Heartbreak is inevitable in Wong Kar-wai’s celebrated tale of forbidden love
“For us to do the same thing would mean we are no better than they are.”
Those are the words shared by Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), two people – who move into the same apartment complex, learn their spouses are cheating on them (maybe with each other), and slowly start to grow closer together. Chow is a journalist who wants to write serials for the paper, and Su is a secretary at a shipping company, and both are lonely people who are estranged from their respective significant others, but bound by the morals of a conservative 60s Hong Kong to not commit adultery themselves.
In the Mood for Love is almost painfully simple, and that might be one of its biggest strengths. By focusing 99% of the movie on Chow and Su, Wong creates an almost immediate connection between the audience and these characters that never breaks throughout the entirety of the film. The themes present throughout the film – not just of prohibited love but also of betrayal, loneliness and the inevitable passing of time – are universal, ones we can all relate to in some fashion or another. That these characters are played by the effortlessly likeable Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is a bonus, but it’s not entirely necessary for a movie whose messages are able to resonate with everybody.
And yes, Cheung and Leung are wonderful here. They have excellent chemistry together, which only emphasises how much you want them to get together. Good casting is key when there are only a couple of other people on screen at any point (that neither of the main characters’ spouses show their faces is a great touch), and this is one of the best romantic-movie castings I’ve seen. It certainly helps that this is one of the most beautiful couplings in cinema, as well. Leung is always well-groomed, with slicked hair and a pressed suit, and Cheung has an array of stunning dresses. The wardrobe art of costumer William Chang is not often talked about, which is a shame, but along with cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Ping Bin Lee’s gorgeous use of colours and lights, every frame really is a painting: a picture of regret and disappointment, of isolation and emptiness.
For a man usually associated with the cold, unfeeling modern cityscape, Wong Kar-wai does well in translating his trademark elements into something more time-appropriate. His typical use of a classical score punctuated by popular music is present here as well, but here he plays songs such as Nat King Cole’s Green Eyes o give us that same contemporary, everyday feeling we’re used to. Likewise, he often uses colour and lighting to have Hong Kong visually represent how the characters feel. Here, his often neon-lit lonely city is warmer in tone, with deeper colours, and more time period-appropriate. His slap-dash approach to story is present here, and is a notable part of the film’s style. It’s difficult to say how much time passes as transitions are not exactly obvious. The only thing that really changes are Su’s dresses, which you need to be keeping an eye on unless you want to think that this entire film took place over a day and a half.
This results in a movie that seems both like it’s moving at a snail’s pace, yet also at breakneck speed. Time passes, and while both grow to care deeply for the other, they’re both so reluctant to do anything that it almost seems like the plot had grinded to a halt in places. It’s not the best paced film, the ending sort of appears out of nowhere, and rushes through a couple of years in ten minutes, but maybe that’s on purpose. We see two people becoming increasingly comfortable around one another, who are happy for moments of routine where they might see one another, and so we slow down with them, because we – and they – know the inevitable is coming, and it’ll break your heart.
Verdict: A gorgeous film in every sense of the word, In the Mood for Love might not please people looking for traditional romantic dramas, but is one of director Wong Kar-wai’s finest films
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 9.5/10
Pacing: Less than that
Wardrobe changes: Countless
I personally preferred: Chungking Express, but that’s just me
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Also known as: 花樣年華 (‘the age of blossoms’)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Writer: Wong Kar-wai
Maggie Cheung – Su Li-zhen (Mrs. Chan)
Tony Leung Chiu Wai – Chow Mo-wan
Siu Ping Lam – Ah Ping
Rebecca Pan as Mrs. Suen, the Chans’ landlady
Lai Chen as Mr. Ho, Su Lai-zhen’s employer
Joe Cheung – Man living in Mr. Koo’s apartment
Chan Man-Lei – Mr. Koo, Chow Mo-Wan’s landlord
Chin Tsi-ang – the amah (female servant)
Roy Cheung – Mr. Chan (voice)
Paulyn Sun – Mrs. Chow (voice)
If you liked this you’ll also like:
2046 is a pseudo-sequel, the last in an unofficial trilogy
Vertical Rays of the Sun – for that Ping Bin Lee cinematography magic
But In the Mood for Love is pretty unique, really