There are good films and there are important ones. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love happens to be both.
There are good films and there are important ones. That is to say, many movies are fun and enjoyable, a great way to spend 90 minutes of free time, but most of them don’t actually change the world, or even change you as a person. Enter Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’, a film that happens to be both.
Wong Kar-Wai’s seminal 2000 film is set in 1960s Hong Kong and tells the story of a secretary, Mrs Chan (played by Maggie Cheung), and a journalist, Mr Chow (Tony Leung), lonely neighbours both trapped in strained marriages who discover that their spouses are having an affair. In turn, they slowly develop feelings for each other and become swept up into a restrained fantasy all of their own. Throughout the film, they imagine how their spouses’ affair might have began: they humorously but poignantly reconstruct conversations that took place between the two of them, guess what presents had been bought, what meals had been eaten, what excuses had been used and justifications given, all whilst falling in love along the way. However, the couple never act on their emotions - they refuse to stoop to their spouses’ level by also committing infidelity and mirroring their betrayal.
Not only did the film resonate with critics and audiences alike, but its phenomenal level of critical acclaim also matches up with its lasting legacy in real life, an impressive and rare feat. Its cultural significance can not be understated; few contemporary films have cemented themselves into the zeitgeist the way ‘In the Mood for Love’ has. It is frequently listed as one of the greatest films of all time, considered a major work of Asian cinema and even has clothing brands and bars named after it — a remarkable achievement for a film released only a little over 20 years ago.
However, its greatest impact is undoubtedly the way in which it has shaped an entire generation of filmmakers, with an especially significant influence upon some of today’s most successful directors. “‘In the Mood for Love’ — I can’t even touch that film. I got to do this for another 40 years before I even come close,” is what Barry Jenkins told the Criterion Channel about the film. Whilst most people who have seen ‘Moonlight’, Jenkins’ 2016 masterpiece and Best Picture winner, would disagree with his humility, this grand praise lavished upon ITMFL is beyond deserved. Sofia Coppola credited it as the biggest inspiration for her Academy Award-winning film ’Lost in Translation’, released only three years post-ITMFL. ‘Lost in Translation’ similarly deals with an unconsummated romance and likewise ends with the main characters sharing an unheard secret. The iconic opening shot of ‘Lost in Translation’ (you know the one) was also inspired by a shot from ITMFL. When Coppola won Best Original Screenplay for ‘Lost in Translation’, she even thanked Kar-wai in her Oscar acceptance speech.
Whilst we have Kar-Wai to thank for all of these stellar films that followed, this debt can not be acknowledged without also noting the sting of injustice aroused by the fact that ITMFL did not receive half of the accolades that its spiritual children did. The film failed to receive a single nomination at the 2000 Oscars - perhaps one of the Academy’s greatest snubs.
The costumes in the film have taken on a life of their own. The traditional ‘qipaos’ that Cheung wears have achieved legendary status for their beauty, as well as the bold red trench coat she sports. The film is like a fashion show - Cheung wears a new dress in every scene, each as immaculate as the one before. Leung’s collection of dapper, perfectly-tailored suits and floral ties shouldn’t be overlooked either. These costumes still linger in the popular mind all these decades later; just last year, Vogue wrote an article dubbing In The Mood For Love “the Ultimate Fashion Romance.”
One of the most acclaimed elements of the film is its cinematography. A feast for the eyes, the cinematography is poetic and seductive, abundant in shadowy, smoke-filled shots. Dispersed throughout the film are various extremely stylised sequences — breathtaking moments when any sense of realism is deliciously suspended. Your heart breaks at the through-the-wall shots as the camera moves in between the couple’s adjoining apartments, perfectly capturing that feeling of lonely yearning. We want the barrier between them - both physical and metaphorical - to be broken down. The production design is equally as sumptuous. William Chang (who doubled as the film’s costume designer) dresses the set beautifully, with heavy fabrics and intricate prints on the walls and carpets that capture the time period and convey the sense of claustrophobia our leads feel as they are trapped in their tiny apartment rooms. The cinematography and production design work together masterfully to create so many visually stunning moments, a standout being when the camera lingers on the billowing red curtains, communicating so much with so little. Never before has the colour red been used so evocatively on camera (perhaps only with the exception of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’). Now, whenever I see the colour red used so abundantly, in film or otherwise, I am immediately whisked back to that moody, cigarette smoke-filled world of 60s Hong Kong. It is resplendent, indulgent, romantic. Red, the colour of passion, of anger, of love, represents all of the emotions that Mrs Chan and Mr Chow work so hard to bury.
The scene where Mr Chow finally admits that he is in love with Mrs Chan is one of the greatest pieces of cinema I have ever seen. It comes when Mr Chow tells Mrs Chan that he is leaving for Singapore. “I thought we wouldn’t be like them. I was wrong. You won’t leave your husband. So I’d rather go away,” he tells her. “I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me,” she retorts. “Neither did I,”he replies. The two of them just stand there in the rain, swimming in the weight of what has just been said. It is so understated a declaration, so tender, so painful. The beauty of it hurts. It is what the whole film has been leading up to and it should be a happy moment but it isn’t. Instead, it’s tinged by sadness as you remember the reality of their situation: they are both married and scared of what society will say about them. You want them to reach out for each other but they never do. Instead, they stay unhappily married and let each other go. It hurts to watch but is simultaneously admirable. Kar-Wai never gives in to audience desires or expectations and you can't help but respect him for it. It does leave you wondering, however, whether the moral high ground is worth the cost of true happiness.
The film celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and it had been set to have a celebration at Cannes, where it had its debut. A 4K restoration of the film had been made under Kar-Wai’s supervision to premiere there, with an international re-release initially scheduled - yet another thing coronavirus has robbed us of. “We won’t be like them.” This is the bittersweet promise that the central couple make to themselves when they begin their tryst. This is a statement that can be applied to the film as a whole. It almost seems like this is a promise Kar-Wai is making to himself and his cast and crew.
And he was right. Films like these are hard to come by.