Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love is exquisite and mesmerizing, an atmospheric film that records through moments carefully chosen the life of a love affair. The original Chinese title can be roughly translated as “the age of blossoms,” a time of youth and beauty, a time that is sadly short-lived.
Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) have just moved in to adjacent apartments. His wife and her husband are both frequently absent, working late or traveling on business. (We seldom see them onscreen. And when do, we never see their faces, but instead catch only the faintest glimpses and visual suggestions – Mr. Chow’s wife wears her hair in a bob; Mrs. Chan’s husband can be seen only briefly from behind.) Mr. Chow is a writer for the local newspaper, and Mrs. Chan is an executive secretary. Like their spouses, they too are prone to working long hours and, in the absence of wife and husband, are often alone. On these late nights they frequent the same noodle stand outside the apartment building where they live. Then, on one rainy night...
This story at first unfolds as you’d expect it to – stories of marital infidelity are certainly not new to cinema or to narrative in general – gradually laying out the specific circumstances of two separate lives and the minor coincidences that bring them (closer and closer) together. But what seems like a familiar story continually exploits expectations by taking advantage of our assumptions and the camera’s ability to obfuscate, using both methods to misdirect. Despite the subject, the love affair is treated not with prurience but chastity, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether or not the relationship has been physically consummated. (And, at the same time, leaving no doubt that, emotionally, it most certainly has.)
But it’s not just the storytelling that deserves praise. Rather, it’s not just the narrative storytelling that deserves praise; the cinematography is equally (if not more principally) responsible for telling this tale. The camera’s view, our view, is often partially obscured, as portions of the frame are frequently blocked by a wall, a door frame, or a window pane, giving the impression that we are peeking around a corner or out from a hiding place. At other times we peer down the hall, through a doorway or a window, or look at the reflection in a mirror. These visual conceits make us into voyeurs, into gossips, which is fitting because what we see is secret. These are moments that do not belong to us.
The beauty of each and every image is captivating, colorful, and meticulously composed. We often find ourselves squinting into cramped spaces filled with the colorful and interesting things that surround our characters. Shot on film, in “Super 16” (1.66:1), the images are still rectangular but closer to square than the current standard widescreen format. This lends itself to an image that is more immersive, because it fills up more of the screen (especially on a computer screen). Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin have created a visual experience that is sensational in the most superlative (and the most literal) sense, filling each shot with color, shape, and texture in a way that is tactile, sensual.
In general, the camera moves slowly, if at all, dutifully following the action or gradually revealing different aspects of a space. But when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan finally decide to go out together for the first time (under innocent pretenses) the camera suddenly becomes energized, kinetic, placing visual exclamation points after a few of the initial revelations of the story.
The domestic and professional spaces we see onscreen are at once worn and vibrant, due in part to the lighting and production design but also to the costumes, particularly those worn by Maggie Cheung. As the story is set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, Cheung’s character is vividly adorned in a truly eye-catching array of cheongsam (or qipao), a tight-fitting, one-piece dress with a high collar and very short sleeves. Her frequent wardrobe changes contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the film and its visual impact, and they impress upon us that Mrs. Chan is a woman of grace and style, not unlike the equally well-dressed Mr. Chow.
The narrative is periodically interrupted by musical interludes, the accompanying images shot in dreamy slow motion, alternately set to the mournful “Yumeji’s Theme” (featuring pizzicato string orchestra and solo viola) or to one in a trio of more lively (and yet laid back and yearning) Spanish songs sung by Nat King Cole and lushly arranged by Nelson Riddle (“Aquellos Ojos Verdes”; “To Quiero Dijiste”; and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”). These are moments of intimacy, both rapturous and elegiac, that propel the narrative of the love affair and increase its pull on the two lovers (and their pull on the audience).
The film's final scenes – introduced by archival footage of Charles De Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia in 1966, during which he urged the US to leave Vietnam – suggest that the affair, and the relative innocence of youth, is a bittersweet and distant memory. Mr. Chow is in Cambodia, on assignment, where we see him on a visit to Angkor Wat. There, amidst the ruins of the ancient temple, a visual monument to those things lost to time, he finally releases himself from his secret ardor, a thing personal yet universal, ephemeral yet timeless.
And his private ritual is silently witnessed by not just the viewer but also by a young monk, perched atop the crumbling edifice. There is something curious (and somewhat ironic) about his being Mr. Chow’s unknown confessor (though that role is largely symbolic in that there is nothing for this young boy to hear). His youth and his occupation – the implication of his ardent dedication to overcoming the fluctuations of material attachment, the comings and goings of happiness and distress, his renunciation of romantic love, something he has likely never felt himself – suggest that, even if he could hear Mr. Chow’s confession, he could scarcely understand it.