Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is ostensibly a very simple love story set in 1962 Hong Kong. Overcrowding leads 2 young couples to rent rooms with other families. The man, Chow Mo Wan, works in a newspaper office. The woman, Su Li Zhen, works as a secretary for the head of a business. We never see his wife or her husband, but eventually we understand that his wife and her husband have been carrying on an affair. The marriages dissolve, and Chow Mo Wan and Su Li Zhen begin their own affair. The body of the film follows the course of their relationship. The relationship ends when he goes to Singapore. A few years later he returns and revisits the apartment where she used to live. He discovers that she had a son, and it is implied that the son is his. The film ends with his trip to Cambodia, where he deposits a note in a prayer box.
What is important to say about this film is that Wong Kar-wai is an unusual filmmaker who prefers to work in the experimental narrative form. Like Tom Tykwer in Run Lola Run (1999) and Peter Greenaway in The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), style is more important than the actual content. The struggle between style and content creates a powerful forum for the voice of the director. The experimental narrative is thus very much about voice. So what is it that Wong Kar-wai wants to say in this simple romantic melodrama? Before we examine how the MTV style helps create his voice, a number of observations need to be put forward.
The first observation is that a story of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman conventionally has a particular progression. They meet, he or she pursues the other, they reach a hurdle, somehow that hurdle is overcome, another crisis develops, and finally the relationship is a success or not. The story is structured with a beginning, middle, and end, and it is approached through character. Status, background, shared goals, and other elements all factor in to the success or failure of the romance, with all versions of Romeo and Juliet at the tragic end of the spectrum, and Nora Eph-ron's Sleepless in Seattle (1993) at the successful end of the spectrum. Wong Kar-wai's narrative follows the expected progression, but he constructs his key scenes out of minute details without actually showing the expected scenes. Consequently, the relationship is alluded to in its progression rather than treated conventionally.
A second observation is that the place, Hong Kong in 1962, is implied rather than actually seen. No cinema verite here. Hong Kong is represented by a dark street, a crowded hallway, a restaurant table, 2 workstations. There is no sense of crowding beyond the fact that the two couples are renting rooms in the apartments of others. The time, 1962, is implied through the cut of clothing, the hairstyles, and the look of a clock or a restaurant. Time and place are implied rather than pronounced, as was the case with the narrative progression.
A third is that the visual focus is on Chow Mo Wan and Su Li Zhen. His wife and her husband are never seen, and aside from his landlady, his colleague at work, and her boss, there are few other characters on view. This is a Hong Kong that is implied without its mass of people. Perhaps Wong Kar-wai means for it to be a dreamt Hong Kong.
Which brings us to the director's intention. The narrative is austere, the dialogue is austere, and the pace and camera movement are an austere equivalent. But the color, the lingering close-ups of the 2 characters, and the stylized movements are not austere; they are rich and create the mood appropriate for passion. So too is the music. Wong Kar-wai, through the dissonance between style and content, is trying to create the mood of a doomed love story. Whether he is trying to say loneliness is the human condition or whether his Hong Kong is a unique barrier to "being together," is for you to decide. What can be said is that Wong Kar-wai employs an MTV style to show how passion can only be sustained for a short time in a relationship.
Wong Kar-wai uses two pieces of music a number of times in In the Mood for Love. One is a Spanish number sung by Nat King Cole, the other a romantic lament without lyrics. These pieces of music provide the shape for the set pieces. Within the set piece the music creates an aura of tremendous anticipation and romanticism. Visually, Wong Kar-wai presents movement. Chow Mo Wan smokes a cigarette under a street light. The smoke focuses our attention on his sense of anticipation. Su Li Zhen walks by. The visuals focus on the rhythm of her movement. It's as if she glides. She is swinging a pot of soup, and it too has a rhythm that Wong Kar-wai notes. His stillness, the movement of the smoke, her movement, the soup pot—all project an erotic possibility of their meeting. The movement is slowed down, the smoke is slowed down, and both together with the music builds a sense of anticipation. What the sequence leaves us with is a mood, a feeling of desire, of his desire for her.
Wong Kar-wai puts forward similar sequences as Chow Mo Wan and Su Li Zhen joust early in their relationship, bicker later in the relationship, as one feels disappointed in the other. All the while Wong Kar-wai shows us duplicity in other male-female relationships. Nevertheless, the prevailing focus is the moods that mark the phases of the main characters' relationship. The short movements, the extreme close-ups, the clarity of composition, together with the romantic lighting, all support the overall romantic feeling, the longing that pervades the set pieces. This longing in turn becomes the overall feeling accentuated by the dominance of style over content in In the Mood for Love.
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