For those unfamiliar with the works of Hong Kong-based filmmaker and auteur Wong Kar-Wai, it would be easy to assume that his most well-known feature In the Mood for Love (2000), which turns 20 today, is an uncomplicated tale of courtship and romance. However, in Wong’s narrational realm, the thematics of love are rarely delivered without the entanglements of repression, guilt, and pain — familiar nuances of the human condition that universally afflict his exquisite characters. I would argue that In the Mood for Love isn’t so much a chronicle of innocent love between strangers as it is a contemplation on longing: the agony of letting opportunities slip past, the rumination of “what ifs”, and the arresting sense of finality.
The protagonists at the heart of the story, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chui-Wai) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk), engage in a tentative yet sensual dance throughout the film’s entirety to a swooning score (mainly a recurring leitmotif of ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ performed by Shigeru Umebayashi) and the cool timbre of Nat King Cole’s Spanish tracks, ‘Aquellos Ojos Verdes’ and ‘Quizás, Quizás, Quizás’. Both characters remain apprehensive of baring their true feelings to one another until it is too late — yet their trepid concealment eventually transpires to a flirtation that, at times, balances dangerously on the cusp of a real, forbidden love affair. Wong Kar Wai’s command of framing his characters’ poignancy and yearning from intense repression (both self-imposed and societal), married with the richly evocative cinematography of his frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, lends In the Mood for Love its haunting emotional resonance.
Thrown into the crowded, communal apartment blocks of Hong Kong in 1962, the audience witnesses the first encounter between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow as they move into adjacent flats as neighbours on the same day, at precisely the same time. Much of what navigates their relationship — from polite acquaintance to the gray area beyond friendship — is the growing sense of entanglement and inescapability that pervades their every brush and chance meeting. Wong explores numerous parallels by framing the narratives of the two strangers through figurative and literal mirrors. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow soon discover that their unfaithful spouses are cheating on them with each other — but rather than confront the adulterers directly, they seek solace and comfort from one another, sharing in the unfortunate victimhood of infidelity. In a scene where, after continually running into each other in their apartment block, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow agree to a meal together at a local diner, the effect of parallelism becomes even more so apparent. Mr. Chow remarks on the “elegance” of Mrs. Chan’s handbag and enquires where it is from, only for her to explain that her husband had bought it on a business trip abroad, mirroring another exchange when Mrs. Chan asks where Mr. Chow’s necktie is from. As he tells her it’s a gift from his wife, the pair confirm that they have indeed spotted the same accessories on their respective spouses before, and that this small-talk of handbags and neckties is no longer innocuous, but merely a thinly painted guise of normalcy.
The cinematography in this scene encapsulates the despondency of the revelation; even if Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan attempt to avoid eye contact and look away from one another, they cannot turn away from the reality of their situation. The handheld camera darts back-and-forth between their immaculately groomed profiles, focusing on the characters’ hands and the hepatic elements of the scene: Mr. Chow bringing the lighter to his face, his fingers cradling the cigarette from which smoke billows and fills the screen. The thematic mirrors continue over the remainder of the film; in an attempt to understand their spouses’ affair, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan assume an unusual role-play, constantly re-imagining and acting out how they perceive their spouses had initiated their affair: “I wonder how it began,” Mrs. Chan muses. Later in a darkened alleyway, following flirtatious dialogue, Mr. Chow takes her hand tenderly and suggestively asks, “Shall we stay out tonight?” — in this instance, the two are not themselves but actors portraying their adulterous partners. “My husband would never say that,” Mrs. Chan snaps, and the façade is shattered once more. They are plunged back into the brutal reality of the moonlit streets.
It’s difficult to discern where one performance begins and another ends, as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan increasingly spend intimate passages of time together, and eventually develop romantic feelings for one another. The couple’s fear of becoming their cheating spouses becomes a crippling thought, as their refrains of “We’re not like them” become less convincing with each utterance. Reality and fantasy are inextricably linked in the eyes of the audience, and this is predominantly due to the film’s cinematography and heavy stylisation. For instance, the spouses of the protagonists are never directly revealed; the audience only ever catches the back of their heads, and their voices float from various off-screen locations so that their respective presence in the film is lent a ghost-like quality. While these stylistic choices have tried to eliminate the material physicality of absent spouses in this narrative, their mere existence in the lives of the central characters poses as an omnipresent reminder of the brevity of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s bittersweet love affair. Wong’s fixation with and positioning of mirrors, and Doyle’s visual framing of scenes that play out in the reflection of mirrors, produce a physically disconcerting world that invites the audience to contemplate on the nature of parallelism — to question whether in a parallel universe, we would support the cheating spouses in the same way we hope Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow could finally act upon their longing and desire.
Within traditional Chinese mythology, there is a belief in the ‘Red Thread of Fate,’ which serves as an allegory for fated relationships. In this tale, a red thread, controlled by a deity in the heavens, is tied around the little fingers of two people who are destined to be together, regardless of time or place. Though the thread may tangle or stretch, it never breaks — and the majority of more traditional East-Asian attitudes towards relationships hinge on this idea of “fate” or predeterminism. In some ways, the fatalistic belief in the “Red Thread” lends itself to a contextual comparison with the lives of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, in that their lives seemingly intertwine on several planes, whether that is becoming neighbours in the same building, sharing the same anguish of an unfaithful spouse, or passing each other through darkened alleyways on the way to the late-night noodle shop. However, the real tragedy of In the Mood for Love lies in the agonising refusal of the characters to acknowledge their mutual attraction and chemistry until it is too late; their reluctance to mirror their adulterous spouses serves as the predominant obstacle to their happiness together. As much as it seems that this cultural ideology of fate is what brings Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan into each other’s lives, the social and cultural codes of their time and place also make it impossible for them to pursue an affair of their own without the ensuing guilt and shame.
Secrecy plays a crucial role in the film, reflected in scenes where Mrs. Chan hurriedly tiptoes from Mr. Chow’s apartment back to hers, or when they eat together in silence, huddled in one of their bedrooms, as the din of communal living carries on from beyond the thin walls. The conservative and often oppressive nature of traditional Confucian values leads to a conflicting dichotomy where couples — women especially — are expected to honour marriage codes, yet tales of infidelity lurk around each corner, and it is not entirely uncommon for husbands to visit brothels morally unscathed. We see the complex dynamics between patriarchal cultures and attitudes to sexuality in the character of Ah Ping, a friend of Mr. Chow, who often asks for small loans following bouts of gambling, drinking, and visits to brothels, while also openly making sexual remarks on Mrs. Chan’s body. Ah Ping also alerts Mr. Chow to having spotted his wife arm-in-arm with another man. Although the comical character is noted for his caricatured crudeness, he also exhibits an awareness of the social codes that he regularly breaks, and playfully encourages Mr. Chow to pursue Mrs. Chan. “I’m not like you,” Mr. Chow declares, as he lights a cigarette once more.
Later on in the film, after the secretive pair have already developed an intimate attachment, Mrs. Chan is condescendingly reprimanded by her landlady when she returns home late one evening. “It’s right to enjoy yourself when you’re young, but don’t over do it,” the landlady warns in stern Shanghainese, a deliberately unsubtle hint towards the watchful, collective eyes of the community and society as a whole. Enclosed by conjugal duties, Confucian values, and a repressive culture, the tragic couple are never granted the space to exist as lovers — their narrative is filled with stolen moments, stealthy phone calls, knowing glances, and unadulterated longing. Their time together can only ever be finite, subject to the ebb and flow of external factors: the work commitments of their spouses, the daily schedule within their landlord’s apartments, and their own emotional desires. Perhaps it’s this urgent, limited resource of time which accounts for the atypical way the passage of time is represented throughout the film. Scenes jump from one to another without an indication of how many hours or days have passed and close-ups of clocks are shown ticking away, hanging high from the ceilings. Several silent passages of Mr. Chow or Mrs. Chan play in slow motion to the swelling, mournful cello of ‘Yumeji’s Theme’. In these instances, time is drawn out, suspended and contorted so that it stretches into a new dimension or parallel universe. Here, the narrative permits the ill-fated couple to share just a few moments longer together.
In the final sequence of the film, after several years have passed and the two have irretrievably lost contact with each other, Mr. Chow is seen at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. As the camera pans across the magnificent ruins, he inaudibly whispers a secret into a hole in the wall and covers it, echoing a tale he had relayed to Mrs. Chan a lifetime ago. The audience can only guess what these precious words could be, but one can assume that across time and space, these lovers still long for each other.