– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
How did it start between them? Slowly. How did it end between them? It never will. There are only the shared restless moments in the middle, two people wading through time, longing for each other, pressurizing every glance, every gaze, every touch, until the heart can’t take it anymore. So they separate and die a little bit, but still inhabit the same spaces, if not a moment after the other departs. All that’s left are the secrets that shouldn’t be secrets, the memories that shouldn’t be memories.
Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love creates slow love out of thin air, seamlessly drifting through rooms to capture a feeling, a vibe between two people subverting social boundaries and internally eloping together. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Chueng) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) are not simply linked by their respective spouses shared infidelities, but by their understanding of the other’s pain, the grass roots of their suffering. One look says more than any three words could, and the film strives to encapsulate the seeping subtext of these character’s actions.
Immediately, Wong connects Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow while they both try to supervise their respective moves into adjacent apartments, an overlapping sequence of chaotic noise and movement, the most cluttered in the film. Material goods are accidentally switched from one place to the next, forcing the two characters to come in contact with the other in a “neighborly” fashion. Ironically, practical confusion offers the first of many steps toward emotional clarity and torture. These initial scenes are littered with narrative gaps (as much of the film is), and Wong begins to highlight motifs that will compliment the operatic story throughout.
As with any Wong film, vibrant color juxtaposes internal emotions, layering beautiful physical spaces with compelling fits of melancholy and desolation. But In the Mood For Love might be the director’s finest examination of the way color and texture intersect to form hypnotic patterns that compliment character development. Whether it be the deep purple wallpaper in Mr. Chow’s hallway, or the elaborate floral designs of Mrs. Chan’s many elegant dresses, this aesthetic combination allows Wong to transcend traditional narrative devices in favor of a more disjointed, dream-like state. This deliberate usage of the ellipsis never feels complicated or indulgent since the color and texture themselves are telling the story, filling in the blanks. Everything becomes a symbol, and each sequence takes on a life of it’s own.
If color and texture are Wong’s road signs, then Christopher Doyle’s hypnotic camera is his vehicle of choice. Together, these great artists lean heavily on slow motion tracking shots, graceful camera movements floating through rooms, hallways, and streets as if following some specter meticulously haunting each space. Shigeru Umegayashi’s always-present waltz accompaniment takes these fluid sequences to a heavenly level, as every cinematic aesthetic simultaneously brims with heartache. Doyle and Wong also focus on the power of the close-up, filling their constrained frame with the backs of necks, ears, eyes, and hands. They often catch Mrs. Chan’s delicate hand grazing the wall for support, or Mr. Chow’s lips as he smokes a cigarette. In terms of framing, interior shots almost never expand into wide angles, while exterior scenes often cover from the ground up. In the Mood For Love seems to exist head bowed toward the ground, looking up to catch a glimpse around a corner, or from the top of a staircase.
Wong pits his lead characters with a societal and moral conundrum. After finding out about their respective spouses affair, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow contemplate their own situation. At one point, Mrs. Chan softly says, “We won’t be like them.” But the truth is far more complex and Wong debates this point for the entire film. What constitutes love? What defines a relationship? How can it be doomed so swiftly? Interactions begin to add up and the close confines of an apartment complex soon produce casual gossip, deadening the purity, lessoning the impact. Wong never gets his answers, and maybe he doesn’t want any. We are left with a beautiful series of moments that speak to the fleeting nature of love. It’s important to note that Wong never shows their spouses faces, only referring to them via off-screen dialogue and through fragments of their bodies. This film is all about honest connection, not the lust spawned by shared boredom.
In the Mood For Love ends with an epilogue of religious solitude at the fort of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, some three years after Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow see each other for the last time. Mr. Chow whispers his secret into a hole and covers it with mud, but Wong sees this place as a collection of secrets hidden under the stone and rock, representing a host of lost souls abandoning true happiness for pragmatic survival. In this sense, the tragedy of In the Mood For Love can be measured in distance and time, although neither can truly explain the intricacies shared between two people. Memories filtered through a dusty windowpane are incomplete and misleading, but entirely defining and essential, no matter how deep you try to burry them.
–The Filmist‘s #6 entry on The Coen’s No Country For Old Men, can be found here.