Wong Kar-wai is among the most beloved living directors and In the Mood for Love is his most loved film. While Chungking Express (1994) has folks such as Quentin Tarantino in its corner and 2046 (2004) may the biggest rush, In the Mood for Love is Wong at his most sensual and his most lauded, winning Best Picture prizes everywhere from the New York Film Critics Circle to the César Awards. Even though only 13 years have since its release, in the age of “Mad Men,” In the Mood for Love is ripe for rediscovery.
Beginning in Hong Kong in 1962, In the Mood for Love plumbs the same emotional depths that Matthew Weiner’s hit show examines. Both feature characters suffering from repressed emotions in societies strained to burst out of repressed cultural mores. In Wong’s film we meet Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), complete strangers who are moving into adjacent apartments. Chow works for a newspaper while Su is an executive secretary. Both of them are married to spouses who occupy the periphery of Wong’s screen. We hear them and we catch glimpses of them, but we never see their faces. It isn’t long that both Chow and Su realize that their spouses are out of town at the same time and carrying on an affair.
Under the constant eye of their neighbors, the two cuckolded spouses grow close. They ache to know their partners met and the affair began, even creating and acting out scenarios to achieve that knowledge. They swear that they “won’t be like them,” disavowing the tickling feelings that are growing, the embers of romance. So instead of consummating those emotions, they repress them even more, too vain and too caught up in the mores of the time to give into the feelings.
While Don Draper and company fall into the emotionless morass of the ‘60s headfirst, the characters in Wong’s film do their best to deny it. But Wong won’t let us off the hook so easily. Gloriously filmed by Christopher Doyle and Mark Le Ping-bin, In the Mood for Love is a buffet of sensuous detail, rapturously coloring the winding streets of Hong Kong with bright scarlet and the brittle covering of raindrops.
Above anything else, Wong’s camera loves to linger on Cheung’s body as it languorously moves through the tight halls of the apartment, down steps to fetch noodles from a food stall or saunters to the telephone at her job. Su isn’t using that long body, contained in bright dresses, to seduce anyone. But Wong Kar-wai sure as hell is, letting his camera rest on her fluid movements, as Nat King Cole croons on the soundtrack. Chow falls victim to it, eventually professing his love before leaving for Singapore to escape the maddening passion.
It may be hard for us to imagine such restraint in such a freewheeling epoch, but look at Don and Betty Draper and look at Chow and Su and you can see them as nothing more than people straining to escape the straightjacket of decency, the yoke of decorum the ‘50s and early ‘60s harnessed onto its denizens. Sensuality had to come in other ways.
Food also factors heavily into Wong’s film as we see his characters eating in many of its scenes. His characters devour wontons, noodles, sticky rice and sesame syrup. In one scene, Chow places hot mustard on Su’s plate as she devours a steak, explaining to her that his wife likes hot dishes, keeping up the ever-fading guise of role play. This isn’t grotesque food and sex interplay like 9 ½ Weeks. Wong just acknowledges the senses and while touch is out of the question between Su and Chow, they can still enjoy meals together.
Much of Wong’s work references itself. Su actually first appeared in Days of Being Wild (1990), played by Cheung but in a different incarnation. Chow escapes to a motel and stays in room 2046, not only the name of a future Wong film but the year in which Hong Kong will no longer keep its capitalist system and fall under complete Chinese control. But in Wong’s film of the same name, Chow appears again but he is a much different man.
The tone of In the Mood for Love rapidly changes in its epilogue. It’s a few years later and Chow is visiting an ancient temple in Cambodia. We see him whispering into a wall, a tradition which he explained to another character earlier in the film where you tell a secret to a hole and then stuff it up with earth and you no longer carry it. Wong doesn’t reveal the secret but we know well what it is. In the Mood for Love is a dream of unrequited love, one that lingers and caresses you long after the lights have come back up and you head out into rain-soaked streets for the safety of home.