 minutes for us the audience. However, the ability to still manifest the full effects of this disparity in time comes from the fact that the audience, by this point of the film, has already become accustomed to the flying nature of time. Mr. Chow’s appearance is largely the same, but the grandiose nature of the music, accompanied by a stark change in scenery help illustrate this passing of time.
Perhaps a reflection of times gone by in Hong Kong for Wong Kar-Wai itself, ITMFL is a film of much nostalgia. Upon Mrs. Chen’s return to her old apartment in 1966 Hong Kong, she is noticeably in tears as she glances out of a window whilst conversing with her old landlord. The excerpt, an ode to “those vanished ears” that Wong Kar-Wai inserts into one of those black-and-white text transitions, is brought to full effect only here. The audience reflects upon the journey that they witnessed, perhaps ill-omened from the start, and it harks back to the Chinese title of the film: 花样年华. The flowery past that once bloomed for these two main characters has, as evidence may suggest, withered.
Becoming the Neighbour
The claustrophobia in the film is, at no point placed in jeopardy. From the early scenes of moving within the crowded hallway to the ubiquitous appearances of the neighbours, there is certainly no shortage of narrative functions that serve to attest to such a statement. However, the language of the lens is what truly allows this feature of the film to become palpable.
The effect of framing-within-a-frame constitutes the majority of the shots of the 98-minute production, and the first open shot free from obstruction only comes in when the timer hits about 12 minutes. Not only does this allow for one to focus in on the characters, the main characters being the most distinct out of the small cast, but it also transforms the audience into a part of the apartment community.
We are often looking into the lives of these characters through hallways, stairs, and open doors. The scene in Mr. Chow’s room with Mrs. Chen begins with an unidentifiable object taking hold of about the top 1/5 of the lens, in order to represent the neighbours that loom behind the walls. It also typifies the underground nature of their relationship: despite their repeated affirmations that they are not quite like their spouses, they would be viewed as such, and they ultimately do become the villain in their tragic hero story.
This sense of voyeurism is only directly alluded to once in the story – a case of Mrs. Suen, Mrs. Chen’s landlord, providing a light warning that she has noticed Mrs. Chen’s increasingly common outings, and the fact that the neighbours notice such distinct changes in behaviour despite not exacting the nature of her trips to be adulterous. However, such a conversation is enough to warrant a change in Mrs. Chen’s behaviour - against the audience’s neighbourly nosiness which hopes that this unlikely couple bravely carries on.
Perhaps the series of shots that indicate the full effects of this the most, the scene after Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen find out their partner’s actions and walk back to their apartments together, uses this extremely well. The camera is positioned from within a barred window, with the light casting the shadow of the bars onto our characters – they are trapped within a fantasy that they have composed. The running theme of the film in language is that Mrs. Chen and Mr. Chow often play the roles of their opposite’s spouses in order to figure out the underlying reasons of their betrayal, and this is the first instance of such. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Wong Kar-Wai immediately highlights that, from that point onwards (with this being the first instance of their ‘acting’), they trapped in their fabrications. It is fitting, then, that the curse is also broken in the same piece of set, with Mr. Chow’s confession later on in the film being at the same place, during the same time of day. The other aspect of these bars is that they imprint themselves onto the audience – perhaps a self-reflection from the director – to bear witness to the fact that we may all be wearing these masks in the same way.
Conclusion: Missing Each Other
ITMFL is a heart-breaking film about coping, and perhaps struggling to do so, with betrayal. The first layer of betrayal comes from the fact that the main characters’ spouses cheat and leave them for good, seemingly permanently moving out of their lives. The second layer of betrayal, and perhaps the more impactful one on the main character’s psyche, is self-betrayal. Accentuated by the relentless flow of time that finally drives the characters to move out of their unchanging scenery, both to escape from signs of each other and the punishing patrol of neighbours, ITMFL does not have a happy ending. It is, at its core, a tale of psychological escape through character-playing, and physical escape from somebody who one has clear affection for. Whether or not the choice to hold hands with one who is married is a moral one, the characters have both removed their wedding bands by the time they arrived in Singapore.
Although this essay has not had the opportunity to cover a plethora of other themes within the film, perhaps that is only fitting to echo the missed chance that Mr. Chow has in the final scene of the film. Mr. Chow briefly returns to his flat in Hong Kong, finding that the new occupant has little information on the previous ones. Mrs. Chen had, by this point, moved back into her neighbouring flat. However, as Mr. Chow is about to knock, he struggles briefly, and leaves without knowing that the new occupant is her old lover. Just as we were once the neighbours of this unlikely and ill-omened couple, we can also testify to our baggage of regrets. Perhaps all Wong Kar-Wai has done is elegantly point the obvious out.