The Look Back: In the Mood for Love is a Thing of Beauty


In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Fourteen years ago, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love premiered at Cannes. In the Mood for Love did not go on to win the Palme d’Or, as that honor went to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s interesting that the film wasn’t awarded the festival’s most prestigious honor, because today, if you seek out a credible list ranking the best films of the 21st century, In the Mood for Love will be at its top. I don’t consider myself a slave to lists like Sight & Sound or TSPDT, but I would be very much inclined to agree with their placement of the film. (The only other option? Mulholland Drive, obviously.) This is because In the Mood for Love is clearly a thing of beauty.

In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong and focuses on the budding relationship between Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung, who did manage to win Cannes’ Best Actor award) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both Chow and Su are married and live in neighboring apartments, which causes them to only interact in the day-to-day sense.

These everyday interactions (passing by each other in hallways, going out to get noodles) might seem mundane or unnecessary, but they are absolutely essential in In the Mood for Love. Exquisitely shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Ping Bing Lee (who, along with editor William Chang won Cannes’ Technical Grand Prize), the sequences luxuriate every fleeting moment Chow and Su share together. In reality, they’re just scenes of characters walking, but in In the Mood for Love, the scenes are visually sumptuous filmmaking.

Working as writer and director, Wong puts so much emphasis on the little time Chow and Su share together for a reason. Wong often obscures our view when the characters share moments together, and in result we, the audience function more as a secret observer rather than a viewer. The camera is telling us something that the characters are not.

Once Chow and Su do spend actual time together talking, it’s under the worst of circumstances. They have realized that their spouses are cheating on them, with each other. Chow and Su are left on their own, and Su tells Chow “On your own, you are free to do lots of things.” Left to themselves Chow and Su recognize an attraction that they share for each other, but they soon realize they would be no better than their cheating spouses. So the camera explores their romance for them.

In the Mood for Love’s visual language speaks multitudes to Chow and Su’s romance. The sequences of the two together are often filmed in slow-motion, and they soon become a rumination on the nature of human connection. This also instills a sense of longing that neither Chow nor Su can express to each other. When they aren’t together, Chow and Su are in their cramped apartments and workplaces. When they are together, Chow and Su are in wide open places, and their time together becomes something of a separate, freeing reality.

Other formal elements of the film also inform Chow and Su’s romance. When together, almost every frame is flooded with color. Most often it’s red, the color of love and passion, and this warm, lush emotionality elevates every moment Chow and Su share together. There’s also the expressive, impactful use of music. The film’s score (by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi) is yearning and aching, and the film also makes great use of Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.” It’s incredibly powerful, and perhaps the most successful use of music since Casablanca.

All of these formal elements bring Chow and Su together, even when as characters they explicitly do not. Every shot holds meaning, and the impact is never lost on the viewer thanks to Wong Kar-Wai’s evocative aesthetic artistry. In the Mood for Love is an emotionally expressive film in the grandest sense, and is entirely successful through pure filmmaking. That’s why it’s not only the greatest film of the 21st century, but is a thing of beauty.