In The Mood For Love (2000): Review

“Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.” - In The Mood For Love (2000)

The filming alone of In The Mood For Love took a year. It’s possible that if Wong Kar Wai hadn’t chosen the 2000 Cannes Festival as the film's deadline, it may have taken even longer. Mister Wong seems to have a bit of a hard time with letting go.

But it’s a good thing he didn’t work hurriedly. In The Mood For Love has become a truly special film. The title was stolen from a Bryan Ferry song and couldn’t be more perfect for the film; if you're in the right mood, the movie is utterly immersive.

The year is 1962. We land in Hong Kong. Mister Chow (Tony Leung) and Miss Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move in next to each other on the same day seemingly by chance.

The film lingers on many questions, including how random it can be for people to walk in and out of our lives.

“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”

Mister Chow works as a journalist for a local newspaper, and Miss Li-zhen works as a secretary. Their respective partners aren’t home very often: her husband often has to go on business trips, and his wife works late hours as a hotel receptionist.

As a result, the two increasingly run into each other and spend more and more time together. Gradually, the reason for the absence of their partners dawns on them: the two are having an affair.

Mister Chow and Miss Li-zhen are both drop dead gorgeous: he in impeccable suits, she in figure-hugging dresses. Chang also runs errands while sporting stunning spiked heels that emphasize her long legs. It’s perhaps hard to imagine that these people would get cheated on. 

The camera films them lovingly, lingering for minutes at a time. They are without a doubt one of the most beautiful couples that have ever graced the screen.

A tie and a purse are all that are necessary to find out about the affair. Together, Li-zhen and Chow try to find out how it started between the two. Did her husband take the first step? Or was it his wife?

To better imagine the situation, Tony and Maggie (I use the actors' names for convenience) play and rehearse the scenesthe meeting between their lovers, their dates at a restaurantas they think they happened, and they practice how they would react if their partners were to confess their crime unexpectedly.

When Tony books a hotel room to write a martial arts serial in peace and quiet, Maggie helps but is primarily by his side as his muse. There is no denying it anymore: the two are in love but don’t dare lose themselves in a relationship for fear of gossip and judgment from others. It’s in that sense a very old-fashioned film about public perception, appearances, and manners.

Who would have any objection in this day and age to the idea that two people should find happiness with each other when their partners already share the sheets? Not many. But the film must be placed in its context.

In 1960s Hong Kong, it was different: while the cat was away, the mice might have wanted to play but didn’t dare act upon it. The two betrayed neighbors are aware of their desires but resist, even though it pains them. Ms. Li-zhen is also a shy woman who, at times, has difficulty showing her feelings.

Elusive love characterized by adultery is undeniably commonplace in film. But clichés are nowhere to be found in this one.

Wong Kar Wai looks at the relationship between Maggie and Tony from a new perspective and gives the notion of adultery an extra dimension. The spouses, for example, seldom come into the picture unless filmed from behind or out of focus. In the case of dialogue, only Maggie and Tony are shown. The film actually has only two characters: Mrs. Li-zhen and Mr. Chow.

But because they sometimes re-enact their partners' actions, the duo also gives shape to their lovers. Imitating their partners' dates also allows for the boundary between the real and the fake to fad; the pretend becomes more and more a what if.

The film even suggests that there’s not even a point in them rehearsing how their partners acted. Rather, it gives Chow and Li-zhen a reason to be together. It gives them a chance to be together in a somewhat romantic way.

When the two rehearse the breakup as they believe it would go down between their partners, both have difficulty with simply not acting as they themselves would. Li-zhen breaks down in the process. Something has changed; it’s no longer about the cheating partners.

There’s also somewhat a question of whether they really are in love, or if they are simply yearning for affection and relief from loneliness. The film seems to hint that it’s a bit of both.

The modest, restrained acting of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is impressive. Words don’t matter, and everything is pure body language. They act through looks and gestures. A way of walking or the manner in which a hand slowly moves upwards becomes visual prose, every movement, a step in a dance of longing. There is not one single sex scene, yet this film is drenched with the possibility of sensuality.

But these two actors thoroughly understand it, and it's clear that the only things holding them back are their own personal beliefs and convictions.

“It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered... to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.”

Great emotions lie behind their little actions. It isn't the easiest acting method, but it's certainly the right one. It fits their relationship: without really becoming physical, viewers can still feel the tension and desire between the two characters when they cross again and again in the too narrow hallway of their building.

What distinguishes this film from other love stories? The unique storytelling style. The tempo is slow, and the film has a very atypical film structure. By displaying both characters during the same interaction (a meeting in the corridor or a telephone conversation), Wong Kar-Wai creates the illusion that the actions shown form one scene and occur immediately after each other or certainly during the same day or week.

In actuality, the film is an enormous collage of different encounters between the two protagonists that are spread over at least a year. The (very) observant viewer notices this in the dishes (which look delicious!); some vegetables are only available in the summer, while others can only be purchased during the winter.

The clearest indication of the passage of time, however, is Li-zhen's wardrobe. (Maggie Cheung enjoyed a wardrobe of no less than 25 dresses throughout the film!) A new dress marks a new day. Everything else remains exactly the same: the actions are the same, the music repeats itself, and the action continue in the same stuffy locations (the corridor, the stairs). It's like a record that skips, but Wong Kar-wai doesn’t do this coincidently.

This unusual storytelling style creates a repetitive effect. Since everything repeats itself, the actions lose their uniqueness. The only thing that is slowly changing are the feelings of the two people.

By taking an exciting storyline and superfluous characters out of play, the film's focus is entirely on the two neighbors and their love for each other.

It makes the whole movie timeless and universal. It no longer tells a story, but creates an atmosphere, a mood... It could be about any man and woman, anywhere in the world. The story feels as though it's already happened and will happen time and time again.

The music reinforces this even more. The main theme is a recurring waltz, which determines the film's tempo. Never before have images and music been so harmonized with each other.

The score continues to wander around its viewer's head for a long time and is likely to overrun their daily activities with a dramatic melancholy.

The Spanish songs contributed by Nat King Cole ("Aquellos Ojos Verdes," "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás") perfectly fit in the picture as well. The music was very popular in Hong Kong in the 1960's, and it perfectly captures the sound of the period. The atmospheric music in combination with the beautifully delayed images provide for the movie's best moments overall. (Thank you, Christopher Doyle!)

In my opinion, the visual/auditory combination also represents the lovers' situation: they hover somewhere between great grief, drunken adoration, and the truly heartbreaking knowledge that they are perhaps denying themselves their one true love.

Some people believe that a person cannot be terribly happy and terribly sad at the same time. This movie, however, seems to prove otherwise. Human emotion is complicated; fear and pride can interfere with what we want and our own happiness.

By Ayla Van Damme

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