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If love is a universal language, then why do romantic dramas have such a different structure between countries? I’ve seen plenty of films about love, be they unrequited, teenage, forbidden, melancholic, but it’s always interesting to see an American vision of love unfold on-screen then compare it to that of a film from another country. That’s sort of the feeling I got while watching In the Mood for Love, director Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 magnum opus.
Set against the backdrop of 1960’s Hong Kong, this mesmerizing tale of two people brought together by happenstance unfolds almost like a dream. Cut between honest discussions of love are imagined series of events, where both leads are struggling to come to grips with the infidelity of their spouses. It can be difficult to make heads or tails of what is real, but it’s never hard to discern the meaning: the attractions both characters feel is hampered only by their indecisiveness to take action.
At this point in his career, Wong had made a tremendous name for himself. Often mentioned in the same breath as Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Martin Scorsese, Wong is brilliant when it comes to utilizing colors. In the Mood for Love exhibits this, with many shots lingering on the dichotomy between light and dark, bright and dim, saturated and dull. A simple moment such as standing in the rain takes on a dramatic feeling since it’s so considered. You don’t get a sense that any scene is biding time until the next dramatic moment.
The same can be said for the film’s characters, of which there aren’t too many. Leads Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, respectively, but their interactions with those around them bring further purpose to their struggles. The spouses of both never show their faces to the viewers, highlighting the divide that is festering within their marriages. Likewise, the friends and acquaintances in Chan and Chow’s lives are often never the center of attention, slightly off frame to show how lost in thought our leads are.
One of the major themes of In the Mood for Love is that of secrets, which Chow explains to his colleague, Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam). He recounts an old Chinese folktale where one would carve a hole in a tree, whisper a secret, and then cover it with mud to keep that secret locked forever. In direct contrast to that, Ah Ping is something of a whoremonger and would rather visit a brothel to take care of any lingering desires he’s facing. The two couldn’t be more removed from each other if they tried, but their personalities reveal the flip side of a coin. One is scared of society’s view of his “infidelity” while the other couldn’t care less what people say.
That’s why I brought up the initial idea of the language of love. In Hollywood films, love is portrayed in a much more physical manner. Two people meet, have almost immediate chemistry, and are quickly jumping into bed with each other. Maybe that has to do more with the era that In the Mood for Love is set, but it’s a theme I’ve seen repeated in other pieces of eastern media. To a lot of Chinese folk, love takes on more of a spiritual role in their lives. Obviously, sex is important to any relationship, but the deeper connection that Chan and Chow feel is something that transcends the need for that physicality.
There’s also the worry that both have over their public perceptions. In a cruel twist of fate, Chan and Chow’s spouses are engaged in an extra-marital affair with each other. What drew Chan to her husband and Chow to his wife is exactly the same thing that is drawing these couples closer. Our unseen spouses are quick to act on it while Chan and Chow reluctantly keep a distance. When things start to get going, they’re squashed out and the love story we think we’re seeing collapses.
As I said, In the Mood for Love plays out like a dream, so it’s actually tough to determine if anything truly did happen. One of my lingering thoughts toward the film’s conclusion was that Chan and Chow actually did consummate their relationship at some point. As the film cuts forward a few years into the future, Chow returns to the apartment complex where he met Chan and learns of her departure. She had just left with a child of around two-years-old, which could very easily be Chow’s.
It could feel like something of an anti-climax, but you can tell this is a very deliberate choice by Wong. By withholding key information and focusing more on the interplay between Chan and Chow, In the Mood for Love captures the uncertainty that these people are feeling. Neither wants to betray the trust they put in their marriages, but both are reeling from the knowledge that their lives are forever tarnished. Both want to take the plunge, but can never muster up the courage to do so…or perhaps they did and the viewer is none the wiser.
Whatever the answer is, Wong’s brilliant work here would cement him as a force to forever be reckoned with. With just one watch of In the Mood for Love, it becomes immediately clear why many critics place it on “Best Films of All Time” lists. It may not suit everyone’s tastes and it certainly doesn’t follow America’s idea of a romance, but the often crushing look at unfulfilled desire will undoubtedly cement itself in your brain for years to come. That I can even write upwards of 1,000 words about a film with no clear plot or structure should be a testament to its power.