Mood Being the Operative Word

Film: In the Mood for Love
Year: 2000
Director: Wong Kar-wai (also writer and producer)

I feel a bit blindsided to learn, only after watching this steamy weepie from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, that In the Mood for Love is one of the most lauded films of the 2000s. Probably I was just inattentive to the hoopla when I came across it in the past, a result of my being not very familiar with Wong or his style. Having seen the thing, I don’t find myself sprinting to catch the hype train.

In the Mood is a seductive film that wants me to feel more than it’s willing to admit. Am I meant to sympathize with these characters, or to feel nothing? Should I treat them as fully dimensional and autonomous individuals, or as trampled and repressed souls, or the squashed reflections of the movie’s secondary characters, two people who are living their lives more truly, more passionately? The only contradiction that the movie appears to acknowledge—the tension between furnishing its characters with the ethical ground to commit adultery, while maintaining that to exercise this right would be wrong—is a very good one. But there are contradictions in Wong’s exploration of this terrain that leave his maps muddled, and me rather lost.

A pinch of synopsis: the year is 1962, and two married couples move into neighboring Hong Kong apartments on the same day. Though all four are gainfully employed, the real breadwinners from each couple are often absent on overnight business trips—in fact, these two are never really seen by the camera, and are heard speaking only off-screen. The remainders, Mr. Chow from one apartment and a girl named Su from the other, are left to eat their meals and ponder alone. They strike up an acquaintance that turns to commiseration as they realize, through their own lonely sleuthing, that their spouses are having affairs—or rather, one affair, with each other. Dejected, Chow and Su spend ever more of their time together, staging re-enactments of the affair in a clunky pursuit of catharsis and play-acting confrontations with their cheating partners. All the while (as if a movie could go any other way), they develop an intense attraction to one another, upon which they never act. That they refrain stems from a habit of not breaking the rules, I think, more than a genuine sense of virtue.

This is fine material. But Wong’s presentation, which is sensuous to a frame, becomes the origin of some confusion: I can’t tell whether it is implied that Chow and Su ought to conduct an affair of their own, or that they already are. Their relationship is wholly erotic and wholly asexual. They refuse to consummate it because they believe that doing so would sink them to the level of their betrayers (who, though it is never said aloud, are probably happy with their decision). But the attitude of the movie seems to be that, by keeping each other nearby and the idea of infidelity in mind, Chow and Su are as good (or as bad) as adulterers anyhow. To make matters head-scratchier, they are given a sort of interchangeability with the cheating couple—indeed, Chow and Su seem to talk about nothing else, often answering personal questions with references to their spouses, as if they feel defined by their others—which suggests that the prevailing reason for their quasi-courtship is basic compensation, like they are thrust together by some Newtonian mating force to fill the rift made by the original infidelity, and neatly reciprocate their better halves’ choices.

I thought In the Mood for Love was about knowing that something is wrong, doing it anyway, and enjoying it all the less. But the movie might be about doing it halfway. Or not doing it at all. These are not interpretations that, for me, can compellingly coexist in one film.

Nonetheless, I cannot deny that on a visual plane it is an exquisitely designed, ultra-carefully planned picture. (Despite Wong’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle being tagged out by Mark Lee Ping Bin when production ran over schedule, the transition between DPs is seamless.) Practically every shot takes place in some tight, deep corridor into which the characters are funneled by silent fate, yet the sense of the broader, hostile world beyond is never lost. In a miraculous feat, we are able to feel both the screaming proximity of Chow and Su’s quarters, and the labyrinthine, Escher-like mouse trap of their apartment building. Even the offices and living rooms are framed with a claustrophobic squeeze, powerfully underlining the sexual repression of the characters—and, I’m told, of the era. Wong and his crew evoke the period through only a few bits of costume and set, which are utterly convincing yet wonderfully subtle. There may not be a frame in the movie that isn’t a pleasure to look at, as the compositions by Wong and his cinematographers are always inspired, and most of them have Tony Leung or Maggie Cheung’s face in them.

Between In the Mood and his more abstruse Chungking Express, Wong strikes me as a very smart guy. He just doesn’t know how to take his good ideas and make them into a movie. These two pictures lose a great deal of traction over the same shortcoming that comprises the most well-reasoned criticism I have heard leveled at Wes Anderson: the more Wong tries to flesh out and emotionally validate characters who spend most of the film defined by a sort of flatness, the more he undermines his own work. It is as if the director and the writer in Wong are not on the same page, and the movie suffers for it.

In the Mood for Love is, by the by, an excellent title: mood is everything here. Each third or fourth scene is a deaf, slow-motion tableau, scored with a Kubrickian string-quartet motif, in which Chow and Su languish in dapper romanticism—the mood for love, if not love proper. When this device appeared first, I was skeptical of what it was adding to the story. After a few reprisals, I realized that it is the very essence of the film: there is nothing accomplished by the movie—its aesthetic, its atmosphere, its themes of repression and loneliness and inevitability—that is not encapsulated in any one of these stately, stylized passages. Much as I came to relish them, they only made other 99% of the movie seem redundant.