I don’t really do Valentine’s Day. The only nod to cupid was going to see Casablanca (1942) at the movies. And how could I not, as my other half – a huge film buff – hadn’t seen it. Since then, we’ve got a Valentine’s tradition of watching romantic movies – but at home – no listening to noisy couples in the cinema or meal surcharges for us canny lovers.
And this year’s picture is one of my favourite films – In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000). Although the pre-titles warn that this is not going to be a romance with a Hollywood ending…
‘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.’
Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film depicts the relationship between, secretary Mrs Chan, (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) who discover that their spouses are having an affair. The elements of repressed desire and social pressures are reminiscent of that classic of unrequited love, Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945). With an unusual twist, In the Mood for Love’s couple imagine how their partners began their deceit and rehearse how to confront them, determined not to become like them. However, as Mr Chow says, ‘feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.’
When I first watched the film, I was blown away by its sheer elegance and poignancy. Indeed it would win a place in my top 10 films of all time. Director Wong Kar-Wai (whose oeuvre includes Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004) which make up a trilogy of sorts with In the Mood for Love) and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle produce a stylish dance of repressed desire, loss and regret.
In an interview Wong Kar-Wai likened In the Mood for Love to “a dance, a waltz between these two characters”. Coincidence brings them together but later social mores and repressed desires means they dance past each other. Their lovers’ song, Yumeji’s Theme, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi, stays with you long after the movie has ended. On re-watching, I found that while I looked forward to the moments when their theme comes in and the ‘dance’ begins again, it was tinged with a sense of melancholy that they would come achingly close to each other but not quite meet.
A key scene which illustrates the stylistic elements (music, lighting, time shifts, repetition, film noir shading) that recur in the film is when Mr Chow and Mrs Chan pass on the stairs to their apartment.
Mr Chow is shot to left of the screen in film noir shadows, then their theme starts up as Mrs Chan walks down narrow darkly lit steps to get noodles in slow motion. As she returns up the staircase in the dark, the camera slowly lingers on a street light. Mr Chow goes past leaving the viewer unsure if they’ve seen each other off-screen. A simple visit to the noodle stand becomes a beautiful dance of anticipation and these choreographed scenes recur throughout the film.
In the Mood for Love visualises and plays with memory. Its original Chinese title, also a song from a 1946 film, meaning ‘the age of blossoms’ or ‘the flowery years’ is a metaphor for the short-lived time of youth and beauty. Indeed the film shows the transience of love and how we may attempt to hold on to these lost moments. Many of the shots are blurred around the edges, as though we’re watching the past unfold through the haze of memory. The slow motion cinematography works to freeze the couple in time as in still photography. This emphasises their loss; as we can only remember those happy moments of the past, not relive them. The colour of the film too is steeped in memory, muted with a warmth like an old 1960s photograph.
Their loneliness is represented through the claustrophobic setting – though close to each other, they are far apart as they cannot express their feelings because of social propriety and their own repressed desires. The Age of Blossoms plays on the radio – a dedication from Mrs Chan’s husband – after the cuckolded couple have ended their relationship, signifying the end of her blooming youth. As the Age of Blossoms plays, the camera cuts from Mrs Chan’s room to Chow’s and back again. Her gossipy landlady tells her it’s good to enjoy herself when she’s young but not too much – a warning to end her relationship with Mr Chow.
The film slows time down by focusing on simple details, such as the smoke from Chow’s cigarette or raindrops, which heightens the emotional tone. Just as the couple are restrained in their affair (their love scene was filmed but edited out), the camera shows restraint by holding back. Their loneliness, distance from each other and from society is shown through the camera work. The camera peeks at the couple from under the bed, from the wardrobe and through bars, shadows and doorways. The camera hangs back in the scenes in the apartment as though we’re on the edges of the action.
The viewer often sees characters talking to someone off-screen – showing the separateness between individuals. Mirrors too are used to emphasis the difficulty in making connections (for instance, when the couple get caught in Mr Chow’s room together we see them through mirrors).
I would love to watch this lovers’ dance unfold in all its lingering detail on the big screen! I hope I’ve convinced you to watch but if you need more encouragement here’s the trailer.
I haven’t even mentioned a feature of the film that is breath-taking – the costume design and Maggie Cheung’s manifold cheongsams. Look out for a blog coming soon … (The film’s fashion is so pitch perfect that even my boyfriend mentioned it!)
I’m keen to hear your thoughts on In the Mood for Love or any other Valentine’s Day (or anti-Valentine’s) movies you love.