When I saw the first frames of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, I thought immediately of the films of Douglas Sirk. The film is set in Hong Kong in 1962 and begins with Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) renting a room. Mrs. Chan’s husband is nowhere to be found. Her new landlady asks her why she doesn’t wait for her husband. Mrs. Chan replies, “I can manage.” Wrapped in a beautiful, form fitting dress, with her hair pulled high off her face, and her make-up hooded eyes keenly observing the world, Mrs. Chan cuts a figure of competent, confident, femininity. Down the hall, Mr. Chow is moving in as well. His wife is also notably absent. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow meet in the hall as they often will for the rest of the film, developing a friendship that reveals secrets about their marriages.
Wong Kar-wai has seeded the beginnings of a great melodrama in his first scenes, and much of the success of In the Mood for Love comes from his resistance against melodrama's attendant tropes. Mrs. Chan's and Mr. Chow’s relationship remains platonic, even though they both know that their respective spouses are having affairs with each other. Together they wonder, imagine, and reenact the affair that their spouses have begun, but, even though Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow have fallen in love with each other, they refuse to act on their feelings. Neither wishes to degrade him or herself to the level of his or her cheating spouse.
Wong Kar-wai subtly hints at their increasing affections through light, rain, color, and music. After each of their meetings, Wong Kar-wai returns to the same song. Each time it plays, the song plays for just slightly longer; the rain outside is longer, more torrential; and it takes just a bit longer for the colors on the screen to deepen as the film fades to darkness in anticipation of Mrs. Chan’s and Mr. Chow’s next meeting.
Wong Kar-wai also employs a unique device. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are active people, always moving, eating, smoking, and unable to simply sit alone. However, when they are together, Wong Kar-wai directs one or the other to remain stationary while the other moves, reinforcing in a physical sense how out of sync with one another they are. They are in love, but they have missed their moment. As this realization becomes obvious, Wong Kar-wai deploys new music: “Hua Yang De Nian Hua” (The Flowery Years) as recorded by Zhou Xuan. My impression is that the song, its title, and Ms. Zhou are iconic in Hong Kong’s cultural memory (in the way that Judy Garland and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are iconic in our own).
In the Mood for Love is rich with deeply felt emotions and cultural contrivances that prevent characters from acting on them, but where Wong Kar-wai’s film succeeds is in how he resists the temptation to craft a climax consisting of a giant emotional release. Instead, the film builds toward a remarkably sterile and somewhat bittersweet anti-climax. In the final moments, Mr. Chow confesses his love (or I assume he does) in an inaudible whisper at Angkor Wat. I suspect that this scene inspired Lost in Translation’s finale.
In the Mood for Love is a very good movie, but I found myself wishing that Wong Kar-wai had allowed his characters to pursue their romantic feelings ever so much slightly further. If he could only have found a way to play a few more notes in this symphony of unrealized romance, I think it might have risen to the level of a masterpiece. I also wish I had gotten more of a sense of Hong Kong in 1962. In the Mood for Love takes place exclusively in a few small interiors, but I found myself hoping for a slightly larger canvas (especially since the movie ends in one of Asia’s most iconic locales).
In the Mood for Love finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the ten best films of the 2000s by 4 separate reviewers. It was also selected as the best film of the 2000s by Time Out London. If you're watching along with me, the next film on my list will be Cache.
From Out in the VoidSteven