Wong Kar-Wai’s film ‘In the Mood for Love’ is as tragically moving as it is gripping. It’s gripping power is owed to Wong’s teasing scenes that reveal visual information gradually and almost always incompletely. Wong never gives anything away, when you want him to.

The film follows the lives of journalist Chow Mo-Wan(Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and secretary(at a shipping company) Su Li-Zhen(Maggie Cheung). Lives that the viewer soon learns are marked by inconspicuous but strong sentiments of loneliness and restrained desire. When the two move into apartments next to each other, these feelings carry more weight. They’re visible in Mo-Wan’s lifeless greetings, in Su Li-Zhens’s polite but mechanical interactions with her neighbors and the empty Hong Kong paths which they walk on their way home from work or at night on their way to buy noodles. The complication the two face is that they are married, each to their respective spouses. So unhappily married because as they so casually come to realize, their spouses, who are faceless throughout the film, are having an affair concealed by their frequent business trips abroad.

Still married, Su and Chow do not want to be like their cheating spouses. In a spirit to prepare to determine how the affair had began, they play-act their spouses’ roles. So convincingly in fact that the viewer is left momentarily in doubt whether it is an act or not. Better yet is the confrontation act, where Su pretends that Chow is her husband and confronts him, asking whether he has a mistress. Although meant to be just an act, it is palpably emotional and it ends in tears. Su is at last, visibly vulnerable.

Su Li-zhen: Look at me, do you have a mistress?

Chow Mo-Wan: Yes!

Su Li-zhen: I didn’t expect it to hurt that much.

Chow Mo-wan: This is just a rehearsal

The tragedy in this film is that Su and Chow’s growing sentiments for each other are never communicated. Each waiting for some sort of permission, which never comes. The passage of time, depicted through the long, still scenes accentuates this failure to act. The camera captures Chow’s pensive face looking through a window smoking a cigarette and quietly regretting the unsaid. He shares the conviction with Su that they shouldn’t cheat like their spouses did and yet to thanklessly maintain this loyalty becomes increasingly exhausting.

Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control

There is a cultural string that coils around Wong’s story; it is the reason behind Su and Chow’s restraint. The two can not tolerate the idea that anyone should suspect there is something between them, they fear the rumors will reach their partners. But this integrity becomes more of a punishment than a meaningful gesture. It is clear that it is not out of love for their spouses that they bear this burden, or is it?

Chow Mo-wan: I sometimes wonder what I’d be if I hadn’t married. Have you ever thought of that?

Su Li-zhen: Maybe happier! I didn’t know married life would be so complicated! When you’re single, you are only responsible to yourself. Once you’re married, doing well on your own is not enough.

Wong Kar-Wai’s visuals employ deep, rich colors that intensify the tension between the two characters. The back and forth dance of whether or not the two will finally do something about their feelings would seem to drag on eternally were it not for Michael Galasso’s soundtrack that complements the slo-mo scenes beautifully. Su descends the stairs to buy her noodles and almost always runs into Chow. There is a brief formal exchange of greetings and they part ways. How the scene develops is simply stunning; the characters move in sync with Galasso’s melancholic composition. It is maddening and sad. But it is noble. Su and Chow really are good people, and if such a thing exists, then their tested loyalty serves to give that claim significant substance.

He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.

Film Details

  • Director: Wong Kar-Wai
  • Location: HongKong
  • Runtime: 98 min
  • Genre: Drama, Romance