Frequently featured in many lists of the best films of the 2000s, Wong Kar-wai second entry into his unofficial tetralogy about love is probably the movie most people associate with his name. Along with “Days of Being Wild” (1990) the story of the film is set mainly in Hong Kong during the 60’s, focusing on the narratives of people, their relationships and their struggles to maintain them within an urban setting. Given his unwillingness to shoot in a studio environment, the shooting in real locations proved to be quite demanding for cast and crew since the director was quite obsessed with details of that time and place. Unlike the plethora of films and novels concentrating on the historic events of the time, “In the Mood for Love” is a story about love and relationship in a city whose narrative microcosm sheds a more intimate insight into the changes the south of Asia went through during that time and what they meant for people and the spaces they occupied.
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In 1962, two couples rent separate rooms in the same building on the same day. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) works as a journalist who mainly stays in the city while his wife’s job demands her to spend some time abroad on business meetings. Similarly, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) works for a shipping company whereas her husband often works overtime and also attends many meetings or lectures abroad. Given the fact they are both alone for quite some time while their spouses are gone, they often run into each other, especially during lunch or dinner when they fetch some noodles from a nearby vendor.
However, as their partners are often absent, gossip among the other tenants erupts and both, Chow and Su, have their own suspicions about a possible affair. When their suspicions are confirmed, they imagine, and eventually even re-enact what might have happened but also contemplate about having an affair with each other. Nevertheless, their feelings for their partners and their guilty conscience presents an obstacle in the way as well as the possibility of being at the center of gossip themselves. But when one of them starts having feelings for the other person, an action, originally planned comfort or some kind of revenge, becomes something quite more serious.
Even though we only see the two apartments of the building the two characters live in, their working places and a few alleys in the vicinity of their homes, the idea of the city is one of the most significant features within the cinema of Wong Kar-wai. Similar to “Days of Being Wild” or his masterpiece “Chungking Express” the director refrains from showing “tourist” landmarks of the city which would make it easily identifiable for any viewer while still maintaining what makes this space unique and specifically Asian, or rather Hong Kong. Supported by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, Wong Kar-wai presents his own mapping of the city, a reflection of the changes the city goes through, which again is a mirror of the changing emotional state of the characters. For example, the repeated images of the crowded, noisy apartment and the intersecting alleys emphasize the idea of the maze, a state of confusion, perhaps while also underlining the concept of loneliness, another theme which influences all of Wong Kar-wai’s films.
Interestingly, Wong Kar-wai originally planned a film titled “A Story of Food” whose narrative would eventually evolve into “In the Mood for Love”, a piece of information highlighting the relevance of food within the film. Along with directors like Eric Khoo, Wong Kar-wai has introduced the connection food as an insight into the complexities of loneliness and togetherness within an urban environment. The choice of food, perhaps best seen in “Chungking Express”, relates to the state of one’s relationship, for example, when an employee of a food stand remarks on how the same food may relate to the tiring routine in a relationship. Within “In the Mood for Love”, food is a concept linked to the idea of integration within the apartment, one of the many codes the people of the city live by, you might say, whereas eating alone indicates something is at odds with the person, their emotions and the state of her/his relationship.
At last, “In the Mood for Love” continues the theme of codes as a mode of communication. Especially if you go through several viewings of this film, or for that matter any film by this director, you will notice the rich pattern of codes Wong Kar-wai uses as a pattern within his works. Considering the city as a space whose crowded state does not allow any deviation from social conventions, secrecy and deception become inevitably central character traits of the inhabitants of the urban setting. One the one hand, this relates back to the idea of eating alone versus sharing food, but also to details such as the color of a dress, the tie a man is wearing or the tiniest of gestures (or even the lack thereof).
In conclusion, “In the Mood for Love” is a visually beautiful film about love, urbanity and secrecy. Supported by masterful cinematography, a great score and a brilliant ensemble led by Leung and Cheung, this is a film deserving the praise it has received over time and will undoubtedly continue to receive.