Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a visual exhibition in style. It has a smooth elegance that extends across its entire length. Colors mixed with 1960s nostalgia. Decadence mixed with urban depression. The perfect blending of the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin. There are brief fades between many sequences and more often than not a shot has a focal point while the fringes are out of focus, but it’s all strangely beautiful. We’re often viewing characters from behind or from the side — seeing how they interact with their environments that keep them confined in a certain space. The numerous hallways, doorways, and rooms that cohesively make up their existence.
But enough talk about aesthetics at least for the present. The film opens in 1962 with two couples moving into an apartment complex simultaneously. There are four individuals involved obviously, but we only ever see two of them. Mr. Chow is a journalist and his wife is often away for business leaving him alone. The stunning Mrs. Chan works as a secretary and she too feels lonely due to her husband’s many trips abroad. There’s the constant passing in the hallways at times and in truth, it can be laborious at times. After all, they are both perfectly civil and respectable people, although one night they finally have a tete a tete at a cafe. It’s there where they come to understanding about their significant others. Coincidences are not so coincidental. They are both cheating with the other’s spouse.
And of course, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan do not want to stoop to that level so they keep their relationship platonic worrying about what the neighbors will say, but also taking great comfort in the other’s company. Even together there is a distance, a restraint, that I suppose reflects the times — reflects the cultural expectations of that time. But the isolation and the loneliness is far too great and Mr. Chow enlists his new companion’s help in crafting a martial arts serial for the local newspaper. For once in their lives, they have the kind of interpersonal relationships they crave, and in this way In the Mood for Love shares some of the same sentiments as David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
Although Mr. Chow shows perhaps even greater restraint finally moving away from his love and relocating because he knows she will never leave her husband. Thus, it’s not worth the risk for them to stay together unless she were to come with him. But as often happens in such situations stars are not meant to cross and they constantly miss each other between Hong Kong, then Singapore, and finally Chow goes to Cambodia. And that’s where his story ends.With a detached denouement that is cryptic and in the same instance deeply melancholy.
An important distinction to makes is that In the Mood for Love could have been a lurid drama, but with only two of the characters shown it becomes a more intimate even sorrowful portrait of forbidden love. In truth, it’s a portrait accented with spiraling wisps of cigarette smoke and the rhythmic water droplets of falling rain. The always fashionable Mrs. Chan is dressed impeccably in wonderful juxtaposition to the atmosphere behind her. “Yumeji’s Theme” is constantly pirouetting and sashaying around the images on screen combined with the sultry notes of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” courtesy of Nat King Cole.
It’s a mesmerizing recipe that tells of the complexities and intricacies that run through interpersonal relationships. What crosses the line? What is moral? What is fair in love and Wong Kar-wai’s universe? That’s just it. This is one of those films that has grace enough not to give us all the answers but instead, leaves us captivated by its vision. The rest is left up to us to judge as we see fit. It maintains an air of mystery, because, after all, love is far from a two-dimensional phenomenon.