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In the Mood for Love: A Masterclass in Style



Feature By: David Anderson

In the year 2000, Wong Kar-Wai operated at the height of his powers. With titles such as Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1993), Happy Together (1997), his style had been developed and his collaborative relationship with cinematographer Christopher Doyle assured. Enter then, In the Mood for Love (2000), the culmination of a cinematic style that had become revered by audiences and finely tuned to a staggeringly beautiful degree.

The film tells the story of two couples who move into adjoining flats in 1960s Hong Kong. As they meet and settle into their houses, they make separate revelations that their partners are having an affair with each other. They then become closer. There’s a tragedy at the heart of the film as the very reason they fall in love with each other is because they are maligned by their spouses. To act on their desires would, perhaps they see it this way, make them too unfaithful, destroying any connection they have. But the plot is of secondary focus when discussing In the Mood for Love. Examining the true essence of the film is to look at the formal filmmaking techniques employed by Kar-Wai and his collaborators, culminating in what we can call his style – a centrifugal force which around which all these elements orbit. Their employment contributes to create a film that feels at once so earnest and so cool, so heart-breaking and so sensual.

We are introduced to our characters as they meet on their shared moving in day. Well, crucially, we meet only Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung). This is important when considering the perspective Kar-Wai wants us to view this film from, as the film is expressed in a way that one might experience time, or memory, or expectations of a moment. It’s subjective, one-sided, narrow, and so romantic. These viewpoints are expressed and repeated through the film, through different elements of the filmmaking, and reinforced by the films style. The cinematography, the music, the acting, the costumes – everything about In The Mood for Love is considered with an overall objective in mind, to grant us passage into the minds of the characters; not their thoughts, but their feelings.

The cinematography from Christopher Doyle is miraculous, in dimly lit rooms their union is discreet, elusive, and sensual. Considered too is the precision and claustrophobia of the framing. Uncomfortably shifting shoulder to shoulder in a corridor, achingly close as they lean into one another in an alleyway, with the shots of their hands in close up we can almost see the electricity fizzing from one to the other. Shots are composed to reflect the emotions of our characters. Specifically, we wonder where and when we are, stylistic considerations made to transpose in us, the audience, a feeling of dislocation from the events, as if we are recalling them in our own memories.

It’s important to note that filming took 15 months and was largely unrehearsed and off-the-cuff. What Kar-Wai wanted to achieve though, was an historically accurate 1960s Hong Kong, delivered from the recollections of his own youth. The script left deliberately loose, with lines being developed between actors and filmmakers.

The costume design for the film contributes to the style of the film, with Su Li-zhen’s cheongsams representing the epitome of elegance and class at the time, worn by high society women from Shanghai.

The performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are delicate and nuanced. Lines are delivered with pregnant pauses and the script is full of long shared silences. Glances are couched in enigmatic expressions, careful not to slip too deep into the overtly romantic subtext of a scene. In quiet moments, we see the introspection in their eyes, the careful moves being made in their heads. This is where the real action of the film takes place, in the developing unspoken relationship between the spurned spouses. The performances lean into this quiet sense of pining, tinged with the knowledge that to reveal the inner workings of their hearts would destroy the delicate balance of their romance.

Their silences are filled not only by the ambient sounds of Hong Kong in the 1960s, but too with a suitably sexy score. Composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s lemotif, Yumeji’s Theme, occurs throughout the film, notably in conjunction with slow motion shots, enhancing this ubiquitous sense of romance and desire. One thinks of fingers gently caressing an arm, or the gentle yearning of an extended embrace, the lingering sadness of longing. The music builds on these emotions, with the sorrowful strings almost wailing against the staccato plucks of a guitar.

The frequent use of slow motion, employed here as a narrative device, expressing yearning, longing, and a desire for a memory to last forever. But it can’t and it shouldn’t, Kar-Wai is constantly reminding us of the ineffability/ ephemeral nature of this kind of love. The love that burns red hot and intensifies the air around it.

The film is enigmatic also in its ending, with Mr Chow whispering his secrets into a hollow wall at Angkor Wat; what could he have said? It leaves you with a film you want to absorb into your skin, with a sense of yearning that has inspired filmmakers since. Famously Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation took influence from In the Mood for Love, and more recently Celine Song’s Past Lives, which explores a similarly bitter truth about the transient nature of love, albeit in a way that allows the writing to express itself, rather than through an overt sense of its own formal style.

In the Mood for Love continues to stand as a masterclass in how style, when used intelligently, can enhance our connection to a film. While it is often said that a film can be style over substance, in the case of ‘In the Mood for Love,’ its style is its substance. Through the films style, the themes of desire and passion are more greatly expressed. When in the hands of a filmmaker such as Wong Kar-Wai, style is not superficial; it is everything.

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