Set in the conservative 1960s Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love (2000) revolves around a certain Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, who find out about their respective spouses’ affair, while being haplessly attracted to each other. This is the second Wong Kar-Wai film that I watched, and was left speechless by the director’s clever and meaningful use of frames, shadows, closed spaces, and narrow alleys. The significance of each shot made me pause the film several times to be able to understand what the director wanted to convey; every scene laden with poetic melancholy and romance.
Trapped in loveless marriages with absent spouses, Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are next-door neighbors in a dingy apartment, the structure of which is cleverly used by the director to intentionally create a voyeuristic effect by employing the concept of a frame within a frame. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are under constant scrutiny. They are conscious of their neighbors’ prying eyes as well as the intrusive gaze of the audience. Their movement is bound within frames created by the strategic placement of walls, objects, window sills, etc. Mrs. Chan’s apartment is seen through the exterior of the window. The director does not allow the audience to digress- they are forced to pay close attention to every detail according to his fancies. The film is set in a limited space where the same sequence is shot in steady intervals to depict the continuity of life.
The film begins with neutral tones, gradually employing a bright fiery red in scenes involving the hapless lovers. The passion and desire to be with one another is further accentuated by the haunting Yumeji’s theme; the stringed instruments add a dash of woe and desolation to the pensive atmosphere. It is a story of innumerable “what-if” and “could-have-been”. The frustration emanating from the screen coupled with missed chances makes the audience sigh in despair. The gradual build-up of their relationship is quite interesting and can be understood well from the camera movements. While having dinner with one another, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow rarely appear in the same frame. As soon as they are both aware of their spouses’ infidelity, a connection is established by the camera that pans rapidly from one speaker to the other. Later, as they walk out of the restaurant, they share the same screen space; they are in the same emotional space as well, feeling cheated and dejected.
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Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow are never shown in the film. The audience gets an insight into their characters via their respective spouses’ perspectives. The dinner scene is quite significant, as Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow assume the roles of each other’s spouse; Mrs. Chan attempts to order food that Mrs. Chow may like while Mr. Chow starts speaking in a baritone like Mr. Chan. Mr. Chow’s cigarette emits smoke that clouds their sense of judgment. They later engage in a rather masochistic roleplay, where they try to re-enact the seduction scene. Instead of trying to avenge the betrayal, they are fixated upon trying to figure out how their spouses must have fallen in love. This scene is viewed through the bars of a window which might indicate prison bars- they are, unknowingly, trapped in this game of perverse roleplay that in turn hinders their union.
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In an attempt to understand how it all began, they use “borrowed robes” which, however, does not suit them well- Mrs. Chan hurts her feet when she tries to wear Mrs. Chow’s heels. This is quite significant as the audience can very well understand that they are misfits in each other’s life. They are forced to spend a night together yet do not engage in physical activities. A palpable sense of fruitless longing and “erotic sadness” looms large which is intensified by the stereo music and indistinct chatter. “I didn’t expect you to fall in love with me.” “I didn’t either. I just wanted to know how it started. Feelings can creep up just like that.”
In a rather painfully heart-breaking scene, as they part ways, Mr. Chow confesses his love for Mrs. Chan. The somber parting complemented by a drizzle and the dull street lights is perhaps one of the most tender scenes of the film. Mr. Chow, who is irrevocably in love with Mrs. Chan, is well aware of how unbridgeable the gap is, yet clings to one last straw of hope. As Mr. Chow departs for Singapore, he leaves a sullen Mrs. Chan who later visits him a year later, but refuses to speak on the phone. The moments of silence convey volumes, as she confesses her love for him. The theme of missed chances is further strengthened upon when Mr. Chow arrives a tad bit late to his apartment to find Mrs. Chan gone. What would have happened if they met? What would have happened if Mr. Chow knocked on Mrs. Chan’s apartment on returning to Hong Kong? The audience struggles to find answers to these questions while the film proceeds to the final and most striking scene.
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The film is no longer focused on a smaller frame. It may depict Mr. Chow finally coming to terms with his feelings. As he digs a hole in the wall and whispers his secret, before plugging it with grass, the background music brings in a sense of loss and sadness. There is no longer a sense of desperate longing- it is overcome by detachment, dejection, and sorrow. The movie ends on a somber note; the tune of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” (which is translated as “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”) haunts the audience as they try and comprehend all that could have passed only if they met once again and all the alternate endings to their otherwise sad tale. Perhaps they could have escaped the shackles of their marriage and united. Perhaps they would have lived a happier tale. Perhaps. I cannot help but imagine Kar-Wai smirking at our visible discomfort, deriving pleasure from breaking our hearts yet again.
Being a 20-year old hopeless romantic, this movie ruined me. I was moved by the story, and at the same time cursing the director for creating masterpieces that only fetishize doomed romances and heartbreaks. Watching this film, I felt emotions I never thought I had the capacity of feeling. Yumeji’s theme shook me to my very core as I was overcome by heartache and grief. Every time they missed the opportunity of meeting each other, I squirmed in my seat, desperately praying for the lovers to meet. All stories do not have happy endings. Mrs. Chan is living in Hong Kong with her son; we do not know if she is happy and over her short-lived “romance” with Mr. Chow. Perhaps she is. Perhaps she is not. Mr. Chow yearns for answers, so do we. I shut down my laptop with a heavy heart and sad smile: It was sad yet eventful while it lasted. Wong Kar-Wai succeeds in setting the mood for love, while continually reminding us that it shall inevitably end in heartbreaks and leave us broken and lost.