In the Mood for Love is delicious eye-candy with rich layers of romantic longing and political tragedy.
It’s a meticulously recreated time-piece of the ’60s featuring stylish period sets, impeccable fashion, gorgeous stars and romantic longing. It may sound like “Mad Men,” but before that, it was Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece, In the Mood for Love. With sumptuous photography by Wong-regulars Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, whose cameras glide around the film’s smoldering stars to the mournful strains of Mike Galasso’s score, the movie is a feast for the senses. And like Chungking Express, it’s a delicious menu of human desire. What makes this menu so frustrating, so aching, is that this sensuous work of art never lets its characters consummate their sensual desires.
It’s Hong Kong in 1962. Journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into adjoining rooms in a crowded apartment building. Their spouses (whose faces we never see) are away much of the time, frequently leaving Chow and Su alone at night. As they form a platonic bond, meeting for noodles or simply walking together, they conclude that their spouses are having an affair with each other.
In a seemingly endless supply of stunning dresses, Su carries a colorful thermos back and forth from a noodle stand, and often passes Chow on the stairwell to their building. This is one of a number of shots that Wong repeats throughout the film, identical gestures performed by actors wearing a different suit or dress almost every time we see them. One simple scene of a dinner date involves several changes of clothing, establishing the routine of its characters search to feed their desires, and finding beauty in tired routines traveled among dreary corners of old Hong Kong.
In an infrastructure that looks worn and crumbling, Cheung and Leung dance around each other like the camera dances around them and the viewer gazes at compositions shot in such shallow focus it’s as if we’re peering through gauze to find some hint of salaciousness. What we find instead is a sad longing, perhaps unconsummated.
After the seemingly abandoned spouses learn of their partners’ deception, they act out their own chaste romance. Insisting that they won’t be “like them,” they play on the edges of an affair, rehearsing confrontations with their cheating spouses, even renting a hotel room where Chow simply works on a martial arts serial as Su does her own work.
The number of their hotel room, 2046, points to Wong’s next film, and also reveals the politics that simmers underneath the romance. In 1997 the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong over to China, who agreed that Hong Kong would be self-governing for a period of 50 years; under the arrangement, the year 2046 will be the last year that Hong Kong will control its own destiny.
This governmental trap is reflected in the social trap in which Chow and Su find themselves. In the film’s most amusing scenes, Su is trapped in Chow’s room when their landlord comes over unexpectedly bringing a group of friends over for what turns out to be an all night mahjong game.
As Wong told Positif in a 2000 interview, “They kept their secret, and this secret to me seems to be the most interesting theme in the film.” Politics obliquely arise at the end of the film as Chow tells his secret to a hole in a wall at Angkor Wat. This is 1966, around the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and not long before Cambodia saw its own cultural purge under the Khmer Rouge.
In the Mood for Love is delicious eye-candy with rich layers of romantic longing and political tragedy. Wong has suggested that the belly-level camera that sometimes follows the lovers as they’re walking is the point of view of a five-year old child—the age Wong was in 1962, when his parents left Shanghai and the Cultural Revolution in China for Hong Kong. The child’s eye sees an enchanting dance that he doesn’t quite understand, and that the lovers don’t quite seem to understand either, lost in an historical moment that threatened to tear them apart.
Fashion can be a decorous extravagance with political meaning. Maggie Cheung wears more than 20 stunning dresses in the film, all of them snugly wound around her limbs and neck, hugging her body and also binding it in much the way she keeps her desires bound—like the way the state binds its people. The exquisite fashions in this film are what led to Wong Kar-wai’s selection as the artistic director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 fashion exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass. It’s an apt title that resonates with the words that appear as the movie ends: “He remembers those vanished years. As if looking through a dusty window pane.” The dusty pane of In the Mood for Love is a window through which an elegant almost-love affair and so much more play out.